Temple University’s doctoral program in African-American studies – the first of its kind – will turn 25 next year. As the program’s silver anniversary nears, a growing rift between the department and College of Liberal Arts administrators is threatening the department's future and has left it without a chair.
Although philosophical and personal tensions have long plagued the department, the most recent controversy came to a head this month when graduate students sent an open letter to university administrators, colleagues and others expressing their discontent about college-department relations. Most notable among their complaints was the way the search for a successor to the retiring department chair, Nathaniel Norment, played out in April.
Students contend Teresa Scott Soufas, the college's dean, informed the department it had two weeks to name an interim chair, and that department faculty democratically selected a candidate – Kariamu Welsh, a professor specializing in African dance at Temple’s Boyer College of Music and Dance – despite the short timeline.
“However, to the dismay of students and faculty members of our department,” the Organization of African American Studies Graduate Students writes, “the dean rejected Dr. Welsh for reasons the faculty has yet to be informed of. This blatant disregard for our department’s democratic process and decision to implement Dr. Welsh as our interim chair has shown that we are continuously being unjustly treated and discriminated against.”
Following the rejection, the department was given one more week to find another replacement from within the university. When it was unable to do so, Soufas named Jayne Drake, the college's vice dean for academic affairs, as acting chair. Drake's scholarship focuses on 17th-19th century American literature and literary research methods, not African-American studies.
Although the graduate students acknowledge Drake was appointed “with the understanding that we would still have the opportunity to conduct a search for a senior faculty member who would become chair of our department in the very near future,” they also say a line to hire a faculty member recently was denied, leaving the department in limbo. While Drake is capable of leading the department for now, they say, “she is not qualified or grounded enough in African American Studies to be able to lead our department in a direction that is in harmony with the mission and nature of our discipline.”
The students end their letter with a list of demands of college administrators, including the ability to hire a senior faculty member by next year and adequate departmental funding.
Soufas said she was surprised by the letter, and that her actions regarding the department were designed only to assist it through a “transition,” namely the departure of its longtime chair. Norment had held the position since 2001, and his philosophical disagreements with the department’s most famous faculty member, Molefi Asante, who advocates an Afrocentric approach, are well-documented. Doctoral program graduates describe the department as suffering a deep divide between Norment and Asante, who was chair through 1997. After he was accused of plagiarism by a fellow professor, Asante -- while denying the charges -- stepped down. The university president at the time, Peter J. Liacouras, rejected a faculty committee's unanimous recommendation that he bring misconduct charges against the professor and he remained with the department. Still, Asante remains controversial within the discipline. Some view him as a champion for African-American studies. Others question his approach.
The dean denied she’d acted on any bias toward the African-American studies department in particular. “The department certainly is involved in sending recommendations but it is the dean’s choice and prerogative to pick the chair and appoint the chair and I do this for all the departments,” she said, adding that Drake’s academic and administrative experiences made her the “right match” for the job. She denied that Welsh’s personal affiliation with Asante – the two were married for many years – factored into her choice.
Asked if she had vetoed any other department’s chair selections in recent memory, she said: “Usually within a department there is one person whose turn it is to be next as chair, and as African-American studies has lost a couple of senior faculty members, they didn’t have somebody within their own group to choose.”
Soufas said that based on the university’s funding approval timeline, fall 2014 is the soonest the department could add a new senior faculty member (she denied that a funding line for a professor had recently been denied). Drake could serve as chair until then, said the dean, unless African-American studies puts forth another name from within the department for her to consider.
Drake was not available for comment. But Welsh, who said administrators never formally notified her of their decision to veto her candidacy, supported the graduate students “wholeheartedly.”
“Faculty and students must have agency in deciding curriculum, new faculty and the governing of their department,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Asante said he also supported the students and called their requests “reasonable apart from any specific person.” In an e-mail, he called for a wide search for a chair for the department, which “needs to immediately hire a national-international person with credentials in Africana studies.”
Alumni of Temple’s African American Studies doctoral program expressed their dismay with the current state of affairs.
Ibram H. Rogers, now an assistant professor of Africana studies at the State University of New York at Albany, said he was saddened and angered by the recent events, and that blame lies with both the college and the department.
“It should be regular practice when appointing an interim chair to plan to hire a permanent chair. That’s a no-brainer, and that fault lies with the dean’s office,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s the job of the faculty to demand what is best for them, and if they don’t have what is best for them, then that fault has to be placed on them.”
Rogers said the roots of the current conflict dated back to at least his time at Temple, ending in 2010, when he and other graduate students had to “straddle” the different camps of the department. Things were particularly tense in 2009, when the department hired a new professor whose views differed from the department’s traditional approach. “That is when the sorts of divides within the department and between the administration and even collusion between the department and administration came to the fore."
But he called the department’s current situation a “major, major crisis,” one that can only end in the appointment of a permanent chair with grounding in African-American studies (it is Drake’s background, not the fact that she is white, that makes her a poor fit for chair, he wrote in a recent essay). The leadership crisis is more acute in light of the department’s upcoming anniversary, he added. “As an alum, I can’t go back and celebrate this anniversary because it’s embroiled in this controversy.”
Fellow alumnus Adisa Alkebulan, a professor of Africana studies at San Diego State University, said the department had never really bounced back from Asante’s departure as chair, which occurred during his time at Temple. He said Norment had done little during his tenure to forward the department or the discipline, and that the department’s future was at stake.
“The college has demonstrated a grotesque lack of respect for the discipline, the department, its faculty and its students,” he wrote in an e-mail. “In the past, I’ve sent students there. I now regret it and refuse to encourage anyone to attend that university.”
Despite the controversies, Soufas said the African-American studies program remains a point of a pride for Temple.
“It was the first department of African-American studies to offer a doctoral program in the 1980s, and that is stunning, absolutely stunning,” she said. “Our pride in the program is unflagging – the college’s pride in the program is unflagging – and I’m looking forward to working with them now and always to see that they are stable and continue to be stellar.”
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