Black students at the occupation of Ford Hall in 1969 lobbying for, among other things, the creation of an African-American Studies Department

As if black students didn’t have enough to be pissed off about at the moment (what with an all-white Union Judiciary deciding the fate of the racial minority senator position), the Cirruculum and Academic Restructuring Steering (CARS) Commitee recommended today that the African and Afro-American Studies department be eliminated and transformed into an “interdisciplinary program” instead. Current AAAS professors would be reassigned to other departments, although they could still focus in AAAS.

CARS cites the small number of AAAS majors (“just 7 in AY 2007-2008”), and the small size of the faculty (five) as justification for its recommendation. They point out that “This year… when three AAAS faculty members had the opportunity to go on research leave, there were only two department faculty members remaining at Brandeis.” Of course, neither of these reasons actually make a case for shutting down the department. CARS concedes that “although AAAS graduates relatively few majors… average enrollment in its courses is strong.” So the lack of faculty speaks more to a lack of commitment by the university to the department than to any weakness of the department itself. I’ve mentioned this problem before, the most obvious example being the University’s letting go of Prof. Wayne Marshall (you can still sign the petition at savewayne.org!).

It’s worrisome that the CARS committee doesn’t see the value of the department’s existence. The proposal may beĀ  more moderate than it first seems, however, since students could still major in AAAS and the committee insists that its recommendations will strengthen rather than weaken the program. It is claimed that more courses can be offered to AAAS students if the program is not confined to a particular department, since AAAS as a field is “fundamentally interdisciplinary.”

My worry is this: Will the shift towards “interdisciplinary” AAAS study mean less classes focused primarily on African-American issues? I can see classes with titles like “Race, Gender, & Class in America” serving as a substitute for genuine AAAS classes, and the merging of African-American issues into the study of “social issues” generally. Those of us who are African-American Studies majors have adopted our major for a reason, and we do not wish for the study of black issues to become blurred or forgotten. The CARS committee cites their search for a new AAAS/Gender Studies professor as a reason to trust that they will not neglect the program. But this is exactly the issue. While race and gender studies have common elements, they are distinct. There is value to studying African-American history and culture specifically.

It is worth mentioning the history of the African-American studies department at Brandeis. If you’ll recall, the Department was created after Brandeis’s black students occupied Ford Hall in 1969 to protest the lack of attention paid by the University to the needs of its black population (a timeline of events can be found here). The students issued a list of ten demands, with the first being “An African Studies Department with the power to hire and fire.”

So we’re abandoning the progress that those brave students earned us in 1969. Brandeis loves to celebrate the Ford Hall takeover (I believe I’ve seen it featured in numerous university-sponsored books and publications as a shining example of the university’s social justice tradition). But when it comes to actually maintaining the achievements that came out of it, clearly those on the CARS committee couldn’t care less.

I sincerely hope this recommendation is abandoned, or at least that the university promises a robust committment to maintaining a strong AAAS program. Otherwise, when you combine this with the RMS controversy, Brandeis is going to have a serious race relation problem on its hands soon, and it might be time for another building occupation.

Remember to tell the administration what you think here.

3 comments on “CARS Commitee Proposes Eliminating African-American Studies Department”

  1. Brit Keithahn Says:

    From what I just read, it doesn’t seem like the AAAS is getting eliminated, rather, it seems that it is just getting incorporated into another discipline. This doesn’t mean that the classes will be eliminated, nor does it mean that Brandeis doesn’t care about them. It is just a move to increase efficiency by incorporating a very narrow program into a broader one. If AAAS was incorporated into the American Studies major, for example, a student could still choose to take classes that would normally be in the AAAS major. Therefore, I don’t understand why you are so mad. If the classes are still going to be there, what does it matter what they are categorized under?

  2. Mariel Says:

    I (almost) understand where the CARS Committee was coming from. I’m a LALS major, so I definitely see the benefit to interdisciplinary area studies programs.

    However, the CARS Report completely misses the point when it first commends AAAS for successfully hiring faculty of color and then suggests that AAAS no longer be able to hire/fire faculty on its own. Given that the departments into which the Report proposes that faculty be merged have not themselves been successful at hiring faculty of color in large enough numbers, what would lead us to believe that the addition of 1 or 2 former AAAS professors to these departments would enable them to do so in the future?

    If there were a way to broaden AAAS’s interdisciplinary reach while retaining AAAS’s ability to hire/fire faculty as a department, I would consider that a fair compromise.

  3. F. Hall Says: