After finding out about the CARS proposal to transform the AAAS department into an interdisciplinary program, I emailed Dr. Ronald Walters, who was hired as the first chair of the department after the Ford Hall protests in 1969. He sent me a lengthy response, which appears below. It’s a powerful statement, and everyone should read it. He carefully responds to the CARS argument that an interdisciplinary program will be more effective than a department, and gives a bit of historical perspective on the study of AAAS at Brandeis.
Mr. Robinson: I am exceedingly sorry to hear of the new recommendation of a faculty committee to turn the existing Department of African and Afro-American Studies into an interdisciplinary program. As the founding chair of that Department, it strikes me as somewhat incongruous that the University want to enhance the marketing of its academic program as one related to Social Justice, while dismantling its Department related directly to that pursuit. Moreover, the argument is headlined with the thought that “whatever the historical situation, it is clear today that an interdepartmental program is not an inferior status.” The “historical situation” that brought me to Brandeis from Syracuse University in 1969 is relevant to the modern culture of the Department because it is a foundational case where African American students overcame institutional racism to force an unwilling University to create the space for the development of an entity that could voice and teach their history and culture. Thus, the dismantlement of the Department will also dismantle much of the significance of Ford Hall as that historical beginning to students in that setting today.
Of course, institutional reorganization, on its face, is often an opportunity for administrators and their supporters to do something they have wanted to do for some time and new circumstances present them with an unique economic rationale for doing it. So, I would be wary of the view that because other interdepartmental programs have flourished, African and Afro-American Studies will also do well. In short, while I understand the economic urgencies that all of our institutions face at this moment in history, I do not believe that the elimination of a few small academic units will save the University real financial resources.
The reasoning of the Committee should be taken seriously in that lauds the program of African and Afro-American Studies as essential to Brandeis, praises its capacity to bring distinguished African American faculty to the institution, understands that its courses reflects strong student interest, but concludes that its structure is “not optimal” because it has such a small faculty. The latter is a massive understatement because it is presented as though the lack of growth is a function of the Department it self.
This is significant. I left the University in 1971 essentially because of the irresolvable pressure between the demands of students for a larger entity that could offer more courses and opportunities and the view of Dean Diamandopolous that the Department did not need such resources. It is my view, admittedly from a distance that the Department has suffered from the lack of vigorous University support since that time, such that the number of faculty that I originally instituted is what exists today. That is one of the reasons why I reject the thesis that the Department as an interdepartmental unit could flourish; in fact, faculty devoted to such subjects could find themselves – within Departments – subject to the devaluation of their activities devoted to this subject and overrun by other Departmental obligations, unless there is active support by Deans, Department Chairs and faculty colleagues. This is a common story that plagues the situation of many African American faculty within disciplinary Departments around the country at present. So, one has to compare the institutional support given to, for example, Women’s Studies over time, with that given to African and Afro-American Studies and one would probably find that therein lies the differences in the viability of the two programs, not the nature of their academic structure.
It is my conclusion that this proposal is, therefore, far more insidious in that is addressing the ultimate question of whether the University cares enough about this subject to continue supporting it, or to enhance its support, and a method has been found to reduce its symbolism within the University and perhaps even its substance. The striking thing to me is the casual professionalism with which this proposal has been offered, somewhat thematic of this age in that it ignores the importance of the symbolic entity of a Department to African American students as a place of empowerment, position and academic motivation within a still largely hostile institution. These objectives can be accomplished far better for students in a dedicated unit than with those functions dispersed. That is the reason why it was created and it is my judgment that this is one of the reasons why it is still necessary today.
Ronald Walters, Ph. D.
Distinguished Leadership Scholar
Director, African American Leadership Center
Professor of Government and Politics
University of Maryland College Park