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.