Statement from Dr. Ronald Walters, 1st Chair of the Brandeis African-American Studies Department

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.

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CARS Commitee Proposes Eliminating African-American Studies Department


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!).

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