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Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I have been thinking some more about the Harvard visit, and would like to say a few things about Afro-American Studies that have nothing whatsoever to do with Peretz. They do have something to do with Social Studies, and also with the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard, as opposed to the UMass department in which I served for sixteen years, twelve of them as Graduate Program Director of our doctoral program. [I have talked about all of this in them last chapter of my book, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-WHITE MAN, but since no one has ever read that book, I will not be repeating myself.]

The fundamental organizational or structural fact about American universities is that tenure is through departments. Faculty positions -- called "lines" -- are assigned to departments and reside in departments. When a professor retires or leaves for any reason, the department tries -- sometimes successfully, sometimes not -- to retain control of the line, so that they can recruit someone else to fill it. The size of a department is measured by the number of tenure lines it has.

Quite often, universities create programs that do not reside in departments. These programs are staffed either by professors appointed to non-tenure track lines, or else by professors who have an appointment in a home department which controls their line. If these programs are in favor, they may be the recipients of large amounts of what is called "soft money," awarded to them directly out of the discretionary budget of the Provost or President, not out of the budget of a Dean. So long as times are good and they retain the good will of the central administration, they can flourish, and be the envy of cash strapped departments, but without tenure lines and departmental status and the protection of a Dean to whom they report, such operations are in a permanently perilous situation.

Forty years ago and more, in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement and the arrival on northern campuses for the first time of large numbers of Black students, colleges and universities around the country rushed to respond to the protests and pressure from the new group of students by creating Programs, Committees, Degree Programs, and Centers of Black Studies, Afro-American Studies, or Africana Studies. Roughly five hundred such programs were rushed into existence. In only a small handful of cases, however, were stand alone real departments created with tenure track lines and a reporting line to a Dean [Humanities or Social Sciences, typically]. Sometimes, so-called departments were created in which the faculty held joint appointments with established departments. In those cases, the Black Studies professors could get tenure IF THEY WERE ABLE TO PERSUADE THEIR HOME DEPARTMENT TO USE ONE OF THEIR SCARCE LINES FOR IT. But the simple fact was that at any moment, a university could terminate a department of Black Studies, once the political pressure was off, and farm the faculty out to the departments in which they held joint appointments.

When the excitement about civil rights waned, the number of such operations dwindled to roughly two hundred. UMass was one of the very small number of schools where a real, free standing department was created, in which people got tenure. As a result, despite the endless budget crises that afflicted Massachusetts, the department survived, and eventually created only the second doctoral program in the country [after Temple.]. Harvard, by contrast, created a department in which EVERY SINGLE PROFESSOR HOLDS A JOINT APPOINTMENT. When Skip Gates assembled his famous "dream team," he situated every one of his high profile catches, including himself, in a Real department. Once this group got around to developing a doctoral program, they institutionalized their belief that Afro-American Studies is not a real discipline by requiring every one of their doctoral students to earn an M. A. in a "real" department -- History, English, Government, Sociology. Skip raised a ton of money, and still does, but he either never asked for, or never got, real departmental status.

Social Studies, now fifty years old, is a program run by a committee of senior faculty from real departments. It has had a series of junior non-tenure track faculty, and has never acquired real departmental status. That fact, of which the folks running Social Studies are painfully aware, is the defining fact about the program. Even after fifty years, which is a very long time, Harvard could at any moment terminate the program without breaking tenure.

This may sound like inside baseball to those of you who are not academics, but it is as important to the reality of Social Studies as the arcane rules of the Senate are to Congressional legislation.


Mike said...

It sounds like you'd prefer a university in which no one could be fired and no program could be terminated.

wallyverr said...

Has the design of "Social Studies" outlived its usefulness? This is really mainly a request for you to comment in detail on Brad de Long's talk about the "The Barrington Moore Problematic and Its Discontents"

The Social Studies objective to provide inter-disciplinary perspective through the reading of Smith, Marx, Mill, Weber, Tocqueville, Durkheim, and Freud was commendable in its time. But would I be alone in thinking that the more recent additions of Foucault, Habermas, and de Beauvoir are not in the same league as those on the original list. I could suggest my own additions to the Social Studies canon -- Nietzsche, Schumpeter and Hayek, say, from the earlier period, Ernest Gellner and Charles Tilly from the more recent past -- but I am not confident that these constitute (in de Long's words) the "intellectual thread should you follow as a guide through the labyrinth that is the study of human society." Gellner himself would probably ask "why no Kant", a point you might be expected to sympathise with.

C Wright Mills once said something like one should study problems, not methods. It would be better to say that a student of human society should understand a range of methods. These might come from microeconomic price theory, from the formal methods in political theory you presented in your earlier online course, from analytical philosophy, from history, from evolutionary biology, and so on. But I see no conclusive reason to think that the product of Social Studies is in a stronger command of these methods than a graduate from a conventional social science department with a taste for reading challenging books from outside the discipline.

Tommie said...

Prof. Wolff,

I would first like to say that I very much enjoyed your memoir and have learned much from your book, Understanding Marx. The latter really helped me to think more clearly about Capital.

But I'm commenting here because I believe your remarks about "Afro-American Studies" at Harvard (now "African and African American Studies") are misleading and, I think, unfair. African and African American Studies at Harvard is and always has been a full-fledged department with the authority to grant tenure without a joint appointment with a traditional department. It was a conscious decision on Skip's part, and there is wide faculty support for this decision, to make joint appointments whenever possible. There are at least two purposes behind this: (1) it allows us to hire two persons for every faculty line (FTE), thus increasing our overall numbers; and (2) it enables us to affect the curricular offerings (and perhaps the ethos) of traditional departments, which in our absence might fail to take the study of black peoples as seriously as they ought.

It would be dishonest for me not to admit that such joint appointments adds de facto legitimacy to our academic efforts in African and African American Studies, and perhaps we trade on this to some extent. There are, as you know, many people who do not regard African American studies as a legitimate academic field. By having a faculty composed of scholars who are widely recognized as having made significant contributions to the traditional disciplines, we are able to blunt some of the criticism often directed toward our colleagues at other institutions who largely work within the interdisciplinary field.

But, for the record, those of us in the African and African American Studies Department, including Skip Gates, believe strongly in the legitimacy and importance of our interdisciplinary field and would fight mightily against any effort to dissolve our unit and disperse our members into the traditional departments.