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.