Proposed African Studies Program Meets Backlash

Since last spring, a working group of six faculty of the Claremont Colleges have been working to advance a proposal to create an “African Studies” program, which has been widely condemned by faculty, students, and allies of the Intercollegiate Department of Africana Studies.

This proposal comes at a time when Africana Studies programs across the country are facing turmoil. At University of Massachusetts Boston, the Africana Studies program is facing threats to its existence as the university cuts faculty and restructures its program, similar to the jeopardy facing programs throughout the Illinois’s public university system.

Denouncing the proposal as “a deliberate attempt to destroy the existing Africana Studies department,” the IDAS faculty expressed their concerns in a letter to faculty and administrators across the 5Cs.

The proposal in question calls for the creation of a Field Group B, or special major track, at Pitzer, called “African Studies” that would give interested students the option to major in the discipline. The special major is an academic option allowing students to design their own major.

At Pitzer, major courses and requirements are organized under field groups, similar to a discipline or academic department at other colleges.

“The idea [of an] African studies program, at the Claremont [Colleges], has been my dream since I joined the faculty at Pitzer College,” Lako Tongun, associate professor of international and intercultural studies and political studies at Pitzer College, wrote in an email to TSL.

Tongun, who is one of two African authors of the proposal, does not foresee IDAS facing any impact as a result of African Studies. Rather, he believes that IDAS will be strengthened by the program.

According to Tongun, the only difference between the African Studies and Africana Studies is “the academic focus on the different experiences of the African people on the continent [African studies] and in the global diaspora [Africana studies].” This is depicted in the working group’s graphic below, which was sent to TSL Saturday evening.

In their letter, IDAS rejected this logic, saying that the working group’s efforts would amount to a “de facto balkanization” rendering Africa and its diaspora as “separate and contradictory entities” -- counter to IDAS’s mission “to examine, through various academic disciplines, the experiences of African heritage worldwide.”

For the IDAS faculty, the working group’s inclusion of IDAS courses without the department’s permission further “demonstrates the fallacy that the study of Africa can be separated from the study of its diaspora,” as stated in the IDAS letter.

“What’s surprising about this proposal is how structurally and willfully anti-black it would be,” wrote Eric A. Hurley, associate professor of psychology at Pomona College and a core faculty member of IDAS, in an email to TSL.

According to Hurley, the proposal severely mischaracterizes their department’s content coverage and procedures, excluding the existing coverage of the African continent in IDAS.

The working group’s efforts also follows IDAS's appointment of Makhroufi Ousmane Traoré at the beginning of the school year. Ousmane Traoré, who is a signatory of the IDAS letter, is a professor of African history with research interests in the place of trans-Saharan Africa in world history, slavery in Africa, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, according to the Pomona College website.

During the Pitzer College Academic Planning Committee (APC) meeting April 18, the IDAS letter was read aloud by Gwendolyn Lytle, professor of music at Pomona College and Chair of IDAS, at the beginning of what proved to be a heated meeting.

In the small Bernard Hall classroom, several IDAS faculty and fifteen allied students -- many of whom were Africana Studies majors -- gathered to decry the proposed program to the APC faculty members and student representatives.

Students and faculty of IDAS widely castigated the proposal’s depiction of their discipline, many reiterating the colonial histories represented in the proposed field group.

“This resembles the work done by anthropologists in the early 20th centuries who used their research to justify what they perceive to be the cultural and social staticism in Africa, contributing to and seeking to legitimize the colonialism that occurred throughout the continent,” wrote Avery Jonas PO ’20, an Africana Studies and computer science double major, in a message to TSL.

Maryan Soliman, who is currently the only single core faculty appointment in IDAS, shared how disheartened she was to see the African Studies proposal as a first year faculty member.

Soliman’s appointment to IDAS is significant because most IDAS appointments have been joint appointments up to this point, leaving IDAS faculty overworked and with little time, having to devote their time to teaching classes and advising students in both disciplines for which they are appointed.

This dual-appointment is usually at the expense of IDAS, which was something that was clarified to the APC during their April 18 meeting by several faculty, including Hurley.

Soliman, who teaches about “the racist history of African Studies and in favor of Africana Studies,” even submitted a reading on the history of African Studies featured in her “Intro to Africana Studies” course syllabus to APC during the April 18 meeting.

IDAS faculty have been discussing the ethics of the proposal since first hearing of it.

“Pitzer College pushing a ‘new’ African Studies major forward is the equivalent of proposing to eradicate the historic struggles and successes of IDAS to privilege predominately white academic settler colonials,” wrote Laura A. Harris, professor of English and world literature and core faculty member of IDAS, in an email to the Pitzer Faculty, which was forwarded to TSL by the professor.

Harris, who has worked at Pitzer for over twenty years, is the last core faculty member of IDAS at Pitzer. The college has not filled the vacancies of two IDAS positions after the retirement of two professors in recent years, according to Harris.

Harris views efforts to create an African Studies program as an effort to eliminate IDAS that goes beyond the racial makeup of the the working group.  

“It does not matter ideologically that there may be Black/African diaspora colonial allies supporting this major, look beyond individual subjectivities to witness ideological practices ... This is a move to excise IDAS from higher education, this at a campus, at campuses, historically renowned for their social justice struggles for Black diaspora, African and African diaspora, i.e. Africana Studies,” Harris wrote to her peers.

Having received emails sent to Pitzer faculty from both Harris and Pomona College professor of art history Phyllis Jackson, Harmony O’Rourke, associate professor of history at Pitzer and an author of the proposed program, disapproved of the characterization of the working group as colonial.

“Who doesn’t live without contradiction? We’re in these canons, but we’re working against them at the same time. And I know I’m a white person who loves African history, but I’ve lived in African communities. We are not in the business of creating armchair scholars of Africa,” O’Rourke said.

“I was a first generation student. I was a working class kid. When I was born, my parents didn’t have electricity. When did I become like a colonial?” O’Rourke added.

O’Rourke also took issue with IDAS’s learning objective that focuses on “the central role of race and its intersectional relationship to other socially constructed categories.”

“Race in Africa is constructed differently, and it’s not often the primary way people think about themselves,” she said, suggesting that a limitation of IDAS is that it does not center Africa.

O’Rourke’s view on the role of racialization is reflected in the proposal itself.

Victor Bene PZ ’18, a Pitzer Africana studies field group representative, viewed this as one of many downfalls of the proposal.

“I think that within the document there were several paragraphs that caused me particular concern,” said Bene.

“One line that comes to mind that was authored by six faculty, [four] of whom are white, [essentially] said 'everything having to do with the continent of Africa does not need to be racialized,' and I think that’s what this entire field group, or reading group, is about. It’s about simply codifying whiteness in their future neocolonial efforts,” said Bene.

O’Rourke also expressed discontent that all five of her courses which focus on African history have been denied cross-listing with IDAS during her time in Claremont. One of her courses, a course on slavery was allowed to be cross-listed with IDAS for a semester because an IDAS faculty member was on leave.

As mentioned in the IDAS letter, the department has a well-established policy of cross-listing courses by non-IDAS faculty whose courses meet IDAS’s requirements.  

During the April 18 APC meeting, Emma Stephens, associate professor of economics at Pitzer College and proposal author, admitted that one of her courses was not cross-listed by IDAS in the past because it failed to cover enough content on Africa.

According to O’Rourke, the African Studies working group received a grant of about $4000 from the Teagle Foundation. According to its website, the foundation is a national philanthropic organization that works “to support and strengthen liberal arts education.”

O’Rourke clarified that the working group will lose access to the remainder of the grant in June, if it is not spent. One of the grant's intended purposes was to hire a facilitator for discussions between the working group and IDAS, though this has never materialized since the group’s inception a year ago.

“We wanted to work with Africana Studies faculty and meet with them to talk about some of these issues, but we went through the Dean of Faculty at Pitzer College, who is also the Africana Studies dean, Nigel Boyle, and we were told anyway when he did meet with them that they did not want to meet with us,” she said.

Regarding the field group approval process, as outlined in the Pitzer faculty handbook, O’Rourke mentioned how she and the working group have long wanted to be as transparent as possible.

“We have always wanted, all along, to actually go beyond that process and bring it to the faculty meeting for all of the faculty to discuss. Our vision was to always go beyond the faculty executive committee to be as open as possible with the faculty, even though it’s not required. We have said that all along,” O’Rourke said.

From interviews with members of IDAS faculty and students, this claim doesn’t hold up.

“Don’t miss the sneakiness with which this entire business has been handled,” Hurley wrote in an email to TSL, recounting the events preceding the April 18 APC meeting.

According to Hurley, IDAS faculty members found out about the African Studies working group through a leak from an unnamed source.

After asking for conversation with the field group and receiving no response, IDAS faculty members reached out to their lead dean, Boyle, only to find out he was one of the proposal’s signatories at a department meeting late last fall.

At this same meeting, Boyle said that he thought IDAS had been consulted and involved, and he assured the department that the working group was only tossing around ideas and had no documents to look at, according to Hurley.

While the working group admitted to having a proposal written for Teagle funding, Hurley said that IDAS did not receive a response after repeated requests to see the document and meet.

It wasn’t until a few days before the April 18 APC meeting that Hurley received a copy of the African Studies proposal from an unnamed source. Boyle sent an email with the proposal attached to Lytle on April 10.

“And then in that APC meeting, the dean [Boyle] and one of the authors of the proposal [Emma Stephens], who for some reason is on the committee, tried to again pretend to be surprised and express regret that Africana Studies had not been consulted, involved, or anything (on an issue that would affect us so deeply) with a ‘sorry, but oops too late now’ shrug,” said Hurley.

Bene echoed this sentiment about the lack of transparency in the advancement of the African Studies proposal.  

“They were not even informed that this field was about to be approved and therefore two faculty members had to send out emails that conveyed enough exigency to halt this process, which led to his meeting," Bene said.

According to Bene, the proposal might have advanced sooner “had it not been for Africana Studies faculty realizing it was the eleventh hour before a program that could cause confusion and lack of resources for the department, and later on, eventually its demise.”

For Bene and countless others, the African Studies proposal presents an imminent danger to their field and represents an attack on ethnic studies at large.

“I want people to understand that ethnic studies is here to stay, that there are students and scholars who have dedicated their life to every inch ethnic studies has made over the last 40 years, and we’re not going anywhere without a fight,” said Bene.

This article originally stated that Soliman was the first single core faculty appointment to IDAS since the department's inception. Soliman is currently the only single core faculty appointment, but is not the first.

The article originally referred to O'Rourke as a Professor of History. Her correct title is Associate Professor of History. 

This article was updated on May 2, 2017 to clarify that although one of O'Rourke's courses had previously been cross-listed with Africana Studies, all five of her courses which focus on African history were denied cross-listing with IDAS. The article was also updated on May 3, 2017 to reflect the fact that Boyle sent an email with the African Studies proposal attached to Lytle on April 10. The article was updated again on May 5, 2017 to indicate that one of O'Rourke's courses, on slavery in Africa, had been cross-listed with IDAS.