The Great `Misunderstanding' at Harvard: President's Criticism of Cornel West Has Left Supporters of Afro-American Studies Unsettled. (Noteworthy News: The Latest News from across the Country News Analysis)

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For those who believed the long struggle to put Afro-American studies at Harvard University on solid footing had ceased years ago, the recent controversy over Harvard president Dr. Lawrence H. Summers' private rebuke of Afro-American studies professor Dr. Cornel West has proven deeply troubling.

Although Summers publicly praised the Afro-American Studies department and expressed regret over any "misunderstanding" resulting from the meeting where he allegedly criticized West for non-scholarly public activities and urged him to pursue a work of serious scholarship, the controversy has left both supporters of Afro-American studies and higher education diversity advocates shaken and unsettled. Observers point to the outpouring of media coverage, much of which has included virulent reactions from conservative commentators, as a sign that, borrowing the title of West's most popular book, "race matters" deeply enough in the academy for the nation to sit up and take notice.

"What (the controversy) indicates to me is how contested Afro-American studies continues to be at Harvard," says Dr. Glenn Loury, a Boston University economics professor and a former Harvard professor who was the first Black to have tenure in the economics department.

Summers, an economist who served as the U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton before becoming Harvard's president in 2001, is known as a brash and impatient executive who has not shied away from speaking frankly to other Harvard professors. Even after issuing conciliatory statements, Summers has been quoted as saying that the Afro-American studies department could anticipate "less of an open checkbook from my administration than the previous one."

Nevertheless, last month's announced departure of Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah to Princeton University underscored the vulnerability Harvard faces over retaining members of the Afro-American studies "Dream Team." Appiah, considered one of the Dream Team stars, declared his reasons for leaving did not relate to the West controversy. A highly regarded scholar of African culture and philosophy, Appiah held joint appointments in Afro-American studies and the philosophy departments.

Prior to the formation of the Dream Team during the 1990s, a development largely credited to Afro-American studies department chairman Dr. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr., Afro-American studies had languished as a neglected program. Harvard professors barely tolerated the department's presence and rarely helped out when the department sought joint appointments for faculty members it wanted to bring to Harvard (see Black Issues, Feb. 4, 1999).

With the history of the Afro-American studies department prior to the arrival of Gates receiving scant attention during the recent controversy, observers believe the national fight over affirmative action in higher education weighed most heavily in the minds of reporters, editors, pundits, and the general public when it came to assessing the recent controversy. Some observers note that comments by Harvard government professor Dr. Harvey Mansfield in the Boston Globe in February 2001, which laid blame for grade inflation at Harvard on the arrival of significant numbers of Black students in the early 1970s, had already fueled considerable tension around the affirmative action debate as it relates to elite schools, such as Harvard.

"The subtext is affirmative action. The idea(s) that (Blacks) are illegitimately on campus, and `our standards are being lowered' are evident in the commentaries. I see at least the susceptibility of people in the `Dream Team' of being stigmatized by race," Loury says.

Loury adds that the reaction by many commentators suggests that there's a perception that Blacks, other minorities, and ethnic studies programs have yet to earn a deserving place in the American academy.

THE MEDIA CIRCUS

While many observers lament that concerns raised by a rookie Harvard president with West should have remained private, Afro-American studies proponents concede that a public stand by Gates and Afro-American studies faculty members became necessary once the rift between West and Summers became publicly known. …

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