Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Alma Mater: Evokes Pride and Pain

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Alma Mater: Evokes Pride and Pain

Article excerpt

Alma Mater: Evokes Pride and Pain

After the founding of the Afro-American studies department, why did it take Harvard University 20 years to get serious about building it into a first-rate enterprise? Why did 29 years pass before Harvard's law school hired its first woman of color in a tenured faculty position after bringing on board the first African American male in 1969? How can Harvard officials trumpet the value of diversity when the university employs the lowest number of Black faculty compared to its peer institutions?

These and other questions nagged at my colleagues and me -- a graduate of the university -- when we began plans to explore diversity at Harvard. Having attended there during the early 1980s, I had some insight into the workings of the institution, and I expected to bring it to bear on my reporting.

I remembered the institutional culture of Harvard being a highly competitive one. There was a palpable sense that the administration, faculty members, and students thrived on staying abreast of the latest academic, political, and social developments around the world. As a government major, I benefited from access to major political figures who showed up on campus usually just days or weeks after breaking political developments.

I had known Afro-American studies as a department that had an able leader in Dr. Nathan Huggins, a number of good courses, and a few dedicated concentrators. But I also recalled that the tiny department seemed remote from the center of Harvard academic life.

I had met Huggins when I was there, but unfortunately, I did not take any of his classes. His death in 1989 saddened me all the more knowing that I had missed the opportunity to study with him.

The prospect of writing about Afro-American studies under the charismatic Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. surely proved exciting to me. But I knew from my own experience that illuminating the department's long struggle would put the Gates saga into a broader and more sobering context. As our examination took note of Lani Guinier's historic appointment to the Harvard law school faculty, we would be equally compelled to revisit Derrick Bell's long fight to get a woman of color hired by the law school.

I felt particularly motivated to ask hard questions of my alma mater, although I admit that I take a certain pride in seeing Harvard lead the nation -- and the world -- on many scholarly fronts. Watching the "Dream Team" come together and recognizing that the Afro-American studies department had taken a leading intellectual role in the Harvard community had enlarged my appreciation of the field. …

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