President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Center for African American Studies
November 22, 2006
Of all the challenges that have confronted our nation, none has been more consequential — or visceral — than the centuries-long struggle to achieve racial equality and understanding. Although the architecture of legal discrimination has been substantially dismantled, the legacy of African American disenfranchisement continues to be widely felt even as we grapple with contemporary questions of racial and cultural identity and equality of opportunity. Racial issues affect us all, and I believe their study should be an intrinsic part of any liberal arts education.
Since 1969, Princeton’s Program in African American Studies (PAAS) has been instrumental in interpreting the African American experience in a multidisciplinary context; it has attracted some of the finest scholars in the world; and it has broadened our curriculum in important and surprising ways. Nevertheless, the reach of our program, which typically attracts some 20 certificate students per year, has been constrained by limited resources, a relatively low institutional profile, and a small faculty whose appointments are wholly controlled by other academic units. These constraints have become problematic, as African American studies is perceived by many as one of the most dynamic fields in academia; its insights have enriched a host of other disciplines, from politics to music, and the issues it addresses are crucial to our national wellbeing.
Against this backdrop, I asked a faculty committee chaired by K. Anthony Appiah, the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values, to consider the most effective way to move forward with African American studies at Princeton. This summer the committee presented its recommendations, which, in the words of its report, are designed to “ensure the intellectual vitality of the Program, cement its place as a central component of the overall education of Princeton students, and establish PAAS as the leading voice in the field of African American Studies in a moment of great transition and possibility.” I am pleased to say that the committee has created a blueprint for excellence that will enhance our curriculum, particularly at the undergraduate level, increase the size and autonomy of our African American studies faculty, and establish a Center for African American Studies that will give our current program the heft and prominence it needs to carry out its mission.
Underpinning these proposals is a vision of African American studies that “inextricably links the African American experience to the American experience.” This linkage reflects the committee’s belief, which I wholeheartedly share, that African American studies is a critical element in the intellectual development of all students, regardless of race or academic concentration, and that our new Center for African American Studies has an indispensable role to play in preparing Princetonians to be thoughtful and effective citizens of our nation and the world.
This is a very exciting time in the history of African American studies — a time of scholarly maturation in which a new generation of African Americanists is subjecting their field to a rigorous self-examination. As a result, to quote committee member Professor Eddie Glaude, “we see a vibrant intellectual conversation about the key analytical categories of the field: debates about the category of race, about the importance of -diaspora, debates about a range of ideas that were once taken for granted [but] now animate conversations in scholarly journals and at academic conferences.” Although this ferment is not without unknowns and, thus, some risks as we move forward, it also represents a unique opportunity to nurture and shape a field that is in the process of defining itself. This is precisely the kind of leadership that Princeton is superbly and, in many ways, uniquely equipped to offer.
In the coming years we will be taking concrete steps to ensure that African American studies can thrive at Princeton. We plan to strengthen the curriculum in a variety of ways, from new freshman seminars in African American studies to improvements in our existing certificate program. The curriculum will be anchored around three thematic subfields: race and ethnicity, African American culture and life, and African Americans and public policy. To offer a full slate of courses and create the kind of intellectual synergies that will attract and retain a stellar group of scholars will require a doubling of the African American studies faculty through joint or sole appointments. As the faculty grows, we will also give careful and sympathetic thought to the creation of a major in African American studies, enabling students who wish to delve more deeply into the field to do so. The committee proposed that we lay the groundwork for this “major” step over a five-year period, and I believe that this is a reasonable goal.
Finally, we will adopt the committee’s proposal to create a new institutional structure for the program, establishing a Center for African American Studies with a sufficient endowment to sponsor a much wider range of intellectual activities than PAAS could support — from conferences and publications, to graduate fellows and visiting faculty and fellows, to student and faculty research projects. The center, which is inspired by the great success of the University Center for Human Values, will need a physical home that will foster the kind of collective identity and interaction that is so important to any intellectual community. We have found an excellent location in historic Stanhope Hall, which is being renovated for this purpose.
The future of African American studies at Princeton is a work in progress, but thanks to the efforts of Professor Appiah and his colleagues and the commitment of our faculty, administration, and trustees, we have a clear — and very promising — path before us, one that will enable us to make a major contribution to this field and to the advancement of race relations in this country and beyond.