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September 18, 2006

Program in African American Studies


Of all the challenges that confront America, none is more profound than the struggle to achieve racial equality and understand the impact of race on the life and institutions of the United States. As a University dedicated to “the nation’s service and the service of all nations,” Princeton must be in a position to contribute to this quest through research that yields valuable insights into the nature of racial identity and social justice, and through education that trains new generations of leaders to solve problems that have persisted too long, both in this country and abroad.

Over the last several decades, Princeton has made many distinguished contributions to the study of race in America. Some of the most important work has come from scholars affiliated with Princeton’s Program in African American Studies. We now have on our faculty an especially strong cadre of faculty in the field. In the fall of 2005, I asked several of these scholars, along with other leading faculty in the humanities and the social sciences, to convene as a committee to consider the future of Princeton’s Program in African American Studies. Professor K. Anthony Appiah, the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values, graciously agreed to chair the committee. I asked its members to consider a broad range of questions about the intellectual focus of the Program, its staffing needs, its curriculum, and its organizational structure. The membership of the committee and the full text of my charge to it appear as appendices to this statement.

The committee worked throughout the academic year. It solicited the views of department chairs and program directors in the humanities and the social sciences, and it met with faculty, undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni. Early in the summer of 2006, the committee presented to me its confidential report. That report described a compelling vision for African American Studies at Princeton. The committee found that Princeton had a unique opportunity to build upon its existing strengths in African American Studies in a way that would recognize the field’s importance to a liberal arts education and support a vibrant teaching and research agenda in the decades ahead. The committee wrote, and I agree, that “Because of the continuing and evolving centrality of race in American political, economic, social, and cultural life, reflection on race and on the distinctive experiences of black people is an indispensable element in a preparation for life in this country.” By emphasizing the value of African American Studies to understanding the American experience, Princeton can be at the forefront of a novel and exciting conception of this field.

The committee recommended that we enhance Princeton’s curriculum, especially at the undergraduate level; that we expand the University’s faculty in African American Studies; and that we establish a Center for African American Studies endowed with the resources necessary to ensure that it flourishes. I agree with all these recommendations, and I believe that they will lay the foundation for a new standard of excellence in a field that is of special interest to our students and of critical importance to the country. In the words of the committee, Princeton has an opportunity to “establish [its] Program in African American Studies as the leading voice in the field of African American Studies education in a moment of great transition and possibility.” We should seize that opportunity.


The Case for an Initiative in African American Studies

The committee reported that, in the field of African American Studies, Princeton confronts both urgent needs and timely opportunities. This is an especially exciting time for Princeton to invest in the future of African American Studies. The committee found that faculty in diverse departments value African American Studies not only for its own sake but for the vital enrichment that it brings to “such disciplines as anthropology, art history, literary studies, history, sociology, philosophy, political science, psychology, and the study of religion.” This finding confirms the experience that the Provost, the Dean of the Faculty, and I have had when talking to departmental chairs about their disciplines. We have been impressed at how many chairs identify the intersection between African American Studies and their own field as one of the most generative and critical sites within their discipline. Indeed, Professor Valerie Smith, the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature and the Program’s current director, noted that the Program was “in various stages of searches with … English, History, Music, Politics, Sociology, and Spanish and Portuguese,” and that the Program hoped soon to cooperate in searches with Anthropology, Art and Archaeology, Creative Writing, Visual Arts, and the Woodrow Wilson School. By investing in African American Studies, we invest in Princeton’s liberal arts education more generally.

The committee also identified this moment as a significant transitional point in the history of African American Studies. In a memorandum prepared for the committee, Professor of Religion Eddie Glaude described African American Studies as the intellectual home for a new generation of young scholars who “bring fresh and innovative approaches to the organization of the field, to its institutional role, and often clash with older scholars” who view the field through a different lens. African American Studies is generating “a vibrant intellectual conversation about the key analytical categories of the field: debates about the category of race, about the importance of diaspora, [and] about a range of ideas that were once taken for granted [but] now animate conversations in scholarly journals and academic conferences.” The committee concluded, and I agree, that Princeton has a special opportunity to craft an institutional structure that will nourish and encourage the developments that Professor Glaude describes.

Challenges accompany the opportunity, of course. It is easier and more comfortable to invest in fields that feature clear paradigms and long-established hierarchies of excellence. In such fields, a university with Princeton’s strength can succeed so long as it supplies sufficient resources and chooses personnel carefully. In African American Studies, we would be helping to cultivate a field that is self-consciously developing new frameworks for inquiry. By committing now to the future of this important field, Princeton can not only make it a source of strength on our own campus, but help the field more generally to achieve its highest aspirations. That is exactly the sort of leadership initiative that Princeton is almost uniquely capable of undertaking and that can enable us to make a transformative contribution to higher education and the world.


Intellectual Focus

The field of African American Studies has taken different forms at different universities. At some schools, it has focused on the distinctive experience of African Americans in the United States. That has been true of Princeton’s program, and, to a great extent, of Northwestern’s and Yale’s. At other schools, including Stanford, African American Studies has been subsumed under a more general rubric of Ethnic Studies. At a third set of schools—most notably Columbia, Duke, and Harvard—African American Studies has been combined with the study of Africa and the African diaspora around the world.

How a university chooses among, or combines, these approaches will obviously inform the decisions it must make about the content of its curriculum, the size and qualifications of its faculty, and the relationships between African American Studies and other fields. I accordingly asked the committee to review carefully these options and recommend what path Princeton should follow.

The committee unequivocally recommended an approach “that takes the historical experience and the cultural work of black people in the United States as its core.” The committee observed that this topic is rich, extensive, and important to all students. Importantly, though, the committee also emphasized that its conception of African American Studies was a “flexible” one that is best pursued “in a broadly comparative and cosmopolitan manner.” On this point, I can do no better than to quote at length from the committee’s thoughtful analysis:

Our conception [of African American Studies] understands that the racial system of the United States was never simply black and white; it recognizes the special place of Africa as a symbol and as root of African American cultures; and it explores the spaces of the African Diaspora with which North American black people have always been connected. . . . . Our conception assumes that race in America was constructed in dialogue with discourses in other societies and accepts that the concept of Diaspora cries out for comparative exploration. It also recognizes that African American experience is not singular but multiple, inflected as it is by gender, sexuality, class, region and religion. Finally, this conception is particularly well-placed to allow fruitful exchanges—based on historical interconnections in subject matter, shared methods and opportunities for comparative analysis—with other interdisciplinary fields: African Studies, Latin American Studies, Latino Studies, Asian American Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies. But it relies centrally, too, on the continuous openness of [the Program in African American Studies] to the existing disciplines of the humanities, the fine arts and the social and biological sciences.

Despite the committee’s evident openness to multicultural perspectives, it concluded that either the Ethnic Studies approach, as practiced at Stanford, or the African and African American Studies approach, as practiced at Harvard, would dilute the Program’s core focus. In the words of the committee, the Ethnic Studies approach “risks ignoring what is distinctively central about the Black experience as an American experience. . . . Directing resources toward an expansion of the comparative and regional aspects of the African American component of an ethnic studies model—as would be required to make it world class—would detract from increasing capacity in those areas where we believe there is already strength on the ground.”

Several considerations leave me persuaded that the committee has recommended the right course for the Program. First the committee has identified a vision for African American Studies that “has the support of those who teach in the current Program in African American Studies and of many . . . other faculty with an interest in the field.” Second, there is little reason to suppose that the African American experience will cease to be distinctive any time soon. Indeed, the African American experience in the United States has been distinctive for longer than this University has existed. And third, the institutional model proposed by the committee is flexible, especially with regard to faculty appointments, in ways that will enable the Program to accommodate unanticipated changes in the content of the field. Indeed, the range of appointment possibilities contemplated by the committee is broader than those that currently exist in some successful and longstanding departments that, like African American Studies, focus on the particular experience and cultural works of one group or nationality.


Curricular Program

The Program’s Contributions to a Liberal Arts Education. Recognizing that teaching is the heart of Princeton’s intellectual tradition, the committee devoted several pages of its report to a thoughtful analysis of the African American Studies curriculum at Princeton. With regard to undergraduate education, the committee emphasized, and I agree, that African American Studies should contribute to the education of all of our students, not just ethnically identified subgroups of them. As the committee said, “race is not something that affects only racial minorities; everyone in this country is viewed through the prism of ideas about race.” The committee accordingly concluded that the Program’s teaching “should place a special emphasis on reaching out beyond those who make the field the focus of their study.” This conclusion not only fits well with Princeton’s conception of a liberal arts education, but also helps to define a distinctive role for Princeton’s approach to African American Studies.

The committee made several specific recommendations in keeping with this philosophy. First, it suggested that the Program appoint a Director of Undergraduate Studies to coordinate and oversee a strengthened curricular program. Second, it proposed that the University provide the Program with the resources needed to mount new freshman seminars in African American Studies. Third, it recommended that the undergraduate certificate program in African American Studies be clarified and strengthened. Because the certificate program provides a framework within which students can pursue an interest in African American Studies while majoring in another field, the certificate program is especially well-suited to the Program’s aspiration to contribute to a broad liberal arts education for Princeton students. The certificate program has shown consistent strength since it was established in 1970; it has typically attracted around twenty students per year; in 2005 it attracted 33 students, the most since 1982, when it had 37.

The committee identified two significant challenges facing the certificate program. The first is to improve the level of cooperation between the Program and the University’s departments. In its conversations with students and faculty, the committee discovered that it was often difficult for students to design course schedules that would enable them to satisfy the requirements of both the Program’s certificate and their departmental major. Some of the problems were informational—students had a hard time determining which courses they had to take and when they had to take them. Others were structural—some departments had requirements that made it difficult for students to pursue a certificate in African American Studies. The committee accordingly proposed that “African American Studies should work with departments in cognate fields to define paths that can be combined with a pattern of course work in African American Studies.” It is clear that Princeton’s students would benefit greatly from improved coordination between existing departments and the Program. Implementing it will require individualized discussions with other academic units and the Dean of the College in conjunction with the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Program.

The second challenge is to strengthen the course offerings within the certificate program. More specifically, the committee recommended that the certificate program reorganize itself around “three thematic subfields: (1) race and ethnicity, (2) African American culture and life, and (3) African Americans and public policy.” The committee’s plan is cogent and attractive, though, obviously, the exact development of the Program’s curriculum will depend upon the choices made by its faculty in consultation with the Dean of the College and the Committee on the Course of Study.

An African American Studies Major. While the committee believed that “the contribution to general education is naturally at the heart of the project” for African American Studies, the committee also concluded that the University should consider establishing a major for students who wish to develop a deeper expertise in the field. All of the Ivy League universities except Princeton now offer a B.A. degree in African American Studies. More generally, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education recently reported that approximately two-thirds of the nation’s highest-ranked universities offer a degree in the field. The committee recognized that the University does not yet have the faculty needed to support a major, and it accordingly recommended that “the University should aim to be ready to offer a major in African American Studies in five years.”

This University proceeds cautiously before offering new majors, and with good reason. The academic major is our primary instrument for ensuring that undergraduate education at Princeton has the depth that comes from rigorous disciplinary training. It is also the means by which, through the senior thesis, we introduce students to the challenges of scholarly research. Experience has taught us that there are risks associated with establishing a new major in a field that mixes disciplines and methods in novel and innovative ways.

Yet, there are also great rewards: African American Studies is in a period of intellectual ferment, and its subject matter is of the highest importance to this nation’s future and this University’s mission. If we are to make a commitment to the field of African American Studies, as I firmly believe we should, we must do so wholeheartedly and in a way that reflects the confidence we feel in both our senior and junior faculty in the field. The professors in the Program believe that we are losing talented students to other universities because of the absence of the option to concentrate in African American Studies at Princeton. Because of our faculty-intensive method of instruction in the major, the exact timing for the establishment of a new major must await the moment when we have in place the faculty and courses to support it. I believe that the five-year time frame suggested by the committee is a good goal, but we should recognize that it is not possible to hire first-rate faculty on a fixed schedule.

How we should proceed in the interim is a delicate question. The committee suggested that we might allow the unusual student whose intellectual interests span more than a single disciplinary department to pursue an independent concentration in African American Studies. At present, Princeton’s policies prohibit independent concentrations in fields where certificate programs exist. That policy rests on two judgments: first, we believe that certificate programs already provide interested students with an opportunity for serious, structured study in a field, and, second, we recognize that independent concentrations impose significant administrative and teaching burdens on faculty and programs. The latter consideration seems especially applicable as we build strength in African American Studies: our faculty will have to conduct multiple searches, enrich the University’s certificate program, oversee renovations to the Program’s physical home, and assist in fundraising. That is a tall order, and it leads me to believe that it would be imprudent to make an exception to our general policy regarding independent concentrations in this critical interim period.

The Graduate Program. African American Studies contributes to Princeton’s educational program at the graduate as well as the undergraduate level. The most important vehicle for this purpose is the Program’s general graduate course, African American Studies 500. Through topics such as race, racism, religion, and slavery, this interdisciplinary seminar introduces graduate students from many departments to the African American intellectual tradition. The committee recommended that the Program expand this seminar into a year-long course. I expect that the Program will accept that recommendation when it has sufficient faculty to staff the course and its other offerings. The committee also predicted that at some point in the future the University might establish a doctoral program in African American Studies.


Faculty Appointments

The Need for Growth. A strong faculty is the foundation of any vibrant academic unit. A program must have faculty of sufficient quality and in sufficient numbers to staff its courses and teach them well. The faculty also has primary responsibility for establishing the national and international reputation of the unit, for upholding academic standards, for appointing new colleagues, and for training assistant professors and graduate students. We have, over time, had an outstanding cadre of professors in the field of African American Studies, but we have always struggled to maintain critical mass and to retain the faculty members whom we have. Moreover, we have had greater strengths in some areas than others; for example, we have had an unfortunate scarcity of African American Studies faculty in politics and public policy. These challenges will persist; African American Studies is an intensely competitive field, and as we build a successful program, our faculty will inevitably attract attention from other universities. For all of these reasons, my charge to the committee asked its members to devote special attention to the need to attract and retain outstanding professors in the field of African American Studies. I regard the committee’s recommendations on this point as especially important elements in its report.

The committee recommended, and I concur, that the University must approximately double the number of faculty appointed in African American Studies. Without more faculty, we cannot hope to sustain the curricular measures that the committee has recommended, or, for that matter, staff the courses that we now list; nor can we create the kind of flourishing intellectual community in African American Studies that will keep our professors firmly attached to Princeton and attract others here. At present, the Program is assigned slightly more than 5 full time equivalents (FTEs). The number of faculty associated with the Program is, however, higher because the FTEs are allocated in fractional units, usually 0.5 FTE, with other departments or centers making up the difference. The committee recommended that the Program should eventually have 11 FTEs assigned to it.

The committee concluded that this increase is necessary to enable the Program to cover the broad range of subjects that now comprise African American Studies, including literature and the arts, history, philosophy, religion, social science, and public policy. The committee rightly recognized that the Program must have sufficient numerical strength to cover its courses in these areas even when faculty members are on leave, and when occasional vacancies leave the Program short-handed. I believe that its recommendation is a prudent one. It is consistent with the size that we have identified for other interdisciplinary centers with a teaching mission, such as the Lewis-Sigler Institute and the new Neuroscience Institute.

Joint Appointments and Sole Appointments. I anticipated that the committee would recommend significant changes to the way in which faculty are affiliated with the Program. At present, professors cannot be appointed in the Program at all; the Program can arrange appointments only by contributing fractions of its faculty lines to other academic units that have the power to make faculty appointments. This policy has significant disadvantages for a Program that is trying to mount a comprehensive curriculum. For example, if the Program needs to offer basic and advanced courses in African American History, its ability to do so is dependent upon the willingness of the History Department to appoint faculty members in that field. The committee recommended that the University should allow the Program to initiate searches and appoint faculty, either jointly with other units or solely within the Program.

The prospect of joint appointments is especially attractive and has two distinct advantages. First, as I have observed before, the case for growth in African American Studies is compelling partly because of the contributions that African American Studies makes to many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Joint appointments facilitate the intersections between these departments and African American Studies. Second, African American Studies is an interdisciplinary program. While interdisciplinary work promises fresh insights and discoveries, it can be difficult at times for a faculty drawn from so many different disciplinary backgrounds to evaluate the qualifications of candidates for appointment or promotion. In these instances it is often helpful to have the input of those in the candidate’s own discipline. For that reason, Princeton’s interdisciplinary units—including the Woodrow Wilson School, the University Center for Human Values, and the Lewis-Sigler Institute—typically rely on a joint appointments model.

On the other hand, the committee identified persuasive reasons why we cannot rely only upon joint appointments. There will be times, for example, when a candidate’s scholarship and teaching do not neatly fit into one of the disciplinary departments, making it difficult for the Program to find a suitable unit with which to collaborate. It is also conceivable that some professors might prefer to devote all of their time to African American Studies; indeed, the committee believed that Princeton might be unable to attract some professors unless it were willing to allow them the option of an appointment solely in the Program. Finally, the option to make sole appointments ensures that the Program has the ability to staff its core courses every year. The committee suggested that up to six sole appointments in African American Studies might be desirable. While I agree that this option should be available to the Program, I also believe that the University and the Program should proceed cautiously in this domain. There should be a presumption in favor of joint appointments when feasible, and, except in rare cases, sole appointments should be given only to faculty who have already passed the tenure bar in a department, either here or elsewhere.


A Center for African American Studies

Princeton’s Program in African American Studies has achieved extraordinary successes and attracted internationally renowned faculty, but it has done so without the same level of institutional standing enjoyed by its counterparts at our peer institutions. As already mentioned, every Ivy League university except Princeton offers a major in African American Studies. Moreover, at three of our peers—Harvard, Yale, and Brown—African American Studies has departmental status. Perhaps for this reason, discussions over the years about whether to enhance Princeton’s commitment to African American Studies have often occurred through the shorthand of asking whether the Program should become a department. In my charge to the committee, I asked it to consider this question, but I also asked it to think more broadly and imaginatively about what it would take for African American Studies to flourish at Princeton. I asked it to recommend whatever institutional structure it thought best, even if that structure was different from anything that now existed at the University.

The committee took that charge seriously. After deliberating about a wide range of alternatives, it recommended that the University undertake a transition from a Program to a Center for African American Studies that would parallel, in many respects, the University Center for Human Values. It concluded that such a transition would render the Program’s conversion into a department unnecessary, provided that the Center had the capacity to appoint faculty and provided that it could eventually sponsor an undergraduate major.

I agree with the committee’s recommendation, and Princeton will begin immediately to seek funding for an endowment to support such a Center. The Center’s endowment should be sufficient to enable it to bring in visiting fellows; to support freshman seminars; to fund student and faculty research initiatives; and to convene a stimulating set of conferences, workshops, and other intellectual events.

As the committee noted, the Center will need a physical home that will provide a warm and attractive space for its activities and enable the Center to develop a sense of intellectual community. I am pleased to report that work is already underway to renovate beautiful Stanhope Hall for this purpose.

When the time comes to establish a major in African American Studies, the University will have to determine whether to modify its current policy, which recognizes majors only in fields that correspond to departments. There may be reasons to sustain that policy, and, if so, we would convert the Center into a department. For the time being, however, we can defer that decision as we proceed to ensure that African American Studies has the resources it needs to flourish.



After thirty-seven years of enriching the intellectual and educational life of our campus, Princeton’s Program in African American Studies stands at a crossroads. The field itself is in a dynamic phase of its history, and we are fortunate to have at Princeton some of its leading scholars. Now we must make a choice. We can proceed boldly to become a leader in teaching and research, or we can take a cautious position on the sidelines while others forge ahead. If we choose the latter, we will not stand still, but will fall behind. We will be unable to attract or retain the brilliant scholars who are making and remaking this important field.

In my view, the choice is clear. We should pursue the course that has been unanimously and enthusiastically recommended by the distinguished faculty members who served on the committee to review the Program. African American Studies deals directly with one of the most durable and significant social problems faced by the American polity—and, indeed, insofar as it speaks to issues of racial identity and justice more generally, the world. The Program in African American Studies has consistently attracted our students. It is playing an increasingly generative and indispensable role in the social sciences and the humanities. For all of these reasons, Princeton should commit itself to leadership in the field of African American Studies. This is a choice that is obviously not without challenges. But the challenges are precisely the kind that our mission and our resources enable us, and obligate us, to take.


Appendix 1.

Membership of the President’s Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on the Future of African American Studies at Princeton

Eduardo L. Cadava, Professor of English

Eddie S. Glaude, Associate Professor of Religion & Acting Director, Program in African American Studies

Daniel T. Rodgers, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History

Michael A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy

Valerie A. Smith, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature, Professor of English & Director, Program in African American Studies

Cornel R. West, Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion

Jennifer A. Widner, Professor of Politics and International Affairs & Director, Bobst Center for Peace and Justice

Chair: K. Anthony Appiah, Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values


Appendix 2.

The Charge to the Committee

Princeton University seeks to enhance the excellence of its Program in African American Studies and to establish the Program as a national leader in its field. To ensure the success of these efforts, the University asks the Committee to develop a plan for the future of the Program. The University requests that the Committee consider, among other issues, the following:

1. What topics and methodologies should constitute the intellectual core of African American studies at Princeton? Should African American studies be regarded as a distinct discipline or as an interdisciplinary enterprise? What should be the boundaries of that enterprise – for example, should it include African as well as African American studies?

2. Which existing departments and programs are the most critical partners for a vibrant program in African American studies? How best can the University foster constructive interaction between the program and other relevant academic initiatives?

3. Should the program have faculty FTEs associated with it? If so, to what extent should it be anticipated or required that these FTEs take the form of joint appointments?

4. Should the University offer an undergraduate major in African American studies? If so, what would be the core curriculum of such a major? What are the advantages and disadvantages of offering such a major rather than (or in addition to) a certificate program?

5. Should the University offer a doctoral degree in African American studies? If so, what would be the core requirements of such a doctorate? What are the advantages and disadvantages of offering such a doctorate rather than (or in addition to) a certificate program?

6. What challenges does the University face in establishing long-term excellence in the field of African American studies? What are the most critical mechanisms that might be used to ensure the achievement of excellence?

7. Should the University consider creating a Department of African American Studies or in some other way changing the structure of the Program? What are the criteria that the University should use to make such a decision?

8. What are the critical resources that are needed to support a successful research and teaching program in African American studies?