Princeton establishes new Center for African American Studies

Building on a strong core of faculty with a history of distinguished contributions to African American studies, Princeton University is establishing a new center to serve as a model for teaching and research on race in America.

President Shirley M. Tilghman launched the Center for African American Studies in a statement announcing that historic Stanhope Hall on the University's front campus is being renovated to serve as its home.  

Princeton will enhance its curriculum -- particularly at the undergraduate level -- double the size of the faculty in African American studies, and seek funds to endow the new center with the resources necessary to ensure its success, Tilghman said. The expansion is based on recommendations from an Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on the Future of African American studies at Princeton, which was convened last fall to consider how the University could enhance the excellence of the program and establish it as a national leader in its field.

"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," Tilghman said.

"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," she said.

By establishing a center and expanded curriculum for African American studies, Princeton will be able to diffuse the study of race issues throughout its liberal arts education in a manner unique to the field.

Princeton's current Program in African American Studies has offered an interdisciplinary certificate -- similar to a minor at other institutions -- for undergraduates for 37 years, and also offers doctoral students an opportunity to work with faculty in African American studies. Central to discussions about the program's growth was whether it should become a department.

"The committee recommended that we become a center rather than a department because we felt that a center could do everything that departments do and more," said Professor of English Valerie Smith, the director of African American studies. "We wanted to be able to appoint faculty solely in AAS, as a department would be able to do, but we also imagined ourselves having a broad impact on the University curriculum and supporting new African American studies research."

Many institutions have academic departments dedicated to black studies, but philosophy professor K. Anthony Appiah, who chaired the president's advisory committee, said a center will give African American studies at Princeton a greater ability to reach students and faculty in numerous disciplines.

"I believe that if the center functions the way it should, it could have a big impact, not just on graduate and undergraduate education here, but also the shape of the field," said Appiah, the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values.

"What we're bringing together is a combination of things that departments don't usually do," Appiah said. "It's not normal for a department to have general education at the center of its mission, while the idea behind a center is of spokes radiating out to make connections with students studying art, music, history, literature, philosophy, politics, religion and other fields across the departments."

The center will have interdisciplinary reach, while enjoying the new ability to make sole faculty appointments to African American studies, rather than its current reliance on half-time faculty assigned through joint appointments from other departments.

Recruitment efforts will double the number of current, full-time-equivalent faculty positions allocated to African American studies -- from 5 to 11 -- so that with the capacity for joint and sole appointments, the center will have the potential for 11 to 22 faculty working to support more course offerings and, eventually, an opportunity for students to major in African American studies.

Also, a program for visiting research fellows will bring scholars from around the country and around the world, and additional freshman seminars will give undergraduate students an opportunity to study race issues before establishing their majors. An existing interdisciplinary graduate seminar will expand to a year-long course.

"We're building on Princeton's strengths of a core faculty that recognizes that you can't do jazz studies now without taking on board the work of African American cultural studies, and you can't study politics or public policy, or even bioethics, without work that has been done in the areas of race," Appiah said. "We believe that it's important for this field to be very much a presence in the life of most undergraduates."

The time is ripe for the evolution of Princeton's program because the field of black studies is thriving, but finding it difficult to survive in many of the country's institutions, said Eddie Glaude, a member of the advisory committee and an associate professor of religion.

To provide permanent resources for its initiative, Princeton will seek significant support from individuals and institutions that share the University's commitment to the principle that African American studies is central to a liberal arts education.

"This is a moment of profound transition," Glaude said. "As many black studies programs and departments around the country struggle to attract funding from their respective institutions, we are expanding our program to ensure the presence of African American studies in the education of Princeton students."

Public dialogue about the importance of the black experience and culture has reached a new height, and Princeton is in a position to sustain and broaden that dialogue, Glaude said.

"What excites me most is the University's firm commitment to avoid the trap of thinking of African American studies as a place where a select group of students goes to feel good about themselves, but instead to understand it as a viable field of inquiry critical to understanding the American experiment," he said.

Princeton's African American studies program has seen a recent increase in enrollment, attracting 33 certificate students last year, above its average of 20 undergraduates per year since it was founded in 1970.

However, the program has faced challenges in coordinating course offerings with departments to make it easy for students to pursue the certificate. To address these issues, the new center will appoint a director of undergraduate studies who will work with the many departments affiliated with African American studies.

The retooled curriculum will differ from broader programs of ethnic studies or studies of the African Diaspora at some other universities. The certificate program will reorganize itself around three themes: race and ethnicity; African American culture and life; and African Americans and public policy.

The president's advisory committee recommended this focus, noting 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."

"This expansion will enable us to appoint faculty in fields where African American studies scholarship has historically been underrepresented at Princeton," said program director Smith, who is also the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature. "Once we have enough faculty to staff a full complement of courses, we will be able to offer a major."

The president's committee proposed a five-year goal for building the faculty and course offerings needed to support a major at Princeton. The formation of the center will be immediate, though African American studies will not relocate to Stanhope Hall until the fall of 2007, after renovations are complete.

"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," Tilghman said. "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."

The text of the President's Statement on the Program in African American Studies is available online.

The president's Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on the Future of African American Studies at Princeton included members from various departments across the University: Smith; Appiah; Glaude; Eduardo Cadava, professor of English; Daniel Rodgers, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History; Michael Smith, professor of philosophy; Cornel West, the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion; and Jennifer Widner, professor of politics and international affairs and director of the Bobst Center for Peace and Justice.