Beloved Faculty Leave Wesleyan’s AfAm Department

from left: Professor Mahurin, Elsa Hardy '14, Professor Leah Wright. Photo courtesy of Melody Oliphant '13

from left: Professor Mahurin, Elsa Hardy ’14, Professor Leah Wright. Photo courtesy of Melody Oliphant ’13

As students flock back to Middletown, CT in late August, two professors will be missing. Professor Sarah Mahurin and Professor Leah Wright, cornerstones of the University’s African American Studies Department (and, dare I say it, Wesleyan itself), will not teach courses next fall. In the midst of all of the commotion surrounding the status of the AfAm Department—one knows something made a splash when President Roth writes not one, but two blog posts about the issue—their departure from Wesleyan deserves recognition and further scrutiny into AfAm’s history and current status.

During their time at Wesleyan, Assistant Professors Mahurin and Wright advised the majority of students in the AfAm Department, numerous Mellon Mays fellows, and students in their other departments of English and History, respectively. Beyond providing generous academic support for their students, they were both immersed in other spheres of campus life: they hosted forums on the intersection of pop culture and race; they showed up to student performances, readings, and athletic events; and they always had students coming and going from their offices in the Center for African American Studies (CAAS) building, sometimes asking for help with essays, sometimes asking for life advice. Their absence will be felt acutely across campus.

Next Fall Professor Mahurin will be the new dean of the Timothy Dwight College at Yale University. Meanwhile Professor Wright will assume a position as a Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

From the forum professors Wright and Mahurin moderated, "Rise of the Ratchet: Blackness and the Media" with pro football player Chris Baker

From the forum professors Wright and Mahurin moderated, “Rise of the Ratchet: Blackness and the Media” with pro football player Chris Baker.

To explain the gravity of this exodus, some context about the AfAm Department is necessary. African American Studies became a discipline at Wesleyan after vehement student insistence that such a department exist in 1969, after the Fisk Takeover, when the Vanguard Class occupied Fisk Hall, as a protest against the University’s refusal to cancel classes in honor of Malcolm X’s death. So one can see, the nature of student activism surrounding the department right now has a strong historical precedent. This is to say: AfAm began, and continues to exist, because students demand it.

Professor Mahurin and Professor Wright’s departures, although a great loss to Wesleyan in its own right, come at a time when the AfAm Department has unsteady footing.  Last year, Professors Mahurin and Wright made up half of the department’s faculty. Comprised of primarily English professors, the department offers many African American literature courses, but few classes in the social sciences or other humanities. Some might wonder why an interdisciplinary program such as African American Studies, which has an SBS requirement, lacks tenured (or even visiting) professors in sociology, economics, and other social sciences. Often to fulfill their departmental social science requirements, AfAm majors have to take classes that have little to do with AfAm itself.

On the topic of classes, there are currently sixteen AfAm courses listed on WesMaps for Fall 2014. One is a class on African History, which at no point in the blurb mentions America; one is taught entirely in French; one is a course about European art in Africa (again, no mention of the United States); one is a class that is taught by Professor Wright, so one can assume it will not actually take place in the fall; three are music classes that require previous experience; one is a chorus class worth half a credit. This is not to say that these courses somehow lack merit; they all hold their own intellectual worth, but it is revealing that half of the classes listed on WesMaps for the AfAm department, either do not involve the African American experience or require extraneous knowledge of music or French that students might not have. The department is more limited than it appears at first glance. Although it boasts a somewhat wide array of affiliate professors, AfAm is missing a strong pedagogical spine. How can it grow if it lacks deep roots in both the arts and the social sciences?

More tenured professors in the Department would be one step toward stability. Spencer Hattendorf ’12, a Music and AfAm Major, told me recently that he sat on a hiring committee his senior year and reviewed seven candidates for a new AfAm position, and although one person was offered a position, ultimately none were hired. It is also important to note that two professors, Ulysse and Eudell, who used to be professors in the AfAm Department, now affiliate only with their other departments (Anthropology and History, respectively) . Their departures from AfAm reflect the lack of institutional support that made it unsustainable for them to be in two departments at once. One alumna wrote a WeSpeak detailing not only her positive experience in AfAm, but also her experience watching how the department “has systematically been undermined, including not being allowed to make hires sufficient to keep the department afloat, which resulted in the already employed professors being overburdened and overworked.” A dearth of professors means fewer classes, but it also means fewer academic advisors, mentors, and thesis advisors; it means more stress on a department and faculty already stretched to its limits.

afamsquareStudents are concerned. Students are angry. Students are speaking up. A large group, using the mantra #AfAmIsWhy, marched through campus in May, protesting the lack of institutional support for the department and its dwindling faculty. The march culminated in a sit-in in North College—after being forced out of the administrative offices in South College—where students waited until they could talk with someone from the administration. This activism prompted an incendiary forum later the same day where, for few hours, students could articulate their anger and fear to President Roth and Provost Weissman, both of whom also made attempts to explain their side of the situation. All of this, by the way, happened during the throes of reading week and finals.  Since then there has been a profusion of moving WesSpeaks and testimonies to the AfAm Department. The WSA passed a resolution, penned by Christian Hosam ’15 and Sadasia McCutchen ’17, titled, “Demanding the Re-Prioritization of African American Studies at Wesleyan.” 1,210 people have signed their names in support.

When considering the 2012 “Diversity University” forum, the question of African American studies becomes even more tantamount. As Maurice Hill ’14 put it back in May: the University “should add professors to AFAM because students of color don’t have support and solidarity. [The University does] not show the students of color support on this campus.” As a department, AfAm works hard to ‘make excellence inclusive.’ It provides an academic framework for dialogues about diversity and racism both at Wesleyan and at large that go untouched otherwise. The status of the AfAm Department is not just a question of pedagogical breadth and dedication, but of a commitment to diversity.

As of early July, the AfAm Department has listed two new Assistant Professors on their websiteProfessor Jill Rowe and Professor David Swiderski—but the Academic Affairs website does not list any openings for tenure-track positions in AfAm. To be fair, the President was attentive during the forum, wrote about the issue, and promised to help facilitate change. Faculty hiring for tenured positions is a decidedly brutal process that involves a national search of over 500 candidates on average, and then whittling that pool down to a mere few. The process takes awhile and is steeped in academic bureaucracy. This is why Mahurin, who was a Visiting Professor, could not be offered a tenure-track positions by the University (but also does not explain why the University offered her a “competitive” two-year non-renewable contract after student outcry over her departure. Adjectives such as “competitive” are subjective, but generally non-renewable contracts are never described as such).

So the fight continues. Further discourse on campus will commence once students know more about what short-term action the University took over the summer to ameliorate the situation and what long-term action it has begun as well.

In the end, regardless of the politics surrounding the situation, two phenomenal professors have left Wesleyan. Although they will be missed, I am sure that, like me, most of their students merely feel lucky to have met them, talked with them, and learned from them.

  • Anon

    Look at the percentage of black students at Wesleyan who major in AfAm, and look how many major in the sciences. The problem that many see (but are afraid to say out loud), is that academe is not doing anyone a favor when such enormous percentages of black students are majoring in AfAm, instead of a major that allow them to go into the world and do something besides working in an H.R. department.

    • kgibbel

      Anon, with all due respect, I think you have completely missed the point of this entire conversation.
      A) The entire philosophy of a liberal arts education, of which AfAm is emblematic, is that students emerge with sharp critical thinking skills. This allows them to enter the professional sphere in any capacity–although, quite frankly, I also find your devaluation of H.R. departments offensive. Please refer to the WeSpeaks I have hyperlinked in this article that provide a beautiful testimony to how AfAm majors have been prepared to “go into the world and do something.”
      B) There were many students of color who study the sciences, CSS, and a plethora of other majors, present at May’s forum on the state of the AfAm Department because, as mentioned, the existence of such a department is an institutional commitment to diversity. AfAm plays a significant role pedagogically, but it also provides other support to the SOC/general Wesleyan community.
      C) Finally, what “percentages” are you looking at?

      • Anon

        The problem is, kgibbel, that you are not empirically correct. The sad reality is that many of Wesleyan’s students, and students at other top-tier schools, discover they cannot succeed at other majors. They do not “choose” to end up in AfAm, rather, they fall into it after getting bad grades in other departments.

        It’s very nice that grads have provided “beautiful testimony,” and I am happy that they felt affirmed by their time in AfAm, but the problem for many is that they ended up there after failing elsewhere.

        The existence of AfAm is not “an institutional commitment to diversity.” That diversity is, or should be, found in the departments themselves. Black students need to find themselves in the other departments are equal percentages to the other students, and they do not.

        Call on the administration to release the data on graduating students, broken down by race and department. There are very few black students in the sciences, while there are stunningly high percentages in AfAm.

        This is significant because in the other departments, one learns an approach to a subject. In AfAm, one learns a subject, but without the comprehensive and overarching methodology of a discipline.

        • Elsa Hardy

          1. I would first like to address your original post: I am an AFAM major and I have no interest in pursuing a career in H.R. (though, as kgibbel said, I don’t see why it would be a problem if I did have such an interest). I am a Fulbright Scholar and after spending a year in Brazil I plan to pursue my PhD and be an academic. AFAM is not a pre-professional major but at Wesleyan, few majors lead directly to a career. It’s a liberal arts school, after all.

          2. As an AFAM major and Phi Beta Kappa scholar who chose to attend Wesleyan because of the AFAM program, I find your claim inaccurate and wildly offensive. My AFAM classes were filled with students who had chosen to be there because we love the discipline (and yes, it is a discipline, not a subject). In fact, the majority of the students in my Junior Colloquium—the mandatory class all AFAM majors take first semester junior year—had also been in my AFAM Freshman Year Initiative, “The Long Civil Rights Movement in 20th Century America,” with Professor Wright. This suggests that we all came to Wesleyan with an interest in AfAm rather than choosing it as a last resort after failing our science classes. Furthermore, almost all of the AFAM majors in the class of 2014 double majored, in disciplines ranging from Biology to Economics to Sociology to Spanish Literature. And we were successful in those other fields.

          3. It sounds like what you actually think is that black students aren’t as smart as white students and therefore can’t succeed in most majors. That seems like a different conversation altogether.