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.
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.
Students 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 website—Professor 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.