Routine chat that ignited a national spat

February 15, 2002

A race row has erupted in the US after a run-in between colleagues at Harvard. Stephen Phillips reports

Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, hit a raw nerve when he met the Ivy League institution's Afro-American studies professor Cornell West in October.

Summers reportedly expressed concern that West's extracurricular activities - recording a rap CD entitled "Sketches of My Culture" and campaigning for civil rights activist the Revd Al Sharpton's 2004 presidential candidacy - might be distracting him from scholarship.

Bill Clinton's former secretary of the Treasury is also said to have taken West to task for presiding over grade inflation in an introductory black-studies course.

Summers insisted it was a routine meeting between colleagues. West, an acclaimed authority on race and ethnicity, viewed things differently. He took Summer's comments as a rebuke and said he had been "dishonoured".

To a person, West's fellow Afro-American studies faculty members rallied behind their colleague, adding that they had felt slighted by Summers'

failure to pay the department a visit when he joined Harvard in June.

The spat quickly escalated. The Revd Jesse Jackson staged a press conference calling Harvard's uncertainty about affirmative action "disturbing". Sharpton weighed in, demanding a personal apology and threatening to sue Harvard for damaging his potential presidential bid.

Summers expressed public regret at causing offence and apologised to West at a summit meeting last month, from which, he said, the two parted on amicable terms.

But the reverberations continue.

Harvard's pre-eminent Afro-American studies department, featuring a star-studded line-up of the field's most influential scholars and a $40 million (£28 million) endowment, threatens to crumble. Faculty chairman Henry Louis Gates, winner of the 1998 National Humanities Medal, is mulling over a move to rival Princeton and friends confide that West, who is on leave recovering from prostate cancer, is unlikely to return to the Harvard campus. He, too, has threatened to defect to Princeton.

Both have questioned whether Summers is wholly supportive of affirmative action - a commitment to take race and ethnicity into account when selecting students and faculty - although he says he is. He has also stated that Harvard will strive to retain Afro-American studies faculty.

Nevertheless, Harvard veteran Kwame Anthony Appiah quit last month to join Princeton's African-American studies programme. Appiah denied the move was linked to the rift with Summers, but in a statement issued by Princeton he said the New Jersey institution was a better venue for his studies.

Meanwhile, beyond the academy, conservative commentators have sparred with liberals in newspaper articles and editorial columns. In the Wall Street Journal last month, rightwing Hoover Institute research fellow Shelby Steele, an African American, condemned a culture of victimhood in Afro-American studies programmes and accused West of playing the white guilt card to dodge valid criticism.

The dispute's wider significance reflects Afro-American studies' politically charged history, says Gerald Early, professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University at St Louis.

"Black studies programmes are inextricably tied to affirmative action," Early says. "At most predominantly white institutions, they are important not only to (enrol) black students but as a mechanism to hire black faculty."

The Harvard incident raises the spectre of a backlash against affirmative action, he adds. "There's always been tension in the academy about affirmative action - the academy is driven by merit so affirmative action, inasmuch as it rewards things other than merit, causes conflict."

Against this backdrop, the Harvard faculty's reaction was not out of line, Early says.

However, Randall Kennedy, Harvard professor of law and the black author of Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word , denies there are wider issues at stake.

"There is a distinction between Afro-American studies and affirmative action," Kennedy says. The merits of either side's case, he adds, rest solely on the validity of Summers's claims.

"There is nothing wrong with the president of a university criticising the work of scholars - that is what intellectual life is all about," Kennedy says.

As for West's political engagement, that is fair game, he says, when it is undertaken in an official university capacity.

Kennedy, whose book drew brickbats from many black studies academics who charged him with exploiting the sensational value of an offensive word, says many in the field are "animated by the ethos that should inspire academics, intellectuals and artists", while others have "defensive, group-therapy" motives.

Michael Dawson, director of the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, takes issue with the notion of black scholars peddling victimhood. "A lot of what I teach is about political empowerment and agency - I don't give this argument much intellectual credence," says Dawson, who will become professor of government and Afro-American studies at Harvard in July in a move to shore up the faculty there.

He also questions the singling out of Afro-American studies for the accusation of grade inflation. "My experience is that, at a number of top US universities, the grading average (of black studies courses) is stricter than in allied social science departments."

Moreover, for Dawson and Early, the Harvard incident crystallises the credibility battle black studies departments still face.

The field is in rude health judging by prolific research publications and by the Afro-American studies professors who have headed leading US learned societies, they acknowledge. But dig deeper and it is still seen as a poor relation by many.

"Most people will say they are struggling - most (universities) are not committed to black studies like they are to history, philosophy and biology," Early says.

Question marks over the field's legitimacy stem from its heritage as the outcome of 1960s black student sit-ins demanding separate recognition of their history and culture in curricula, says Lucius Barker, professor emeritus of political science at Stanford University.

The fact that they were founded relatively recently means that they lack the resources of established departments, adds Barker, a black academic who served as president of the American Political Science Association in 1993.

He believes that "if the reported exchange" between West and Summers took place, West has grounds for grievance.

"I can understand how the individual professor might consider it lack of respect," he says.

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