Posted on April 19, 2005

Past Their Prime?

Robin Wilson, Chronicle of Higher Education, Apr. 22

The “on air” sign lights up in the recording studio here at the University of Minnesota, and Quintin Brown begins to read from a script in a strong voice, carefully articulating every word. Two professors listen closely, offering pointers from the studio’s cramped control room as Mr. Brown — an African-American high-school student — narrates a multimedia presentation aimed at attracting undergraduates to the university’s black-studies department.

By the fifth line of the presentation, Mr. Brown gets to the crucial question: What exactly can you do with a major in African-American studies? He lists several real-life examples of students who majored in black studies and went on to hold jobs in government, academe, the arts, and other fields.

But black students on this campus do not seem very interested in the message. Most of the dozen or so students gathered in the Black Student Union at lunchtime one recent day have eschewed black studies for more practical subjects like architecture, chemical engineering, law, and marketing.

Alton Robinson, a freshman who stops by the Black Student Union to watch TV and hang out between classes, feels an affinity for black studies. “Since I’m African-American, I should want to study it,” he says. But major in it?

“I don’t think society would take that seriously,” he says. “They wouldn’t be impressed.”

Minnesota’s black-studies program, founded in 1969, is one of the oldest in the country. But it is facing an identity crisis, and it is not alone. Black-studies programs at many public universities are having trouble attracting students and are suffering from budget cuts that have whittled down their faculty ranks. Meanwhile, classes with African-American perspectives are cropping up in departments like history, women’s studies, and English, diluting the need, some say, for separate black-studies departments.


Some black professors outside the discipline, however, question whether it is worth the effort, and whether black-studies programs have simply grown obsolete. Established in part as a symbolic gesture of academe’s commitment to diversity, the programs may have run their course, as multiculturalism and diversity have become concerns throughout higher education. “These programs may have been a victim of their own success,” says Carol M. Swain, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University. “Other departments now see the need to teach these courses, and we need to assess whether the need today for black-studies programs just isn’t as great.”

Shelby Steele, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, takes an even more critical view. To his mind, universities never had a legitimate reason for establishing black-studies programs.

“It was a bogus concept from the beginning because it was an idea grounded in politics, not in a particular methodology,” he says. “These programs are dying of their own inertia because they’ve had 30 or 40 years to show us a serious academic program, and they’ve failed.”


Clearly, not all black-studies programs are in trouble. Those at elite private universities — like Cornell, Duke, Harvard and Princeton Universities — are thriving. They are attracting students and hiring new professors because they have plenty of resources and are home to star professors like K. Anthony Appiah and Cornel West.

“Fortunately, I don’t live in that kind of environment,” Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the department at Harvard, says of the problems plaguing black-studies programs at public institutions. But while Harvard’s department may be healthy — it has lost some high-profile professors lately but is planning to hire several new ones this year — Mr. Gates says it is important that black-studies programs flourish elsewhere.


At the same time, African-American studies has seen other academic departments at Minnesota encroach on its territory. “Everybody is poaching,” says Ms. Atkins. “Women’s studies is teaching African-American women’s literature. History taught a survey of African history. Where does that leave us?”

Steven J. Rosenstone, dean of the college, says the spread of courses with an African-American perspective is just natural. “To have scholars in American studies, in women’s studies, who are concerned about race is a very good thing,” he says. But that doesn’t mean, he adds, that the black-studies program at Minnesota is endangered. “We don’t use spreadsheets to make decisions about academic investments.”