Student protests over the appointment of a white woman as head of the African-American studies department have erupted into two rallies in recent weeks, with demonstrators calling for open elections in selecting a department chair.
Jayne Drake was appointed as acting chair of the department by Teresa Soufas, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, at the end of Spring 2012. Drake could not be reached for comment at time of press.
The most recent rally was held at the Bell Tower in front of a large gathering of students last week on April 10. Undergraduate and graduate students stood alongside members of the community to voice their support for the African-American studies program and resentment toward the new chair. The first rally was held March 20.
“We feel that the actions of the university, in regards to the African-American studies department, have been increasingly unacceptable. We are ignored, undervalued, and, most importantly, disrespected,” Kashara White, a junior African-American studies major, read from an open letter sent to the university.
The letter read by White further laid out a list of grievances from students, which included the timeframe for the faculty to nominate a chairperson and the decision not to appoint the nominated candidate: Dr. Kariamu Welsh, who served as the director of the Institute for African Dance Research and Performance and currently is a professor in Boyer College of Music and Dance.
While Welsh was the nominated candidate, it was Molefi Asante, a professor and former chair of the African-American studies department, who the crowd was calling to be put in place of Drake as department chair.
Soufas said that, per new bylaws drafted by the faculty of the department, two new candidates who must be from within the department will be presented to her by April 17. At that point, Soufas said, she will review and appoint one of the candidates to a permanent position.
“The discourse of the students about this particular issue is very much grounded in misinformation. There was nothing about the assignment of Jayne Drake to act as chair of the department that was arbitrary or [would replace] that faculty in that department would serve that position,” Soufas said, adding that it has never been the role of the students in CLA to have a say in who is elected to serve as department chair.
Asante was appointed department chair in 1984, and created the first African-American studies Ph.D. program in the United States in 1987. He stepped down from department chair in 1997, after being accused of plagiarism by colleague Ella Forbes. The university, under then-President Peter Liacouras, conducted an investigation on Asante but ultimately did not hand down any punishment. Asante has continued to work as a professor in the department since. Asante and Welsh were previously married.
This is not the first time the African-American studies department has been in the midst of controversy about the appointment of a chair. In 1998, a year after Asante’s departure as department head, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Asante and his followers were dismayed over his successor, Joyce A. Joyce’s, handling of the department, and professors from the department held vote to relieve Joyce of her duties.
Neither Asante nor Welsh could be reached for comment at the time of press.
Soufas said she was first informed of the departure of the former chair, Nathaniel Norment, in April 2012 due to the confidentiality of a retirement offer extended to some senior faculty members by the Provost’s Office.
She gave faculty members two weeks to nominate a candidate for the chair but declined their nomination because Welsh was from outside the department, Soufas said. Following her decline, Soufas said, the department’s faculty were unable to nominate another candidate from within the African-American studies department.
No department in CLA is allowed at any time to be without a sitting chair, Soufas said, so she appointed Drake, who at the time was the vice dean for Academic Affairs, to a one-year position as the chair.
“She has a lot of experience working with students, working with advising, she works with faculty members,” Soufas said. “So she was not an odd choice to pick, especially after all other options had been exhausted.”
Students at the rally claimed the appointment of Drake was made as a cover for diversity in CLA that they said would be better served in other institutions.
“The popular argument that we hear is that if there can be a black chair of psychology or a black chair of the sociology department, why can’t there be a white chair of the Africana studies department,” White said. “We fear that having a racially white chair of the African-American studies department will result in black people being studied as pathology.”
The rally, which was open mic format, featured several speakers from the local community who voiced their support of students using their positions and educations to bring change.
“Students [are] the next generation that is standing up not only at this university, but this country,” said Ronald Armour, a community member who spoke at the event.
Protesters also threw direct criticism at Soufas, who some called inconsiderate of the wishes of the faculty in the African-American studies department. Shouts of “Soufas must go,” were interspersed with, “We want Asante.”
Soufas said the claim that the department’s actions were racially based was, in itself, a racist claim.
In a separate open letter sent to the Provost’s Office and Soufas on Nov. 20, 2012, by Organization of African-American Graduate Students, the organization called on CLA to hire more tenure faculty in order to fill leadership roles within the department. The letter also criticized departmental cuts.
Soufas said she responded directly to the November letter with an invitation to all students to meet with her and discuss the department’s situation. She said two students took the offer and she described the conversations as “very nice.”
The African-American studies department hired two tenure-track junior faculty members to the department in 2012 after conducting a search for one new faculty position turned up two qualified candidates, Soufas said.
Soufas rejected the notion by a few students at the rally that she, along with the university, was attempting to eliminate the African-American studies department.
“Nothing could be farther from the truth. I have never even had that thought,” Soufas said. “This is the 25th year anniversary of this department, the very first that founded a Ph.D. program in African-American studies. That’s something to be celebrated and I want our whole college to celebrate that. There is no thought in anyone’s mind to eliminate this department.”
John Moritz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JCMoritzTU.