The Little Department That Could: An Inspiring Story from Fordham

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By Mark Naison (February 10, 2017)

My department- the Department of African and African American Studies- was not supposed to last. it was created as an Institute in 1969 as a result of a student sit in at the Fordham administration building by a committee of Black graduate students and undergraduates who were given power to hire faculty and in some cases to become faculty themselves. A year after it was formed, i was hired as a full time faculty member, becoming the first white faculty member in a Black studies entity anywhere in the Northeast, if not the US. When I arrived, I surveyed the lay of the land and realized that most of the Fordham faculty shunned us and feared us. But many students, white and latino as well as black, were intrigued by what the Institute did and signed up for our courses. And the other people teaching in the Institute, all of whom were Black, none of whom had Phd’s, were all amazing teachers, dedicated activists, and in some cases excellent scholars. So i knew it was going to be a hell of a ride

The challenge was going to be to keep the faculty and administration from quarantining us and dissolving us. And that required strategies on numerous fronts. The first part of that strategy was creating and teaching courses which attracted large enrollments, which we did. The second was joining every activist organization on campus, from Black and Third world groups to SDS, to make sure that student activists knew us, trusted us, and were prepared to defend the Institute in a pinch. The third, a bit unconventional, was playing basketball with the small number of Jesuits that were favorably disposed to us so that we had some friends in the Administration And the final part of the strategy is to work hard on getting our Phd’s and publishing our work so that we could pass muster by the University’s standards for judging faculty and get some of our folks tenure.

These strategies proved successful, so much so that when the academic Vice President called for our dissolution, we demanded an investigation which resulted in the Institute being upgraded into a Department, and two of our faculty, me and Claude Mangum, getting tenure.

But our enemies didn’t give up. They kept squeezing us by denying our courses access to the Core Curriculum. For more than ten years, we hung on by a thread, surviving through sheer stubbornness. But then, in the late 80’s the tide started to turn, we regained access to the Core Curriculum, and we added a brilliant young faculty member, Rev. Dr Mark L. Chapmanwho was as charismatic as he was socially conscious. Soon, our enrollments started expanding again and by the mid 90’s we were once again a force on the Fordham campus. Consolidation with the Black Studies entity on the Lincoln Center campus only helped us as we added two amazing scholars and teachers, Irma Watkins-Owens and Fawzia Mustafa.

Fast forward to today when we are now a Department with 8 full time faculty, many of whom are world class scholars, host a nationally known community history project, and are even able to replace bright young faculty members with equally talented people when they leave for other schools.

The lesson of this story is, with ingenuity, courage, persistence and creativity, you can defend institutions that serve the need of disfranchised groups and even make them permanent.

The Department of African and African American Studies at Fordham is one great example of such an effort. Let’s create a lot more of these in the years to come.

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