Could Gates be lured to Princeton?
The announcement Monday that the University has created a Center for African-American Studies has given new momentum to a question outstanding since 2002: Will superstar Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates finally come to Princeton?
Former University provost Amy Gutmann extended a standing job offer to Gates, who was then the chair of Harvard's African and African-American Studies department. Earlier that year, Princeton had succeeded in persuading fellow heavyweights K. Anthony Appiah and Cornel West GS '80 to leave Harvard.
But Gates remained the holdout.
West was quoted in The Daily Princetonian as saying that Gates was "leaning" toward leaving Harvard. "I think his heart is at Princeton," West said in December 2002. "But it's a question of when."
In conversations with Gates, Princeton faculty had specifically discussed the creation of an African-American studies research institute in an effort to woo him, the 'Prince' reported at the time. Such an institute was considered an important part of the effort to recruit Gates, because he has led Harvard's equivalent of Princeton's recently-announced center for 15 years.
Now, four years later, that institute is steps away from becoming a reality — and an answer to the question of whether Gates will defect or not could be around the corner.
"Professor West and I were in the same department [as Gates] for some time and the combination of the three of us is a good combination," Appiah said in an interview yesterday. "But," Appiah added, "I don't think [Gates] has plans yet, and I think I would know since he's my best friend."
West did not respond to interview requests and Gates, who is traveling in Paris and has refrained from commenting on the question of his coming to Princeton, was unavailable for comment, according to his assistant.
Appiah added that the faculty committee that urged the University to create the center "thought it was a good idea not because it would attract [Gates] but because it would be the right thing for the University and the field."
History professor Dan Rodgers, also a member of the faculty committee, said the possibility that Gates might reconsider coming to Princeton didn't factor into the decision to establish the center. "His name never entered into our discussion," Rodgers said.
Appiah said the center would encompass young scholars as well as seasoned academics, a point which President Tilghman noted earlier this week. "African-American Studies is an intensely competitive field, and as we build a successful program, our faculty will inevitably attract attention from other universities," she said in a statement.
"For all of these reasons, my charge to the committee asked its members to devote special attention to the need to attract and retain outstanding professors in the field of African-American Studies."
Gates, a scholar of African-American culture and literature, was considered the third member of the trifecta — with Appiah and West — that made Harvard's African and African-American Studies department the nation's best.
From 1991 until this year, Gates was chair of the department and he remains the director of Harvard's W.E.B DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research.
Gates was also the professor who recruited West away from Princeton before his eventual return to the University after his falling out with former Harvard president Lawrence Summers.
"The department has been through difficult times at Harvard, and he didn't want to disturb it further," Appiah said in 2002 of Gates' reasons for not wanting to leave Harvard immediately after his and West's departure. "From a personal point of view, that's sad."
But, Appiah added at the time, "I'm sure we'll keep trying to persuade him to come ... I'm sure we'll succeed."
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