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African-American studies

Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the Program in African-American Studies has made tremendous progress since its fragile beginnings in 1969. But following Yale's recent decision to transform its AAS program into a department, and the departure of several well-known Princeton professors in the field — most notably Cornel West and Arnold Rampersad — program chair Nell Painter has questions whether African-American studies is hindered by not being a department. Granting AAS departmental status would not necessarily solve deeper problems associated with African-American studies at Princeton — such as the relative dearth of student interest compared with other certificate programs. But it could facilitate faculty hiring and strengthen the academic environment of the current AAS program.

The University has been in the midst of an intensive faculty recruitment process for African-American studies specialists. But despite these efforts, only a few recruits decided to become professors at Princeton. The AAS program is at the mercy of administrators in the other departments — such as history or English — that make up African-American studies. In making hiring decisions, these administrators prioritize faculty candidates' work in that department above any contributions to African-American studies. Because it relies on visiting professors, the AAS program remains constantly in flux. Departmental status would provide a more stable core of full-time faculty members who could fill in existing gaps in course offerings.


An AAS department would likely attract more faculty recruits and would allow African-American studies administrators to control their own hiring. On the other hand, some candidates for faculty positions view themselves as scholars of religion or sociology, for example, and might be reluctant to accept a post solely in an AAS department.

Though an AAS department would certainly yield institutional stability, it is unclear if it would immediately attract increased student interest. Awarding between 15 and 20 certificates a year, the AAS program lags behind Latin American studies and American studies — which offer approximately 45 and 30 certificates a year, respectively. Neither Latin American studies nor American studies have pursued departmental status or experienced difficulty with faculty appointments. While students within AAS want departmental status, it remains uncertain if such a shift would attract more black applicants to the University or even heighten the popularity of AAS among current undergraduates.

With 52 undergraduate concentrators and numerous pioneers in the field on staff, Harvard's famed Afro-American studies department remains the standard for all other aspiring programs nationwide. But applying Harvard's magic formula of departmental status and a world-renowned faculty to Princeton might not immediately correct the weaknesses of the current program.

We applaud the University for its recent attention to recruiting faculty in the field of African-American studies. Should the University grant the African-American studies program departmental status, it will be only one of several steps necessary to reinvigorate African-American studies at Princeton.