Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 20, 2024

University criticized for lagging behind peer institutions in Africana Studies development

By YANA MULANI and HELEN LACEY | March 9, 2023



Faculty members from the Center for Africana Studies (CAS) plan to submit a proposal to the University requesting the departmentalization of Africana Studies. If accepted, the new department will have the ability to hire faculty members independently and support doctoral degrees in Africana Studies.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Africana Studies Minkah Makalani described how Africana Studies at Hopkins compares to Africana Studies at other universities.

“[Africana studies at Hopkins] is woefully behind,” he said. “In terms of the gathering of faculty at Hopkins who are tied to Africana Studies, we measure up to our peer institutions. In terms of as an institution in itself, being a center as opposed to a department, having very limited office space... we’re light years behind our peers.”

Many of the University’s peer institutions, including Georgetown, Temple, Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Brown, support Africana Studies departments. Makalani added that since the early 1990s, members of the Black Student Union have demanded a Black Studies department.

In an email to The News-Letter, Assistant Vice President for Media Relations and News J.B. Bird identified the University’s ranking as third in African-American History and seventh in African History, both at the graduate level, despite not having a Department of Africana Studies.

Founded in 2004, the Center for Africana Studies initially served as a middle ground between student demands and institutional opposition. Makalani noted that turning the Center into a department was considered shortly after its founding. 

“In the early 2000s, after the Center was established, there was talk about transforming the Center into a department, but again it never materialized,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what went into it in that period, but I think it’s just a symptom of a long-standing unwillingness to see the value and intellectual legitimacy of Black studies.”

In an interview with The News-Letter, Africana Studies major sophomore Vishal Sivaman argued that the fervor surrounding Black liberation and equality was at an all-time high in 2020 and 2021. They cited its fall in public discourse as a reason behind the lack of an Africana Studies Department today. 

“There was a greater departmental pressure [in 2020 and 2021] to consider the creation of an Africana Studies Department from the Center itself,” they said. “As the pressure backed off, the administration also felt less than sort of an incentive to allocate resources appropriately and effectively.”

Despite this history, Makalani stated that the University’s current administration has sounded a different tone, and he is hopeful that the Center will become a department.

“We have the faculty. We have the commitment from the faculty,” he said. “The students have an interest in Black studies, so our number of majors, small as they are, they’ve increased over the past year... everything is there to say this can be a viable department.”

The Center for Africana Studies was recently selected to receive new faculty hires through the Fannie Gaston-Johansson Faculty of Excellence Program. Makalani explained how hiring faculty as a center poses challenges because the best fit for the Center may not always be agreed upon by the department in which the faculty member will receive tenure. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, Professor Lester Spence also detailed some of the other challenges faced by the Center.

“Without a question, faculty budgets are a lot larger than a Center budget,“ he said. “There are all types of programmatic things that are difficult for us to pursue because we simply don’t have a budget, so all of those things affect our ability to provide students with the types of learning they need.”

Bird highlighted that with the first Roadmap on Diversity and Inclusion, the University prioritized hiring new faculty for the Center. Since 2016, eight faculty members have joined, including one Bloomberg Distinguished Professor. 

“The Krieger School has had conversations with several of these faculty members about taking on a more central role in an academic department of Africana or Black Studies,” he wrote. “However, additional faculty hiring is necessary in order to adequately staff such a department, and a doctoral program would also need to be proposed and approved.”

Spence described the arguments from the administration on why Africana Studies would not be departmentalized.

“The relative lack of undergraduate majors and the relative lack of faculty are the arguments that we [have]” he said. “[But] there are a number of departmental units that have only a small number of majors and that only have a few faculty.”

According to him, in the past academic year, the administration had suggested to faculty that the departmentalization of Africana Studies would happen in the near future. 

He highlighted a possible connection between the release of the final draft of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the Johns Hopkins Police Department (JHPD), which has received criticism for its potential to exacerbate problems of racism

“What is weird is that before [the University] went through the final element they were required to undergo for their police, [departmentalization] was on the table. Then, after that MOU was signed all of a sudden, it wasn't,” he said. 

When asked if the timing of the JHPD MOU impacted any decisions related to departmentalizing Africana Studies, Bird responded with a one-word answer.

“No,“ he wrote. 

Sivamani said that the lack of an Africana Studies department speaks to the way that the administration thinks about the utility of different departments. They pointed to the anti-neoliberal and anti-normative work performed in the center as a potential reason behind the administration’s reluctance to promote CAS to a department. 

“A lot of our work is a criticism of enlightenment ethics and the way in which academic knowledge and production in the humanities occurs,” they said. “That’s really important to consider when thinking about why a Center for Africana studies would have so little traction for a conversion to a department.”

In an email to The News-Letter, President of the Black Student Union Jayla Scott argued that the purported lack of interested students and professors is a reflection of how the CAS has been neglected.

“If CAS was given the resources and infrastructure to do more, I have no doubt more students would want to be Africana Studies majors and would take Africana Studies classes,“ they wrote.

Bird added that even after such a scale as required for a department has been achieved, the formation of a department needs to go through the appropriate shared governance processes. 

Scott suggested that, even if the University were to develop a Department of Africana Studies, the University would still need to adjust systemic issues. 

“Even if [the University] suddenly decided to make CAS an actual department, they would have so much trouble getting enough staff and faculty to run that department because Hopkins is a racist, top-heavy, poorly paying place to work at,” they wrote.

Makalani expressed hopes for the possibilities of Africana Studies at Hopkins.

“It’s well beyond time Hopkins catches up with its peers because I think where we’re located, the faculty we have and being in a city like Baltimore, we have the ability to really stand out as a national program that can be just as productive, just as vibrant and do a number of amazing things, just like our peers at any of the Ivy League schools or any of the state schools... across the country,“ he said.

Michelle Limpe contributed reporting to this article. 

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