The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 13, 2002
May 13, 2002
VOL. 31, NO. 34


Task Force Charts Course for African, African-American Studies

By Glenn Small
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

A task force of professors and students has begun working to build a mission statement and intellectual agenda for a new African and African-American Studies Center at Johns Hopkins.

The task force--eight professors and five students--was appointed by Dan Weiss, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences faculty, to explore the best way to address the desire of faculty and students to engage in African and African-American studies.

"We have been thinking for the last several years about how to attend to the desire of students and faculty to focus on African and African-American studies," said Weiss, who will become Krieger dean on July 1. "We have built a faculty that is, believe it or not, one of the strongest faculty in this field in the country." Weiss noted that at least 21 current faculty members have their primary research focus in these two fields.

"We're talking about a very substantial commitment," he said. "But we have not really figured out the best structure in which to advance the program."

Earlier this semester, members of JHUnity, a student group that wrote a proposal for an African and African-American studies department--and collected more than 1,700 signatures in support of such a program--met with Weiss and made their case.

While not agreeing to creating a department, Weiss said he was very impressed and agreed that something needed to be done. A few weeks later, Weiss created the task force and said he is fully supportive of creating a center for African and African-American studies.

"The proposal represented a great deal of thought and commitment on their part, but also what was so moving to me about that document was that it represented a significant level of interest on the part of students in studying these fields," Weiss said.

Chaired by Sara Berry, professor of history, the task force has met three times this semester and has drafted a mission statement and begun work on the intellectual agenda. Berry said the task force is discussing how best to build on Hopkins' existing resources and also what additional resources may be needed.

"People are eager to see this move forward," she said. "There's a lot to talk about it. I think everybody wants to put in the time to think things through, to come up with something solid that the Hopkins community will be proud of."

Morgan MacDonald, a freshman political science major and member of JHUnity, is on the task force and said he's pleased that the process of creating an African and African-American studies center is including student input.

"We really wanted to be involved in the process," said MacDonald, who added that JHUnity began working on the proposal for a department last fall, culminating in the meeting with the dean.

"It was very good in that we showed Dean Weiss that there was a lot of support for this effort," MacDonald said. "It is something that's long overdue." He said the students hope the university will hire a new faculty member to head the center, to provide leadership and direction.

Siba Grovogui, an associate professor of political science and a member of the task force, noted that when many African or African-American studies departments were set up in universities more than 30 years ago, some were seen as dumping grounds for students and professors of color.

"They were seen, wrongly, as programs that were there to serve students of color. And that was one of the dangers," he said. "We're trying to avoid that because, if anything, it's not simply for students of color; it's actually for the student body at large because we all need to know everybody here, need to know a bit about our world."

Berry said the center will not only build on existing Hopkins resources, and take a multidisciplinary approach, but will also seek to take advantage of the resources of Baltimore. "I think the first priority will be undergraduate instruction and research," she noted.

"We haven't decided what the center is going to be, but it's absolutely going to combine African and African-American studies," Grovogui said. "And the idea obviously is to meet student demands at Hopkins for courses [in these fields] and to have them organized in a way that meets their needs as students but to do it in a way that also fits with Hopkins and Hopkins' intellectual tradition, which is basically multidisciplinary."

Paul Kramer, an assistant professor of history who has taught courses in African-American studies, said he has been following the work of the task force with interest.

"My own sense," he said, "is that Hopkins would benefit tremendously from such a program. It would draw attention and emphasis to strengths that Hopkins already has. I also think it would organize an ongoing intellectual discussion about these fields at Hopkins, cutting across the disciplinary framework."

Berry, the task force chair, said the group will present its recommendations to Weiss in the fall and the center could be operating by next spring.

"My hope for the task force," Weiss said, "is that it will be able to mobilize the faculty around a vision for a center that is synergistic [and] that brings out the strengths of the individual faculty and departments in a way that creates a center of real intellectual vitality."

In addition to Berry, Grovogui and MacDonald, members of the task force are Jane Dailey, associate professor of history; Pier Larson, assistant professor of history; Philip Morgan, professor of history; Frances Ferguson, chair of the English Department; Katrina Bell McDonald, associate professor of sociology; Donald Carter, assistant professor of anthropology; Chris Powers, a graduate student in the Humanities Center; and undergraduate students Wunmi Aibana, Makeda Robinson and Jason Schneiderman.