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An Impending Death for Anthropology at Howard University

Editors Note: This blog post was written by Flordeliz T. Bugarin, Eleanor King, Mark Mack and Arvilla Payne-Jackson of Howard University. It is an expanded version of their article appearing in the November 2010 Anthropology News (51:8[28]).

On September 23, 2010, the President of Howard University, Dr. Sidney A. Ribeau announced his recommendations for academic renewal.  In regards to the Anthropology Program in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, he stated in an email sent to all departments:

Close the Major, and include in an Interdisciplinary Program or a Specialization within the Sociology Major.  Significant additional resources are needed for faculty, library materials, artifact collections, software, and lab and field equipment to achieve excellence.  The number of majors is too small to be a separate, stand-alone major.

Along with other programs throughout the university (including the B.A. in African Studies), anthropology is on a list that identifies degree programs recommended for closure, consolidation or restructuring.  While he is recommending to the Board of Trustees a vetting period or extended period of review for the respective schools and colleges, he states that, “In all but a handful of cases my default assumption is that the named program will be closed.”  He has asked for future recommendations by December 1, 2010.   After this, he will make the final decisions, and a program closure or consolidation protocol will be announced to the faculty.

This announcement is largely a result of the work done over the past year by the Presidential Commission on Academic Renewal (PCAR).  The PCAR initiative developed as a result of a two-year (2007-09) in-house review for reaffirmation of accreditation by the Middle States Commission for Higher Education (MSCHE).  Although MSCHE reaffirmed the accreditation of Howard University without condition, they encouraged our institution to complete the academic renewal process.

The President acknowledged this recommendation and responded by emphasizing the need to improve the quality of Howard’s degree programs.  To advance the competitive standing of Howard University, the PCAR commission set forth to gather data from both new and already established sources regarding programs and departments.  The committee reviewed over 170 degree programs, visited each department, and produced recommendations for academic renewal based on perceived strengths and weaknesses.  Categories were evaluated based on a scale: exceptional, strong, adequate, fair, and weak.

In comparison to other programs, the overall final rankings of the Anthropology Program seemed strong enough to merit continuation of the program.  There was only one category, “enrollment,” that was defined as “weak”.  Rankings for the other categories were as follows: (1) Overall evaluation = adequate; (2) Academic centrality = strong; (3) Academic Quality = adequate and strong; (4) Research = strong; (5) Sustainability = adequate; and (6) Tie to Mission and Vision = strong.

Apart from reaffirming the need for more resources and majors as stated in the quote above, no other explanations for why the program received these rankings were provided to the department.  We can only surmise their meaning based on the definitions provided for each category.  Sustainability refers to the ability of the program to access resources, obtain external funds, and cost effectiveness.  It seems closely related to the category of research, since research also entails the ability to fundraise for projects.  Given a positive ranking for research seems to suggest that we should have received a similar review for sustainability.  Despite our small faculty of four, we bring in more research funds on a regular basis than some of the other unaffected programs and departments.

Academic quality refers to student success rates and seems closely tied to enrollment.  Despite low numbers in majors, we have a significant percentage of our students who attend graduate school, obtain fellowships (such as Fulbrights), and find jobs immediately after graduation.  In addition, many of our students have double majors and are only recognized by the major that they list first in their administrative records.  Unfortunately, the increase in majors recorded this year is not considered in the PCAR evaluations.  Overall, the potential closing of the program seems to rely on numbers of majors during the time of evaluation and need for more resources.

The backdrop to this situation revolves around a few issues.  First, the anthropology faculty includes four full-time members and one recent adjunct member.  Over the past ten years, the size of the faculty has dwindled to about a third of its original size.  Many of the previously available lines have been closed or filled by non-anthropology faculty.

Second, in order to increase majors, we have made many attempts to add new courses to the department and change the curriculum.  We have completed our own assessment of the program, formed focus groups with students, and have modeled a new program based on student suggestions for new classes and recommendations for current courses.  The new curriculum involves a two-year class rotation that allows us to fulfill our general education responsibilities while offering new classes on current issues to our majors.  Despite these proposals and new class submissions over the last 5+ years, we have been unable to obtain approval to implement the changes.  Most of our time is spent on teaching many sections of the same class that service a wide variety of other majors from different departments.  Old classes taught by faculty members long gone remain on our books despite our efforts to update the program.  Even individual class proposals have been passed-over or stalled in the pipeline.  This situation strangles all efforts to grow the department and service our own majors.

Third, the PCAR evaluation seems to overlook the potential of a program to address areas of weaknesses and the importance of a multidisciplinary department to distribute resources equitably.  Despite highlighting the need for more infrastructure and support (i.e., more hires, lab and field equipment, software, and library materials) through our own self-reflexive analysis, the anthropology faculty has also demonstrated a well-established record of winning grants to address these same needs over time.  In addition to developing creative programming, we have encouraged our colleagues to support the need for more anthropology faculty through recommendations.  These initiatives seem to have been overlooked in the PCAR process.

Undoubtedly, these challenges (lack of infrastructure and new hires) are issues that concern a number of anthropologists in their own departments throughout the United States.  For the Anthropology Program at Howard University, the situation is particularly dire for a number of reasons.  The consequences of a closure will not only negatively impact students and faculty at our institution, but it will also have a bearing on the discipline of anthropology overall, the African American community, and other peoples of African descent.  This decision will affect our abilities as a discipline to recruit minority students and give students of African descent exposure to current anthropological research.  The outcome will also impact current projects involving collaborative efforts between faculty, local communities or descendants, people from developing countries, marginalized communities, and under served populations.  Nine projects involving national and international communities of these kinds, two more pending projects, and prominent lab collections will be affected by the President’s decision.  They include:

  1. New York African Burial Ground Project
  2. Buffalo Soldiers Archaeological Project(s)
  3. The James Island, Gambian Slave-Trading Site Project
  4. The Xhosa Cradle of Resistance South African Project
  5. Nicodemus, Kansas, Birth of an African American Town Archaeology Project
  6. Mayan Maax Na Archaeology Program
  7. Walter C. Pierce Park African American Burial Ground Project
  8. African American Youth, Gun, and Domestic Violence, Service Learning Project(s)
  9. Project on Linguistic Analysis in South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya
  10. W. Montague Cobb Human Skeletal Collection

Without a program at Howard U., anthropology stands to be further distanced from the African American population.  Of 105 HBCUs nationally, only 36% offer anthropology courses.  Out of these, the vast majority (87%) has only a few classes, and most of the offerings primarily service sociology programs, with no degree option.  Two colleges (Coppin State College and Morgan State University) offer minors in anthropology.  Three institutions offer a major:  Lincoln, Spelman, and Howard Universities.  Lincoln and Spelman only bestow degrees in cultural anthropology.  Howard’s program is unique among HBCUs in requiring students to take classes in all five sub-fields, including applied anthropology.  It has launched a number of professionals in all these fields and is singularly well positioned to make further contributions to the discipline because of the nature of the University itself.

Howard has a wide-diversity of black students from all over the world.    Approximately 11,000 students enroll at the university on an annual basis.  Out of that student body, about 9% come from Washington, D.C.; 75% come from states throughout the United States; 11% are international students that represent 91 countries and U.S. possessions; and 5% are international students who are permanent U.S. residents (http://www.howard.edu/facts/facts.pdf, accessed October 1, 2010).  In addition there is a huge variation in socioeconomic background that adds to that diversity.  In any given year, the University witnesses a gamut of students graduating, from the homeless to the children of millionaires. It is the perfect place to recruit and train minority students; and it is the ideal place to encourage black students to give back to under-served black and other populations around the world.  Regardless of major, our program offers Howard students the ability to be more culturally aware in a global community, develop explanations about cultural similarities and differences, and create better solutions to the world’s most challenging problems.

Perhaps the state of anthropology at Howard University is a microcosm of the status of the discipline overall.  Until recently the American Anthropological Association (AAA), in keeping with its stance on race, has not kept track of minority members.  However, sections and interest groups can give some idea of the overall numbers. As of 2008 all sections and interest groups with significant numbers of minority members made up less than 16% of the 11,000 registered members (King 2008).  The actual number was and is still undoubtedly much lower as many of the groups have a significant number of majority members as well.  The Association of Black Anthropologists, for example, had 329 members in 2008, or 3% of the total, but a number of them were of other ethnicities (King 2008).

What accounts for the lack of diversity within our profession, especially given the fact that our disciplines’ forefathers and mothers advocated for social equality and founded our discipline on studies that embrace cultural differences on a global scale?  While there are many answers to this question, the collective response from the anthropological community to the situation at Howard U. will be a telling tale.

The answers not only lie with how we go about encouraging minority students to join the ranks of professional anthropologists, but also how anthropology is perceived by other scholars and a wider non-academic community.  A few misconceptions regarding anthropology as a discipline may be influencing our future directions.  Within President Ribeau’s quote itself lays a belief shared by some of our colleagues at Howard U. – the idea that anthropology is essentially the same or an area of specialty within sociology and the notion that anthropological contributions are not unique enough to warrant a stand-alone program.  The implication is that anthropology is merely a handmaiden to a wider umbrella of social sciences, and that it can be carved into bits that are better placed in other disciplines.

Louis Eugene King was one of the first anthropologists to study African American communities in the United States and emphasize the significance of cultural vindication.  He was an undergraduate student at Howard University and later a graduate student under Franz Boas and Ernest E. Just at Columbia University.  When Louis Eugene King expressed the desire to return to Howard U. to teach, Franz Boas wrote him a letter of recommendation.  In it, he wrote:

It seems to my mind that the opportunity for applying his knowledge is not unfavorable. I understand there is a good opportunity that he may be appointed at Howard University but I imagine that other Negro Universities will hardly be able to get along very long without some work in this line (In Harrison, African-American Pioneers in Anthropology 1999:73).

Many years later, Howard University is the only HBCU with a full, five-field anthropology program, and yet the recommendation is to close the major and incorporate what is left into other areas of the university.  We have gone from Boas’ shear confidence that there would be a place for anthropology at the HBCUs, that these universities could “hardly be able to get along”, to a situation where there is no place at HBCUs for anthropology.

The administration seems to be saying that other programs can better meet the vision for Howard University, the vision being that:

Howard is unique with a special mission in higher education that addresses the national and international educational needs of our nation, the African-American community and under-served populations. Since its founding 143 years ago, Howard University has played a unique role in the definition and building of our nation, especially as it relates to the democratization of the public space, human rights, and enhanced concepts of humanity, pluralism and diversity in higher education. At each stage of the development of our nation and the African-American community since the Civil War, Howard renewed and restructured itself to address, at the highest level of excellence and quality, the changing needs of our nation and African American and underrepresented communities.

President Ribeau would like to enhance the University’s status in research, teaching, and service.  His goal is to expand the “University’s international footprint and role in world affairs; providing an environment of open discourse where great questions can be posed and solutions found (Think Tank for the Nation); and expanding the University’s public service role through engagement with local, national, and international communities.”

This vision seems to echo the mission of many anthropologists.  How does an institution mirror the goals of anthropology without an active and vibrant anthropology program or department?  A collective voice from the anthropological community may help stave off the impending death of anthropology at an HBCU.

King, Eleanor M. 2008  Buffalo Soldiers, Apaches, and Cultural Heritage Education.  Heritage Management 1:2:219-242.

One Response

  1. […] According to an article in Inside Higher Ed, the only stand-alone philosophy program among the nation’s historically black colleges may be merged with classics and religion if sweeping changes put forward by the current administration are approved. Recently, AAA President Virginia Dominguez wrote a letter to Howard University President Sidney Ribeau, asking him to protect the colleges’ anthropology program, which is also being threatened. […]

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