Thursday, June 15, 2006

Students' Letter - Closure of Institute of African Studies

AN OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT LEE BOLLINGER COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

June 8th, 2006

Dear President Bollinger,
RE: STUDENTS’ DISAPPOINTMENT AT THE CLOSURE OF THE INSTITUTE OF AFRICAN STUDIES

Through a letter from Dean Lisa Anderson (Dean of SIPA) dated Friday June 2nd, 2006 we are aware that a decision was reached to temporarily suspend the operations of the Institute of African Studies (IAS) at Columbia University. We were informed that operations at the IAS was suspended primarily because a ‘search committee’ was unable to find a faculty member to take up the position of director. On behalf of students interested in Africa and African Studies at Columbia, we would like to express our deep disappointment at this tragic decision. The decision forces us to question the commitment of Columbia University to African Studies. By allowing African Studies to wither away without support for the IAS, Columbia University sadly joins the rest of the world in the continued marginalization of Africa. The death of one of the oldest and most prestigious Institute of African Studies in the world is due to a lack of political will and commitment to African Studies by the University administration. We call on you, President Bollinger, to prove to the student and academic community, and the larger world, that Columbia is different, and to lead the charge against the marginalization of Africa.
We commend Dean Anderson for her effort in creating the African Studies Program at SIPA in an attempt to alleviate this problem, and even going further to take leadership of this new program at such a difficult time. Nevertheless, there remains a crisis. Due to the dismantling of the IAS, all Columbia students will lack classes, programming, and access to funding that was previously made available through the Institute. This is an unacceptable state of affairs for African Studies. It also demonstrates a lack of recognition on Columbia University’s behalf of the support needed to sustain and further the commendable works of Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Dr. Mahmood Mamdani, and others who have helped to increase global awareness of the difficulties and opportunities in African development.
Below are the key reasons why students are aggravated by the current situation and feel that this decision is disrespectful and deceitful: We ask you to consider the multitude of students who enrolled in Columbia University hoping to pursue African Studies, and those who will no longer have the opportunity to discover African studies for the first time.
• Continuing lack of commitment to Africa: Over the last five years, the Institute has failed to operate at its maximum capacity, when compared to other regional institutes on the campus, due to a number of problems: a lack of a permanent director, high turnover of interim directors and weak administrative and financial support which meant that it was unable to serve students on a full-time basis. Several campaigns by Africanist faculty and multiple generations of students to resolve the Institute’s problems have fallen on deaf ears. This recent announcement only confirms the low priority Columbia lends to Africa.
• Lack of transparency and candor in the search of a director for the IAS: On April 26th, 2006, a number of students, faculty, and staff gathered for a student-led town hall meeting on Africa to discuss the dying state of the IAS. Vice President Nicolas Dirks indicated at this meeting that a search for a director of the IAS was underway and that the Administration was hopeful of having a director by January. Students were also informed that the Dean of SIPA had been assigned to appoint an associate interim director who would run the day-to-day operations of the Institute until a new director arrived. Students questioned the process of the search and demanded inclusion in and transparency of the procedures, yet these concerns were buffeted by claims that the situation was under control. This left the impression on students that we should be hopeful that the IAS would be functioning in a better state in the coming academic year. • Loss of vital support system: Due to the disbanding of the IAS, students interested in African Studies, and especially African students, have lost a vital support system and access to resources enjoyed from the Institute. Furthermore, funding for such students, already a challenge, now becomes an even graver issue.
• Timing: President Bollinger, the timing of this announcement even further aggravates the situation since the University is well aware that students are away on summer vacation and therefore cannot react to such negativity. We are sure you would agree students joining Columbia for the 2006/07 year in the hope of pursuing African Studies are entitled to feel deceived by the Administration given the timing of this announcement. While we stand ready to understand the cyclical nature of University decisions, we wonder whether the plenitude of students we ourselves greeted at an accepted students reception in April would have still chosen Columbia if they had known the truth about the University’s lack of commitment to African Studies, as demonstrated by closure of the Institute.
It is impossible to devote serious study of international development and the needs of globalization, as your own recent initiatives show, in such a prestigious institution like Columbia University, without attention being given to the African continent. We believe Columbia University is heading in an unfortunate direction with the closure of the IAS, and as President of the University we would like to share with you the fact that students are very disappointed in this institution and its mandate to produce future world leaders.
It is our hope that the school’s administration will take the concerns of students seriously and immediately provide a timeline for the reopening of the IAS and a firm demonstrable commitment to create an Institute that is befitting to the reputation of Columbia University. We call on you, President Bollinger, to lead the efforts to remove this stain from the reputation of Columbia University.

Sincerely,
The Executive Board of the SIPA Pan African Network (SPAN)On Behalf of Concerned Students

8 Comments:

At 1:13 PM, Blogger Donna Tonini said...

Hi Everyone,
Greetings from the Summer Cooperative Afican Languages Institute at Indiana University. As promised, I have been sharing our grim news with many folks here, who are incredulous that such a "premier" institution could close its Institute for African Studies. I spoke with Dr. James Pritchett, who is director at the African Studies Center at Boston University. He informed me that the African Studies Association was planning on holding its 50th anniversary meeting in NYC in 2007 and was seriously concerned about the IAS' closure as the ASA was hoping for a huge celebration. He is quite distressed about this news and plans to discuss it with his colleagues at the ASA. He told me that we need some key faculty to step up to the plate to fight this closure - he did not feel that students alone would have this kind of power. I asked him to help us think creatively about potential solutions to this problem, and he gave me his card. Let me know if there is anything else I can do from this end. Must sign off now as we just got a tornado-storm warning - a clear sign that I am no longer in NY!
Take care, Donna

 
At 10:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello My name is Lisa E Ross and I am a student at UCLA for the summer session. I am requesting a reconsideration for the African Studies program at columbia. It took a long time to even allow schools to study in this academic program and taking it away is like closing the door in the faces of a lot of people who could make a difference in a society to many who have no knowledge concerning the african traditions and also african history. Please reconcider.

 
At 7:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a teacher of African Spirituality it saddens us once more to hear of such a promient institute closing it's ears to the needs of many students who are in search of what Mother Africa has to offer. If we don't start now we will only loose more of the valuable wisdoms from the many ancient peoples of the oldest place where humankind came from. I plead with those in "power" to listen to the needs of the students and rethink your decisions before loosing a group of knowledge seekers to another place of learning. In the end it will be your lose not that of the students for they will find what they seek, somewhere???

 
At 9:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is absurd that a prestigious institution cannot support such a valuable institute. Surely, you can't fail to find someone to lead unless the search was half-hearted in the first place if it wasn't transparent. Either the salary was too low or the working conditions were set to be impossible. This goes to show not only the lack of understanding of the importance of the African continent (which you may regret later) but the sheer disregard and marginalization of African Studies. Although I am not affiliated to Columbia University, I respected it as one of the premier institutions in promoting learning in all its forms. It saddens me that the administration is so myopic and sends the wrong (maybe their right)signal to the world. What a pity!

 
At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Kim said...

As an Columbia alumni (GSAS '02, African American Studies), I am very disappointed with Columbia's decision. I was wondering what has been don to mobilize alumni. Has anyone organized a letter to the alumni magazine to notify alumni who might otherwise not know? Admittedly, I haven't paid much attention to happenings at Columbia or the alumni info. I probably would not have heard if I wasn't still subscribed the Columbia African Studies listserv and the Race and Politics listserv. But since most alumni are not subscribed to these listservs and are not professors/graduate student in Africa Studies/Political Science/Sociology, they are not likely not aware of the problem.

 
At 4:12 PM, Anonymous Kim said...

One correction to my post and one piece of additional information. The email for letters to the editor to the alumni magazine is magazine@columbia.edu.

There is a typo in my alumni info is (GSAS '04, African American Studies).

 
At 12:54 PM, Anonymous PapersInn said...

African studies is the study of Africa, and can encompass such fields as social and economic development, politics, history, culture, sociology, anthropology or linguistics. A specialist in African studies is often referred to as an "Africanist".

Good Blog, Guan

 
At 3:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I agree but I think the list inform should acquire more info then it has.

 

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