Monday, November 06, 2006

Africa Town Hall Meeting (October 4th, 2006)


The SIPA Pan-African Network (SPAN) organized the Africa Town Hall meeting on October 4, 2006. The meeting aimed to address the suspension of the Institute of African Studies (IAS) at Columbia University and to discuss with the University Administration ways forward to re-open the Institute. Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger and Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks were invited, among other administration, faculty, and heads of academic departments, to join the panel. However, the panel consisted of mainly SIPA administration, although the IAS serves all of Columbia University. Panelists in attendance were SIPA Dean Lisa Anderson, Dean Dan McIntyre and Kenneth Prewitt. Over 80 people consisting of professors, administration officers, and students from across the University were in attendance. SPAN President Christabel E. Dadzie led the discussion.

SPAN President Dadzie announced that Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks shared information with SPAN that a candidate for the Director of the IAS had provisionally accepted to run the Institute starting in July 2007. He has also asked that students meet with this potential director for the IAS who will be on campus in the coming week.

The following summarizes the dialogue and discussion around two broad themes: Suspension of the IAS and means to re-open it; and the re-invigoration of African Studies at Columbia University.


A. Closure and why

Students left Columbia at the end of the Spring 2006 semester with the impression that the administration would hire an associate director and keep the Institute for African Studies (IAS) open until a permanent director was hired in Spring 2007. Yet during the summer, the institute was instead ‘suspended.’ The Africa Program at SIPA was created as a measure to continue supporting Africa-interested students at SIPA. Concerns were also raised regarding Dean Lisa Anderson, who is also head of the Africa Program at SIPA, stepping down as Dean of SIPA, and the impact this would have on African Studies at SIPA, and beyond.

The panel responded noting the history of the suspension of the IAS. The recruitment effort for a Director of the Institute was slower than the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (GSAS) expected. SIPA also expected the GSAS to match funds for the Institute but when that was not available, a decision was necessary. It became a question of how the IAS can best serve students’ needs with the available funding that SIPA had to support it. Should the IAS continue as a part-time institute, but with no funds? Or would students be best served if the Institute provided more programming (conferences, students, events)? SIPA chose the second option. The IAS is not disappearing entirely and the Administration remains fully confident that an IAS Director will be hired soon.

B. Director

Several questions pivoted around the criteria, demands, and means to recruit an effective and permanent Director for the IAS. These questions included directly addressing the criteria for hiring a Director, their appropriate background, and what students seek in a Director. The question was also asked, of whether the specific issues raised about the decline of the IAS as presented by the last full-time Director, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, had been considered.

The panel clarified the procedures to hire a Regional Institute Director. All directors are senior Columbia faculty. Faculty are recruited by academic departments, not schools or Institutes, and are thus required to foremost meet the needs of specific departments. In an effort to address the question of how to ensure Africa-interested and expert faculty are hired, it would be appropriate to further a dialogue on the broader question of African Studies in the American Academy. The problem is greater than one specifically at Columbia University.

As to date, there have been no solutions to the demands made by Professor Mamdani as he stepped down from the Directorship of the Institute.

The panel also noted that the University, including current students and faculty, is interested in recruiting a Director for the IAS who is both qualified for and interested in pursuing the challenges of running the Institute. The voices of tenured faculty were noted as key, and the distinction between the functions of a Director regarding curriculum and funding was drawn. Additionally, the point was raised that if the Director is to be an individual of significant fund-raising experience, whether (s)he should be an African or Africanist scholar, and possess experience within the United States educational system, would be critical questions.

The panel asked what the criteria for a Director are from a student’s perspective. Students responded that the director should be one willing to undertake fund-raising, mentor students, and demonstrate a passion and commitment to Africa. Students also raised a concern that the history of how Africa is taught in the American Academy is one that focuses on a colonial Africa and one constructed from a Western perspective. Therefore, to move forward with a new Director in the area of African Studies, it would be beneficial to learn Africa from an African perspective, and it would therefore be critical to have an African scholar lead the Institute.

C. Associate Director

The issue of hiring a full-time Associate Director for the IAS who will also be responsible for significant aspects of fund-raising was raised. What would be the procedures, timeline and expectations with regards to the hiring of the Associate Director?
The panel responded that currently Natalie Tevethia, in her capacity with Dean Anderson on the Africa Program, is acting as an Associate Director, but that this is not the solution to the challenge. The panel also noted that it would be critical to have a Director involved in the hiring of the Associate Director as a matter of principle.

D. Funding

The audience inquired into the current funding status of the IAS and the means towards expanding its funding base. Questions included the role of students in supporting fund-raising, as well as alumni. Students have previously made the effort to be involved in seeking funds, but were informed this related primarily to the Director’s function.

The panel noted that currently all Regional Institutes have an endowment except the Institute for African Studies. Additionally, all Institutes except Africa have Title VI grants. The criteria for securing Title VI funding include a critical mass of faculty and resources in Africa, which is the current problem at Columbia. Former Interim Director Linda Beck was successful, regardless of the lack of a critical mass at Columbia, to acquire FLAS [Foreign Language Area Study] funding, which is a part of Title VI grants. A proposal for Title VI needs to be written and it can be tied in with the Capital Campaign. The issue is how to address the upcoming funding year that will take place in 3 years. The Administration is confident that by then the University will have the needed criteria for a successful application. In order to involve students in fund-raising, Dean Anderson will arrange a brainstorming session with students to examine ways forward.

E. Courses

A key element of concern regarding the suspension of the IAS is that of providing courses to meet students’ needs and interests. Questions were raised on the criteria for deciding on offered courses, and on the use of adjunct faculty to fill-in offering gaps.

The panel listed the courses currently scheduled to be offered in the Spring 2007, which would be roughly the same number of courses offered the previous year. A current gap is the search for an instructor for a Development or Economic Development in Africa course, which was unfortunately cancelled for the Fall 2006. Courses are decided from a baseline. The Administration looks into course evaluations as an indication of what courses should be offered. Professors bringing ideas to their respective departments usually lead the course development process. Students within concentrations also suggest course ideas. There are situations in which the Department of International and Public Affairs (DIPA) makes suggestions to professors, but these are rare. Dean McIntyre asked audience members to email him names of practitioners to explore for further course offerings. The panel also made the point that other non-SIPA departments also bear the responsibility for course offerings.


A. Alumni and SIPA in Africa

The audience raised several questions regarding the role of Africa-interested alumni. The limitations of current students, on 2-year degree programs, to effectively further African Studies were noted, and that a call needs to be made for alumni involvement. The university must commit to put in place an administrative framework for this to work.
The audience also questioned why no celebrations were held in Africa over the summer for SIPA’s 60th anniversary, relating the problem to the lack of leadership for the IAS.

The panel clarified that there were no alumni receptions celebrating SIPA’s 60th anniversary in Africa and the Middle East. For Africa, the issue was that many SIPA alumni are spread across the continent, and that there were no significant numbers in one location to make a meeting possible. Panelists agreed that alumni need to be more effectively engaged.

B. Africa and other academic departments at CU

The audience noted that the suspension of the IAS poses a much deeper problem than it appeared on the surface. At Columbia, Africa is the only area of the world that does not have a department that is designated to teach Africa. These departments are available for French, German, Italian, but not for Africa. This is a fundamental problem for the academic prosperity of Africa. Currently, Africa is taught in places where there is an emergency. It is not taught as an intellectual endeavor. There is an under-appreciation of the damage caused by the suspension of the IAS as attracting funds to an Institute in crisis will be difficult. The call was made for a public statement from the President of Columbia University on the University’s commitment to Africa. It was noted that in University politics, SIPA took the blame for the suspension of the Institute. The GSAS said that the Institute is effectively a SIPA problem. The leadership of SIPA in turn responded rightly that it was a broader University problem, when it decided to suspend the Institute due to lack of funding. The point was made that the relations between Africa and all departments require restructuring, not only with SIPA. Students were further called upon to assert pressure on the Administration.

The panel pursued the point that it is necessary for the University to look into revitalizing African Studies by visiting the question of where Africa should be housed in the University. All parts of the world have a language and literatures department. The only part of the world without a comparable department is Africa - African languages have no home. DIPA is the only place that offers African languages, but this poses a constraint on the department.

C. African studies and other CU Schools

The audience posed the question of the poverty of African Studies in other University Schools and Programs, the Mailman School of Public Health being a specific example.

The panel emphasized that the question of African Studies at Columbia University is not exhausted by SIPA. If there are difficulties with other Schools, for example, the Mailman School of Public Health, with regards to course and resource offerings on Africa, is important the Schools seek their own solutions as well. They cannot rely on SIPA alone. Other University Schools need to contribute to the solution of furthering African Studies at Columbia.

D. Courses and curriculum

The audience posed the question of offering courses that can meet students’ needs for specialization in specific topics in Africa.

The panel invited students to engage the Administration in a dialogue on how to provide course offerings and resources for a community of both introductory courses and specialization courses.

E. Partnerships with African University and Institutes

The audience offered the suggestion for Columbia University to build links with African universities and institutes in order to forge stronger ties with African Studies.

F. Faculty and student involvement

The audience and panel emphasized the need to involve faculty in the revitalization of African Studies at Columbia. The panel remarked that many non-Africa focused faculty find the question of African Studies important and are capable of being mobilized as a center of gravity for furthering African Studies at the University.

The audience noted that students have already been a part of the process of acquiring more classes, and questioned to what degree this is expected for every academic year. Students were also encouraged to get in contact with the Senate representatives for their respective schools in order to raise the African Studies curriculum issue through channels already existing in the University. Wendy Carrasco is SIPA’s senator.

The panel noted the frustration involved in SIPA students looking for an education, but then having to involve themselves in the construction of courses and curriculum. The panel further noted that even the most endowed Regional Institute cannot meet every student need. Students are always encouraged to bring ideas. So even if the Institute were working well, a dialogue with students should continue.


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