Diversity Studies on Steroids at Tufts University

Tufts University in suburban Boston has become a global powerhouse in the last decades, excelling in medicine, international affairs, and many other fields.  A spot in the class of 2016 for today's high school seniors is highly coveted.  It's therefore disappointing to read in an open letter addressed to faculty, students, and staff from the new dean of the School Arts & Sciences, Joanne Berger-Sweeney, that "my goal is to make the study of race and identities at Tufts a curricular and research strength ... a niche many academics consider cutting-edge in the field."

Dean Berger-Sweeney outlines new initiatives underway:

  • Diversity and inclusion are inherent strengths--necessary for excellence[.] ... In our search for a new dean of undergraduate and graduate students, Dean Abriola and I are paying careful attention to the expertise that potential candidates bring to this issue.
  • We created a new Office of Intercultural and Social Identities, whose director will report to the new dean.
  • In addition, Director of Athletics Gehling and I will support a new athletics coaching intern who will focus on issues of diversity for our athletics teams.  [Is this unnecessary?]
  • I have established graduate fellowships to support diversity in the humanities.
  • Deans Glaser, McClellan, and I have become more explicit in our conversations with academic chairs regarding faculty hiring, and requests for new faculty positions are now considered, in part, for how they will improve or affect departmental diversity.
  • Conversations are also underway with Provost Newell to develop a university-wide center that will focus its research efforts on race in the United States and around the world.
  • I am delighted to announce my plans to support the creation of a new academic program in A&S [Arts & Sciences] that will focus significantly, but not exclusively, on Africana studies.
  • Many academic programs are moving away from regional specializations to consider a more comparative approach. For example...How is the academy thinking about multiple social identities, for example, an African-Asian American who is gay?

While the history and culture of Africa and the African diaspora are certainly important subjects in a university curriculum, I fear that the Africana program will only multiply the opportunities to propagate more of the postmodern jargon that is already abundant in the academy.  The Africana Studies Task Force Report (Spring 2011) gives a taste of what is to come:

Studies in the Identity Theory concentration will focus on the critical study of ideological, theoretical, political, and cultural concepts that contribute to the construction, formation, and representation of identity within an Africana context. Students will use this lens to examine the intricate relationships and the intersectionality of different aspects of feminist theory, queer theory, critical theory, political theory, religion, sociology, and race.

Recently, Tufts announced that plans for the Africana Studies Program and the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy are going forward.  A fawning story on the front page of last Sunday's Boston Globe explained how these projects were advanced:

Students have been pushing for an Africana studies program for about two years, saying it was unacceptable for Tufts, one of the country's top research universities, to lag behind its peers in having a comprehensive course of study on race, gender, and class.

The Tufts Pan-African Alliance, an umbrella organization of cultural groups that advocate for students of color, stood at the forefront of the campaign to create the major. In November, the movement intensified when as many as 80 students occupied the administrative offices, protesting what they said was a lack of progress.

The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy...is the brainchild of history professor Peniel Joseph, who has written extensively on race, politics, and class. Joseph was part of the committee that hired Berger-Sweeney and mentioned to her his desire for such a center.

Professor Peniel Joseph, like President Obama, is a community organizer.  He was able to influence the decision to hire a new dean who was sympathetic to his project, and then he organized student protests to create the impression of widespread demand for the Africana program. "As many as 80 students" can make a lot of noise, but they are a tiny fraction of the 9,500 students at Tufts.  The ones who are doing truly "cutting-edge" work, like the researchers at the Tufts Medical School, have little time to occupy administration offices.

Dr. Joseph is teaching two classes this spring: History 0191, The Black Panther Party (Cross Listed with Peace and Justice 0150) and History 0035 Afr Am Post Civil Rgts, which covers, among other topics, "black urban crime and the prison industrial complex; the resurgence of black nationalism in black film and culture; the election of Barack Obama."

Joseph is the author of articles praising the Black Power movement, and of Dark Days, Bright Nights, From Black Power to Barack Obama (2010).  In the book, Joseph lionizes Stokely Carmichael, founder of the Student Nonviolent [sic] Coordinating Committee and early promoter of the phrase "black power."  Carmichael's choice of the word "Nonviolent" was a deliberate subterfuge to camouflage his advocacy for a violent revolution that would lead to a separate black nation.  Yet Joseph writes things like:

Carmichael's political activism as a local organizer in the Deep South ... represented a commitment to transforming American democracy fundamentally[.] ... Carmichael's first task as an organizer was to combat poverty that stifled dreams[.]

These phrases could have come out of Barack Obama's mouth, and in fact Joseph proposes that the Obama presidency is a fulfillment of the Black Power movement -- which he means as an accolade.

Joseph has this to say about the violent, misogynistic, drug-dealing thugs in the Black Panther Party:

Black Panthers Huey P. Newton and Bobby G. Seale ... sought nothing less than to transform the living conditions for poor blacks in Oakland via a ten-point program that called for land, peace, bread, and justice.

Somehow seizing land to give to black nationalists seems incompatible with peace and justice.

These revisionist views about the Black Panthers and SNCC strike me as radical, and not something I'd want taught to my children.  Ironically, when I was looking into Dr. Joseph's frequent use of the word "democracy," I came across the Black Agenda Report ("News, commentary & analysis from the black left"), where Joseph is accused of being an "Establishment Courtier" and a "brand name huckster" who throws around "terms [like democracy] with no fixed meaning" to "propagat[e] brands."  Ah, well...so much for no enemies on the left.

Additionally, the goal of Tufts' new Africana program is not simply scholarship about Africa.  The Globe reports:

[James] Jennings, who will serve as the faculty principal of the center, said his role will be to demolish the walls between scholarly discourse and ground-level work by helping students and colleagues experience the real-world applications of classroom theory.

Jennings writes elsewhere about "Collaborative Strategies for Community Building," aka  "community organizing."  In other words, the Africana program will use Tufts as a resource to train the next generation of community organizers.

Dean Berger-Sweeney is a neuroscientist with a Ph.D. in neurotoxicology.  Pity that she aspires to produce Tufts graduates who are experts on the "intersectionality" of "queer theory" and "the representation of identity within an Africana context."