Temple U

Philadelphia’s Temple University sparked an academic revolution in 1988 when it launched the nation’s first African-American Studies Department. Now, the department is in flux as it prepares to celebrate its 25 anniversary.

On April 10, more than 150 Temple students and North Philadelphia community leaders rallied for the department and against Teresa Soufas, the Dean of Temple’s College of Liberal Arts. It is the second demonstration in 2013 designed to alert Dean Soufas to the dissatisfaction of both scholars and leaders.

Liberation reports:

The struggle to defend African-American Studies began last year when the then-department chair retired. Dean Soufas, who has a long history of arrogant disrespect toward Black faculty members, gave the department an outrageously short amount of time to choose a new chair. When professors elected Dr. Kariamu Welsh, a nationally prominent scholar, Dean Soufas simply rejected the overwhelming vote without giving any explanation.

To qualify to be department chair, a candidate needs to meet a number of professional and academic qualifications. The only eligible faculty member who is willing to take the position, after Dr. Welsh’s dismissal, is a white professor who does only a quarter of her work in the African-American Studies Department. Dean Soufas’s creation of a scenario where the department is led by a white professor unfamiliar with the discipline is a clear attempt to undermine the goal of African-American studies—to understand oppressed people as subjects, not objects.

In the meantime, African-American Studies has been led by an interim chair, a white professor from the English Department. This leadership vacuum has diminished the standing of the program at Temple, which once was among the most respected in the country and the first to offer a doctorate in the discipline.

Students have been protesting the lack of leadership in the African-American Studies Department since 2012 when several graduate scholars penned an open letter to Dean Soufas. It read in part:

“Why is it that the issue of diversity always falls on Black Studies? Why don’t you teach communism and socialism alongside capitalism in this university? We are committed to the study of the human condition for the betterment of humanity for all. We are prepared to take action and we will not stop until we get what we rightfully deserve.”

One graduate student told the Philadelphia Inquirer it was “blatantly disrespectful” for Dean Soufas to appoint a dean from outside the department. Others agree.

“She came here with a whip in the hand,” professor Ama Mazama said last week. She claims this resulted in a decline in faculty and students enrolling in the program. However, Mazama is also chair of the faculty committee tasked with selecting a new department chair. Finally, after much struggle, her latest pick was appointed by Dean Soufas.

The African-American Studies program was founded and helmed by professor Molefi Kete Asante until he was ousted in 1997 amid unfounded allegations of plagiarism. Professor Asante is now returning to the department he founded to stabilize and progress it.

“I accepted the position and told [Soufas] I wanted to move the department to the vanguard position in the African-American studies field that it used to be in the ’80s and ’90s,” he told Liberation.

Many, including Mazama, were surprised at Dean Soufas’ willingness to appoint Professor Asante. Many blame her lack of interest in the African-American Studies Department on her white Southern background.

However, Soufas insists that she’s being mischaracterized and the students protesting are “misinformed.”

“The charge of my wanting to eliminate the department is so far from the truth,” she said in an interview in late March. “I hope more than anything that they [the department] can revive the number of their majors.”

This is a far shift from her comments in 2007 where she told the African-American Studies faculty that she doesn’t “see a black community in Philadelphia.” Soufas asked the educators “Why limit it to a single community? There is a community of women and a community of American religions – there are many religious beliefs whether white, black, Asian or Latino.”

Soufas retorts the “racist” charges by pinning the racist card on students and faculty that didn’t want a white chair for the department.

Graduate students, including Jimmy Kirby Jr., hope the department can be restored to its full glory. Kirby told the Philadelphia Inquirer that it’s crucial for African-American students to know their history.

When African-American students know their roots, Kirby said, “it provides [them] with the self-confidence to know that you come from a long history of people who have achieved things.”

I agree.

  • james jones

    ……I wonder why people need to go to college and major “African American Studies”.
    First of all, African American studies should be integrated into the broad history curriculum, and should only be available as a graduate or doctoral concentration.

    And for the genius who wonders why communism and socialism are not taught. It’s because this country and economy are built on the rights of the individual and not on some utopian minded collectivist philosophy. Wonder why socialist and communist ideas are inefficient? Check out the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Zimbabwe, Venezuela et al. closer to home, just check out the “black community” in places like Detroit and Chicago, where government paternalism runs rampant.

    Wonder why the “black community” can’t find it’s way? It’s because their philosphy is based on collectivist ideas, and those ideas ended up producing rich “leaders” who don’t do a thing but talk and blame their followers problems on “white folks”. e.g Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and politicians (CBC).

    Back to African American studies…………… the entire curriculum could be learned over a summer so I wonder why anyone would go to college for four years to study something like that!

  • dtafakari

    Aw, this hurts. So much of my studies in African-American Literature benefited from the fundamental work this department did to establish African-American Studies as an academic field. I sincerely hope Dr. Asante can help restore the department back to its glory days.

  • http://gravatar.com/jamesfrmphilly jamesfrmphilly

    you got any more kool aide?

  • Lauren

    As a Temple Alumnae, this strikes near and dear to my heart. To see the African American Studies Department be in turmoil saddens me and it’s a shame. Temple’s African American Studies department traditionally has done an excellent job at teaching students about Black history and the African Diaspora. I support my fellow Temple Owls 100% and hope that Dr. Asante can whip that department back into shape.

  • http://tontonmichel.tumblr.com/ Tonton Michel

    “First of all, African American studies should be integrated into the broad history curriculum”

    But it is not so stop.

    “It’s because this country and economy are built on the rights of the individual and not on some utopian minded collectivist philosophy.”

    It was built off the backs of slave at the cost of Native American “rights”.

    “the entire curriculum could be learned over a summer so I wonder why anyone would go to college for four years to study something like that!”

    Because it takes that long to deprogram someone from 18 years of American history’s out right lies.

  • donnadara

    What is so hard about not wanting a white woman to chair the AA studies department? Would Temple put a man in charge of the Women’s Studies department? I hate it when white people try to pull that reverse racism crap.

  • http://twitter.com/MissKemya Kemya Scott (@MissKemya)

    This truly hurts my heart. Temple’s African American Studies Department served as the cornerstone of my education of the real facts of American history. I didn’t major in the Studies, but elected several courses because the K-12 history lessons just didn’t add up, plain and simple. I was there in the beginning, and I am hopeful someone can find Dr. Asante and Dr. Sonia Sanchez and convince them to help restore this department.

  • Me

    I’m a TU student & I heard they were discontinuing the dept due to budget cuts and that’s why they were protesting? Maybe it’s both but this needs to stop whoever Soufa is sounds petty for no reason.

  • donnadara

    *hard to understand

  • J.R.

    I’m also a TU student and the one thing that i do know is that they were never planning on cutting the department out completely even though that was frequently claimed during the protests.
    HOWEVER the nonsense with finding a chair was absolutely ridiculous and unnecessary. I’m very proud of the department. I am nooottt a fan of Dean Soufas, she’s just….. i can’t

  • Tay

    annnd look at the socialist countries who are doing just fine.
    I’m just sayin, Finland is chillin

  • Leah

    WAIT, the entire history of the “African American” race relations and African Diaspora can be taught over a summer? ARE YOU SERIOUS?
    i’m offended that you really tried to downplay our entire history as if we just showed up on this planet 100 years ago and aint did shit since thats worth teaching or talking about
    an entire history of a communities struggles for acceptance
    an entire history of oppression and forced integration
    an entire history of war, displacement, abuse and exploitation
    hundreds of years of innovation, improvements, excellence, little victories, big victories,
    in one summer? really? you use some really big words to be saying such ignorance

  • Lynne

    I hear you, donnadara. Some white people will co-opt anything.

    I’ve been hearing some white men play the “white people are very diverse, too” card. Funny they can’t see blacks are also very diverse. Just read through this entire blog–and witness.

  • Common Sense

    For shame, for shame, for shame!!!!!!! I am a Temple graduate from back in the day when Dr. Asante was a graduate professor. I took many of the African American studies courses. Blacks in Cinema, African Aesthetics, and many others and in my opinion, it opened up a new and exiting world for me. Prior to taking those courses, I felt like a tree with no roots and those classes gave me the roots I needed to excel as a human being! They opened up a whole new world for me. I even remember a conversation I had with Dr. Asante that changed my whole life!!!! If they even try to take this experience away from new students, I will personally oust the new dean myself!!!!! Ignorance does not belong in an institution of higher learning. I am ready to do battle!!!!!!! The community needs to send her packing!!!!!!!! How ignorant can a person be?!?!?! She obviously does not have the students’ best interests at heart!!!!! People just want to collect paychecks for doing absolutely nothing!!!!!!! For shame!!!!!

  • Common Sense

    When is the next rally, because I am definitely there. Please keep us informed. They keep trying to take away our history and personally, I am sick of it!!!! I am serious people, keep us all informed, because I will be there! I will personally go to the President of the University and tell him just what I think of this horrible act!!!!! Who is the President now?

  • Kris

    Current TU student (who was in the rally actually), this is just really sad. I hope that something gives to resolve this issue, as an authentic teaching of African American History is crucial for true success in the department.

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  • GSC

    I’m a TU student who was at the rally and I’m a strong supporter of the students in the department. First, It’s great to see that Clutch covered this article with sensitivity, accuracy and depth – unfortunately, our issues have been completely obscured and misrepresented in some local Philadelphia press.

    It’s disheartening that the College of Liberal Arts has resisted the Af Am students’ and faculty’s requests to help replace the chair with a qualified and knowledgable individual. I think a large part of this results from administrators’ unawareness and blatant lack of concern with the culture, ideology, and historical significance of the department in the first place. The fact remains that the current interim chair is in no position to lead the department successfully and CLA is in no rush to restore a balance.

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