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.
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.”