Letter to the President and Provost: The inadequacy of “The Impacts of Race in America”

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Dear President Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Drell, 

Earlier this month, the Black Graduate Students Association (BGSA) and the Black Student Union (BSU) circulated a petition calling for the departmentalization of African and African American Studies (AAAS), which has not received the proper funding and support it needs to thrive. As the petition explains, for fifty years Stanford faculty and students have been demanding more support for Black Studies to address the “glaring deficiencies” in the program, especially the University’s failure to replace retired and departing Black faculty members.

To date, the petition has gained over 5,000 signatures, yet Provost Persis Drell and Dean Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, have refused to recognize Black Studies as a discipline deserving of a department. On Friday, June 19th, 2020, BGSA and BSU sent an email to President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell demanding that the University schedule weekly meetings to work towards the departmentalization of African and African American Studies. That email went ignored until the President announced the University’s new initiatives on July 1, 2020. At no time did the administration reach out to us or AAAS faculty for collaboration. Both Provost Persis Drell and Dean Debra Satz have rejected the idea that the University should hire professors who have been trained in Black Studies as “too narrow.” We, the Black Graduate Students Association say enough is enough. We are tired of the administration’s refusal to invest in Black Studies and the success of its Black students. 

The Black Graduate Students Association rejects Stanford’s attempt to de-center Blackness from the conversation about race in the University’s curriculum. As institutions across the nation respond to anti-Blackness, Stanford has refused to commit to real solutions suggested by its Black students. Instead, the University has chosen to announce vague reforms that focus on the “Impacts of Race in America.” Therefore, we recognize Stanford’s limited proposal to study “the impact of race in America,” despite the long-standing need for a commitment to Black Studies, as anti-Black. 

In his email on July 1, 2020, Marc Tessier-Lavigne shared news about goals to offer new academic positions to scholars engaging with the “Impacts of Race in America.” This initiative falls short of properly addressing anti-Blackness. With regard to AAAS, President Tessier-Lavigne announced that the University would conduct a “study” to determine whether or not the needs of AAAS would be better served by departmentalization. This study would be led by Provost Drell and Dean Satz, the very same people who have refused to support countless proposals for a cluster hire in AAAS and the departmentalization of the program. 

BGSA and BSU reject the administrations’ reforms and propose a reevaluation of the University’s approach to addressing the question of race in our curriculum and community: 

  1. Regarding Recruitment Strategy and Black Faculty Statistics

The administration’s approach to recruitment of diverse faculty follows a thematic logic (“Impacts of Race in America”) which will not effectively address the University’s historic failure to increase the number of tenure-track Black faculty. We take issue with this vague and non-specific call as a means to alleviate racial inequities in academia. It is unlikely that scholars who critically and specifically study the Black experience will be motivated by these kinds of recruitment calls. 

Unlike a thematic approach to hiring, the intentional recruitment of Black faculty targets the root of the undeniable problem: only 2% of faculty at Stanford are Black. We urge the University to reimagine its approach and intentionally seek out Black scholars specializing in Black Studies who can leverage their intellectual and lived experience to create positive change on campus. 

  1. Regarding Race in America vs. Black Studies

The proposed approach to studying race tragically decenters Blackness and effectively demonstrates that Black lives don’t matter to Stanford’s intellectual ambitions. The discipline of Black Studies extends far beyond the study of the “Impacts of Race in America.” Black Studies is an innovative discipline that epistemically disrupts anti-Blackness, both methodologically and intellectually. However, Blackness can also be a useful starting point to address issues of racism, classism, gender bias, and homophobia for all people including Indigenous peoples, Latinx peoples, Asian peoples, etc. 

What’s more, Black Studies includes the diaspora of Black thought in a way that the University’s approach does not. “Race in America” is a limited intellectual question that neglects the global reality of anti-Blackness to which Black Studies actively responds. Stanford is a global community; therefore, the global project of Black Studies is better suited to address the intellectual pursuits needed today.

  1. Regarding the Devaluation of Black Studies

We are also deeply frustrated by administrators’ conceptualization of Black Studies as a limited field of inquiry. These comments are not only disrespectful to Black community members, but they fail to acknowledge the immense intellectual project of African and African-American Studies. The discipline of Black Studies has historically valued and fostered global thinking. Beyond Africa and the United States, Black Studies has theorized and addressed issues of culture and identity in the African diaspora in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia. Furthermore, ideas and insights from Black Studies have been adapted and applied by scholars outside of the tradition. 

Moreover, the “too narrow” response is being employed by the University to abdicate its responsibility to broaden its curriculum with marginalized fields of study. Although the number of students who choose to major and minor in African and African American Studies increases each year, Stanford refuses to approve hires to focus on the teaching of Black Studies exclusively. To date, the University has no core faculty dedicated specifically to African and African American Studies. 

While administrators worry about Black Studies’ supposedly limited focus, they have little to say about the Eurocentric curriculum and faculty specializations in the University’s traditional departments. If the administrators would critically reflect on the discipline’s legacy at Stanford and beyond, they would see that a Black Studies department would enrich Stanford’s curriculum by strengthening the humanities and social sciences. 

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We encourage anyone who believes in the need to center Black people and Black Studies in the fight against anti-Blackness to resist the administration’s inadequate proposal to study the “Impacts of Race in America.” 

The departmentalization of AAAS should be a top priority on the administration’s agenda if the University is truly committed to joining its peer institutions in the fight to uproot white supremacy in higher education. 

Sincerely,

The Black Graduate Students Association 

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