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Columbia Spectator Staff

The recent shuffling of African-American Studies professors around the Ivy League has led Columbia's Institute for Research in African-American Studies to examine its own policies of hiring and tenure.

At Columbia, interdisciplinary agencies like IRAAS cannot hire their own faculty. Each of the Institute's core professors must be based in other departments and the departments can only offer tenure to professors of African-American Studies at the discretion of those departments.

Many of the Institute's core faculty say this lack of autonomy has resulted in the loss of distinguished professors and has handicapped the agency.

"There is some of the most innovative work being done in African-American studies, and we might miss out on the good professors," said Professor Farah Griffin, a member of the Institute's core faculty based in the English department. "Having to rely on departments keeps you in a bind."

Since its founding in 1993, IRAAS has had difficulties maintaining a consistent core faculty group.

In October 1997, the Institute finalized its core with the appointment of Professors Mary Patillo, Gina Dent, Lee Baker, and Michael Eric Dyson. The appointments were lauded by both the new professors and Professor Manning Marable, founder and director of the Institute.

"These outstanding young scholars represent the very best among the next generation of African-American scholarship," he said at the time.

More than four years later, none of these teachers still teach at Columbia.

Dent and Baker have accepted positions at other universities, Dyson could not be retained when his time as a visiting scholar ended, and Patillo never even began teaching.

As Baker explained in an e-mail, the decision to leave was simple.

"Duke offered me tenure and Columbia did not," he wrote.

While the loss of professors like Baker and Dyson has been a blow to the Institute, having to depend on other departments to offer tenure has also meant that some promising scholars never make it to the University.

"There have been faculty I've recruited who would have greatly added to the quality of education at Columbia," Marable said.

In one instance, the Institute came very close to adding Robin Kelley, a widely-published professor of history and African-American studies, to the core. Kelley, who now teaches Africana Studies at NYU, is described by Griffin as "the foremost professor in his field." The Institute was ultimately unable to compel his hiring in the History Department, despite an open position.

"[They] want to hire interdisciplinary faculty who can devote their time to building these sorts of studies programs, but without the autonomy to hire [their] own, [they will] always be in this predicament," Professor Kelley wrote in an e-mail.

A significant source of the problem, many Institute professors say, lies in the University's departmental emphasis.

"You have to remember that Columbia does not have a strong history of interdisciplinary studies," Marable said. He added that the entire University is "organized around individual departments."

Because departments are so important at Columbia, the Institute decided upon its establishment to allow its professors to work in other departments.

"When we started, the idea was that the individual [faculty members] should have their base in their department," said Sudhir Venkatesh, professor of sociology and a member of the IRAAS core.

But by doing so, IRAAS had to leave the final say about hirings and tenure offers in the hands of the other faculty.

"The main impediment is the departments," Marable said. "They have been my chief headache for the last ten years."

Mignon Moore, professor of sociology and African-American studies and the director of the undergraduate program at IRAAS, agreed.

"Members of some departments are reluctant to see the value of a particular kind of scholarship when that scholar does not fit the traditional view of the discipline."

This departmental emphasis, Vice President for Arts and Sciences David Cohen said, is a pivotal reason for restricting interdisciplinary hiring autonomy. A junior professor without a base department, he said, "is not as likely to get known [in the University]."

"I do understand some of Manning's frustrations," he added, "but I don't think [a policy change is] something that's going to happen here. ... It's something the faculty feels very strongly about and it goes to the nature of the tenure process itself and ensuring the highest standard in the process."

Short of effecting policy changes, IRAAS professors are reluctant to make the Institute a department simply to gain power of tenure.

Griffin and others said that if IRAAS were to become a department, it would be a debilitating change that would undermine the educational goals of the interdisciplinary Institute.

Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History and affiliated faculty of the Institute, agreed. "I think the Institute structure is better, because everyone here is integrated," Foner said.

But, Moore said, the current policy on interdisciplinary centers and institutes is "illogical."

"Tenure-granting is done by the University and the larger academic field, not the departments themselves," she said. "Those same institutions are able to judge an individual scholar regardless of whether he's in a department or an institute."