Sixteen years ago, adorned in a striped, velvet academic gown, Lee Bollinger walked down the steps of Low Library—his first steps as president of the University. I wonder if the words of distinguished guest Kofi Annan, who spoke just minutes before, were ringing in his head as he walked to the microphone for his inaugural speech.
“We depend on you,” the then Secretary-General of the United Nations had said right before Bollinger’s speech, “to instill a global outlook on young people.”
Indeed, since Bollinger’s initiation, Columbia has taken many steps towards becoming the the “global university” he imagined in those early days. Every year, students and faculty alike flock to see esteemed diplomats and leaders from around the world featured in the World Leaders Forum. Columbia Global Centers exist in nine different countries. The Committee on Global Thought addresses issues from around the world.
But amongst all this, one commitment has remained seemingly forgotten.
Part of Bollinger’s sweeping “global” promises was the promotion of African studies. When the Institute for African Studies, an institution that is tasked with the responsibility of generating a university wide discussion about Africa and formerly administered the undergraduate major, was temporarily suspended in 2006 due to funding and staffing issues, Bollinger made some big claims.
“I assure you,” he wrote in an email responding to the closure of the IAS to the School of International and Public Affairs Pan-African Network, which protested the suspension, “that in the next five years, Columbia will become a key center for African studies.” In the 12 years since, this promise to properly coordinate African studies programs has been left unfulfilled.
At the undergraduate level, the African studies program remains detached from students: Course offerings are irregular and often outsourced to course-sharing programs with other universities, the IAS is not actively in conversation with undergraduates, and the program is no longer a major available to undergraduates. And without autonomous departmental status, African studies struggles to receive funding and donations. All of this has led to the weak foundation of African studies at Columbia.
African studies at Columbia predates Bollinger by decades. The Institute of African Studies was created in 1959, and the African studies program followed shortly after in 1961 as an African studies certificate for graduate students. The seventh of its kind among universities across the United States, Columbia followed in the footsteps of Northwestern University’s inceptive African studies program 13 years earlier. Discussions around creating an undergraduate major began four years later, and it was formally introduced as a “Regional Studies: Africa” major within the Institute of African Studies in 1973. The Middle East and the South Asian Institutes implemented similar separate regional studies majors.
In 1970 the United States experienced nationwide cutbacks in the National Defense Education Act, hitting the program hard as the African Language Area Center, a center which offered African language instruction to students, was one of two centers eliminated three years later.
Between the 1970s and the late 1990s, African studies at the undergraduate level was relatively small and unknown. By the 2000s, the IAS had lost most of its education department grants, according to Assistant Director of the IAS Jinny Prais.
But the undergraduate major received a boost around the turn of the century. Professor Gregory Mann was the driving factor in strengthening the African studies program in the early 2000s.
Mann traces the story of African studies as if it were straight out of one of his history textbooks. Before the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department absorbed African studies officially into the Middle East, South Asian, and African studies department in 2007, he explains, there was no department that had the mandate to do African studies. Mann says that faculty were largely unaware of the regional studies major, which was very loosely constructed within the IAS.
“I only found out it existed when a student came to me after class and said he was an African studies major,” Mann recollects. “I said, ‘We don’t have an African studies major.’ Then he said, ‘Yes, we do. I’m the only person in it.’”
It was that conversation which made Mann decide that if Columbia were to have an African studies major, it should be robust and organized by faculty.
African studies did indeed receive a boost in the early 2000s, former MESAAS professor of African Civilizations Wendell Marsh told me in the break room in Knox Hall, the home of the IAS. As he warmed up his burrito for lunch, he excitedly announced that he has just defended his dissertation for his Ph. D. in African Studies in the MESAAS program. Marsh explained that an increase of focus on African studies occurred in 2005.
Pulaar, Zulu, and Wolof were enthusiastically introduced in 2005 as a way to bolster Columbia’s African studies program after Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania received federal recognition for their programs. These languages, along with grants to finance student research in Africa, were funded by the Andrew W. W. Mellon Foundation. It was all part of a four-year plan that allowed Wolof, Pulaar, and Zulu to be taught at the elementary and intermediate levels.
Although enrollment in these new languages was low, Marsh asserts that regardless of enrollment, the expansion and enrichment of the program is the duty of a university whose goal is to be a leading institution of African studies.
Promises for other languages such as Mali, Bambara, and Hausa were supposed to stem from the 2005 expansion, but were never implemented. The Mellon Foundation only jump-started the program—Columbia had the remaining responsibility to find funding from internal and external sources, which it did not.
Unfortunately, these grants only sparked a flame that would soon burn out. The IAS began to experience funding issues during this time, culminating in a temporary suspension in the spring of 2006, two years after former director Mahmood Mamdani stepped down from his position. At this time, Mann took over advising for the undergraduate major, which was still housed in the IAS. In December of 2006, then University of Michigan professor of African and African-American studies Mamadou Diouf accepted the position as the IAS director.
At the time of suspension, French and philosophy professor Souleymane Diagne, the current IAS director, was teaching at Northwestern University. He recounts hearing uproar on Northwestern’s campus, claiming this backlash could have inspired a renewed interest in African studies at Columbia. The Institute reopened in September of 2007 under its first stable director since 2004.
However, because of problems that persist even today, such as limited space, resources, and faculty, African studies integrated into the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures in 2007. In November of that year, some students even participated in a hunger strike on the South Lawn, demanding more professors for African studies. The name was changed to the Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies department in 2009, broadening the department’s geographical and intellectual scope. As Bollinger sought a global legacy for the University, the campus expanded alongside the curriculum, breaking a neat boundary at 120th Street and venturing into Knox Hall, the home of MESAAS.
Mann and other faculty members followed the small major until it eventually became a substantial African studies major in 2010, still in the IAS without a department in which it was housed. Simultaneously, the MESAAS department administered a separate overarching MESAAS major that did not have specific regional tracks. Since the major within the IAS was so small, faculty supervised it on a need-be basis. Even when the program was adopted by MEALAC in 2008, the IAS continued to administer it until 2013 when the African studies major became a track in the overall MESAAS major.
As Mann continues to explain the history, he suddenly takes a long pause. I detect a slight change in the tone of his voice. There is a certain sense of loss as he explains what happened to the program next.
“MESAAS basically just took over the major,” Mann says. “We had a robust, specific African studies major that we, as faculty across departments, had created and MESAAS effectively claimed it.”
Some professors such as Diagne and Marsh attest that African studies’ move into MESAAS made logistical sense. They insist that a separate African studies department revives Cold War legacies of the area studies model, a pedagogical method which harkens back to when the United States exploited area-specific studies towards a power struggle with the then Soviet Union. To curb the spread of Communism, the U.S. supported these regional studies programs in various universities to scrutinize certain areas in search of potential threats.
However, the 2017-18 IAS Interim Director Brian Larkin, professor of anthropology, agrees with Mann, saying that to some degree, MESAAS was supposed to be a temporary fix. A 2007 Spectator op-ed argues accordingly that MEALAC’s merger with African studies seemed “misguided” and “should only be temporary.”
This “temporary fix,” however, has become a permanent reality for students for half a decade now. Since 2013, undergraduates hoping to research African studies must select it as their MESAAS “track.” African studies is one of three “tracks” in MESAAS, but technically not a major or concentration itself. The IAS is no longer involved with an African studies major; its main role now is to foster discussion about Africa on campus.
Across the Ivy League, there are three main methods of studying African history and culture: Harvard and Dartmouth offer African and African American studies as a singular unit, Brown and Cornell have Africana studies, and Yale and Princeton offer purely African studies.
African and African American studies, when presented as a joint course of study, tend to focus specifically on the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the history of colonization. Africana studies does not have geographic limitations and is interested in both Africa and the African diaspora, including relationships between African people and the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. In instances where African studies is taught separate, it is distinguished as a form of regional studies and focuses directly on the geographical continent of Africa.
Barnard Africana professor Abosede George says that each model expresses different commitments. Each one of these give the student a vastly different understanding of Africa. Faculty members, she attests, have a loyalty to the subfield in which they were taught.
MESAAS, which studies Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia as connected through Islam, is less common. Students who are enrolled in African studies courses understand this connection, but for strangers to the field it may seem like a careless add-on.
“Scholars might not have articulated very clearly, especially to undergraduates, why [African Studies is within a larger department],” Marsh admits. “If you’re not really embedded at this kind of higher level and see how these things work, it’s not necessarily legible why these three regions intermix.”
A simple way to clarify students’ confusion on African studies’ placement in MESAAS might be to explain this on their website. Larkin agrees that students are unaware of the intersections between the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa until they make the decision to enroll in an introductory course.
“I think MESAAS needs to make the logic of why they chose to become MESAAS and what their critique of area studies is in a more robust way,” Larkin says.
But the inclusion within a larger department, for all its academic purposes, comes with a little bit of a relegated focus. Of the lectures and seminars offered in fall 2018 listed under MESAAS, around 70 percent contain explicitly Middle Eastern topics in the name, while African topics only make up around 20 percent, and South Asian topics are included in 10 percent. The languages on the course directory this fall are overwhelmingly Middle Eastern as well—46 percent (not including Arabic, which is spoken in both Middle Eastern and north African countries), compared to 36 percent South Asian languages and 21 percent African languages.
While Islam serves as the uniting factor for the regions in Columbia’s MESAAS department, Diagne believes that the department’s unbalanced focus on the Middle East could be rooted in the history of the department, which began in 1965 as a department solely focused on the Middle East.
But students are not necessarily happy with the second (or even third) place role African studies plays in MESAAS. Students like Courtney Fondufe, a member of the Columbia College Class of 2019, would love a distinct African studies major to help clarify a focus on African studies. Fondufe is not alone in her request. For many years, students have demanded the creation of a robust African Studies major. MESAAS Chair Mamadou Diouf has been involved in this discussion, but claims that MESAAS was in fact the solution.
“I believe that for many years you had this discussion and demand of students to have a specific African studies major or African studies department,” Diouf says. “But the fact is, the creation of MESAAS was a response [to] such a demand.”
Fondufe is in the MESAAS program concentrating in African studies. Her other major, economics, is situated in a much more involved department, which sends regular emails to students reminding them of opportunities and events. In contrast, students pursuing African studies have to remain active and independent.
“I’ve gone to [Diouf’s] office four to five times [within the last year] and I’ve never stepped into the department of economics except to hand in homework,” Fondufe laughed. “You definitely need to create the major yourself.”
With very few full-time MESAAS faculty, the African studies track is difficult to plan for in advance, and it is hard for students to be able to create a concrete four year schedule. Diagne explains that for each department, the faculty meet before the semester to discuss the diversity of course listings that semester.
Despite being integrated into the MESAAS department, African studies remains strewn across different departments. Since MESAAS has limited course offerings, students must take courses related to Africa in different departments to fulfill the major requirements—as a result, there is no one to guarantee a specific African studies course a place in the University Directory except for a couple introductory courses; an IAS faculty affiliate member must volunteer to take on an African studies-related course. So, while some courses are likely to reappear every other semester due to prior trends, students are ultimately forced to play a game of chance when concentrating in African studies.
“The class that I took last semester wasn’t on the registrar until the first week of classes so when I planned my schedule it ended up being a compromise and I just took a chance,” Fondufe said. “For a long time I didn’t think I’d concentrate in African studies.”
The MESAAS department also offers a variety of African languages, but this is not evident on the 2018 course listings page. There are language coordinators for each dialect offered in Middle Eastern and South Asian languages, yet the African Languages are the responsibility of just one coordinator, Mariame Sy.
Yoruba, a very popular language spoken in West Africa, and Zulu, one of the official languages of South Africa, are offered by MESAAS but do not come up when students search MESAAS in the course directory; they must be searched for directly. Pulaar, a language spoken in the Senegal River valley area, can be found on the MESAAS page but is not listed as a subject in the Columbia course directory.
Funding can only supplement a program so far—according to the University’s Directory of Classes, elementary Zulu has an enrollment of 0 out of 20 students max, and intermediate and advanced have 1 out of 20 students max each, for fall 2018. This trend continues for Yoruba and Wolof. In contrast, all Arabic and Persian courses are full or almost full.
Clicking on the courses, I couldn’t find the names of any Zulu, Yoruba, or Pulaar professors. I learned that this is because they reside in a computer screen over 150 miles away. These courses are offered through videoconferencing from Cornell as part of Columbia’s Shared Course Initiative, a program which connects language classrooms at Columbia, Cornell, and Yale via videoconferencing to increase the offering of global languages.
All Middle Eastern and South Asian languages have Columbia instructors, while for African languages, only Swahili and Wolof have on campus instructors.
Diouf says, however, that these courses are offered in collaboration with Cornell because students are not as interested in these languages. He, among other faculty, must take a trip to Low Library if the department wants to add a course—they must submit a request. If at least three to five students are interested in taking a course, and there is faculty available to teach the language, it is possible to negotiate the creation of a class.
“We are recruiting people based on the number of students we have,” Diouf said. “We don’t have enough students for Yoruba. We don’t have enough students for Zulu. The result of that is we are working with our colleagues in the greater New York area to actually do that.”
Diouf and Sy stand at a MESAAS language booth at the beginning of every year aimed at explaining the program and answering questions about African languages. The students pursuing African studies, Diouf claims, are self-reliant. The students will contact him if they want to pursue certain languages not being offered, and the department will try to accommodate those interests.
“I think the students are very proactive. They know exactly what they want. They come and ask,” Diouf said.
Mann, however, thinks that finding African studies courses and planning a schedule is not very obvious for undergraduates, especially for prospective majors. He says there’s a disconnect between MESAAS and undergraduates. The only other way of organizing the connection would be with the IAS, which is also not an option.
“The Institute was never happy about running the major,” Mann said. “The IAS decided a long time ago that it didn’t want to have anything to do with it.”
I walk over to the Knox Hall, the proclaimed home of the Institute for African Studies, tucked away on the side on 122nd Street and Broadway. I take the stairs up to the third floor, to the IAS. The floor is open and soundless but for the typing of a receptionist. I browse around the office—a few posters and pamphlets pinned on the wall decorate the room. My eyes draw in a bit closer—the advertised events on the posters have already passed. I quietly knocked on the IAS Assistant Director Jinny Prais’ door. I was greeted by a disheveled room filled with boxes as if Prais had just moved in—I later found out that the IAS was dealing with a rat problem. Actually, the whole building is, she clarifies.
While the IAS is supposed to be in charge of creating a universitywide discussion about African studies, Fondufe says undergraduate students interested in African studies have limited interaction with the Institute. The IAS has a history with SIPA because they had overseen the IAS in the past and also because the school gives the IAS a departmental research assistant, a fellowship which has a SIPA student work as the program assistant. Prais revealed this has kept her in closer contact with SIPA.
Prais admitted that she has not been keeping track of undergraduate African studies; she was even unaware that MESAAS had a three-track system. There used to be a similar DRA program for undergraduates, but the IAS no longer hires undergraduates. By the end of our conversation, Prais begins, in fact, to question me, asking for advice on how the IAS can improve.
“Honestly, I just wonder how we can do better,” Prais says with disappointment.
Larkin agrees that IAS could do a much better job of connecting with undergraduates. Diagne, who relieved Larkin of his interim position as the IAS director this year, has plans to interact more with student groups on campus such as the African Studies Association and the Black Students’ Organization this year.
Prais says IAS is also planning a general forum for students in the spring of 2019 to engage more student interest, but it is still coming up with funds because of very limited international grants to bring speakers from the African continent. For most of the the IAS’s events, the speakers end up being African scholars from Paris.
According to Prais, funding is a large issue for African studies. Since the IAS does not have departmental status, it is not technically able to receive loans from the University, forcing them to rely on grants and donors which are very difficult to find for African studies. Prais says without its own department, all SIPA alumni donations, even for those who had been heavily involved with the IAS, unless explicitly specified, go to SIPA as a whole, and not the IAS. Larkin says that to qualify for area studies grants, the institution needs to fully commit to strengthening African studies.
“There’s still issues [with] funding,” Larkin says, “The Institute is far less endowed than the other institutes. I don’t think it has been a major object of fundraising for Columbia.”
While funding is an issue for African studies, a problem lies with faculty coordination as well. Larkin is certain that there needs to be more commitment to African studies on campus. One solution Larkin suggested is for MESAAS hire more faculty, which could lead to a properly coordinated undergraduate program. There is no question that Columbia has exceptional African scholarship, such as Diagne and Diouf, but there is a need for this scholarship to be translated into more courses for undergraduates. Some progress has been made in this area—Diouf revealed that a new MESAAS faculty member specializing in African studies has been hired for this semester.
“One thing that frustrates me is that we have a lot of amazing professors here so it would be really cool for them to teach classes that really interest them,” Fondufe hopes.
She cites then professor Marsh as an example. She implied that he is well versed in topics that would appeal to upper level courses, but she said if he taught those classes, there is no one to teach African Civilizations, an introductory course in African studies.
Marsh is now an assistant professor of African American and African Studies at Rutgers University. Diouf claims that there two ways to recruit professors, one of which is to hire senior professors.
“The other way is that you recruit a junior professor—a fresh Ph.D.,” he goes on. “And you want to actually work it such a way that you groom your recruit to actually get him or her to be tenured.”
Interestingly enough, Marsh’s move to Rutgers shows a failure on the part of the MESAAS department to expand their faculty.
So where does African studies at Columbia go from here? Students such as Fondufe and Temitope Coker, of the Columbia College class of 2018, think there should be a distinct major because it would force the University to make a more diverse course load for African studies. If the shield of a flourishing MESAAS department was stripped from African studies, the University might realize the imbalance in the program. Coker took African Civilizations as an introductory African studies course, excited to continue on the African studies path. She found it difficult, however, to find upper-level courses she was interested in. She graduated Columbia as an economics major.
If African studies was to become a department, however, it would be a department lacking in courses and faculty. Out of all of the MESAAS faculty members, only four professors specialize in Africa. Out of those four, two are tenured professors, one of which is Chair Mamadou Diouf.
Despite this, Diouf believes that the department has been doing great things for undergraduates in terms of not only teaching and research, but generating interest in African studies. He mentioned a very successful program called Ifriqiya which is a faculty seminar and study group organized once a month about the study of Islam in Africa. But when I checked the program’s Facebook page, it had not been updated since 2013. Similarly, while the program is listed on the MESAAS events page, there are no upcoming events listed and it was last updated in 2013. While this program may be very successful, students must have the agency to contact the coordinator, Mahmood Mamdani, if they want to know any recent information on the program. This problem, however, could be easily fixed if the IAS and MESAAS regularly update their webpages.
While most faculty are skeptical there will ever be a distinct department of African studies, there have been models across campus that point to a chance. The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality has successfully administered a major to undergraduates. The Institute for Research in African-American Studies had been administering a popular undergraduate major as well.
Mann says that now, IRAAS is moving to make African and African-American studies a department this year. He says that this could be beneficial to African Studies, as Africa can be brought into that conversation. Diouf also remains open to the idea that there could eventually be an autonomous African studies major, but ample student interest must be present.
“I’m not saying that we are solving problems,” Diouf said. “I’m not saying that the students know exactly what they want. I’m not saying that we know exactly what we want. … MESAAS has always been an experiment.”
Marsh agrees that MESAAS is experimental in nature. Between teaching and studying, Marsh actually writes for an experimental magazine called the Martyr’s Shuffle where he and other scholars balancing university life and everyday political life write about our current moment in history. In April 2017, Marsh and his colleagues wrote a piece on MESAAS called “Cypher on the Future of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African/a Studies.”
On the placement of African Studies in MESAAS, he writes, “nothing about this arrangement is inherent to their objects of study but rather imbued with a spirit of provisional experimentation. … Perhaps that is the most we can ask for in a moment in which ‘the Global’ has increasing purchase in institutions with fewer resources and fewer scholars with the training (linguistic and otherwise) to make sense of a globalized world.”
While Diouf views MESAAS as an experiment, five years that has passed since its creation has left students wanting change. But Diouf’s perspective holds value for students wanting to bolster African studies: Change is possible if students push for it. We’ve already seen it in IRAAS’ move to departmental status. We have even seen it in Mann’s creation of the ad hoc African studies program.
“Remember that one student who walked up to me and said ‘I’m an African studies major.’ And I said ‘There’s no African studies major?’” Mann asked. “Well, he’s now a professor of African studies at Duke.”
Mann’s efforts for African studies show that one student can truly change the course of an academic program. While African studies has traveled from the “Regional Studies: Africa” major to the ad hoc program to the IAS to MESAAS, the students and the University hold the power to determine if MESAAS is the last stop for African Studies.
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