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Avigail Borah / Staff Illustrator

In the fall of 2017, approximately a month apart, two separate hiring committees began reading applications for assistant professor positions.The first was for a position at Barnard’s religion department; the second, a joint appointment between Columbia’s English department and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Although the two search committees had little to do with one another, they had certain key similarities: for one, both were searching for a candidate with a background in Indigenous studies. The two committees also gravitated toward younger academics with new perspectives in a growing field to take on a tenure track assistant professor position.

Barnard made their hire in the quieter winter months, as students were on break and the campus was abandoned. Beth Berkowitz, chair of the Barnard religion department, worked through January to hire Tiffany Hale, a Yale Ph.D. who identifies as being of Afro-Cherokee descent. Already, the hire is proving fruitful: Hale has a forthcoming book project, “Fugitive Religion: The Ghost Dance and the Racial State,” and, this fall, is teaching Religion in America I in the department.

But across the street, the search wasn’t going as well. Some of that was due to the inherent structural differences between CSER and autonomous departments. As a center, CSER’s hiring power is greatly restricted; faculty must be cross-appointed within another department, dividing their time and administrative duties between the two. This means CSER is constantly relying on other departments and the hope that junior faculty accepting these positions will want to juggle two sets of departmental responsibilities without the security of tenure.

The CSER-English committee were also searching within a growing field in which other institutions are expanding their programs. The English department and CSER had invited four candidates to campus, only to have two accept alternative offers before arriving. Then, the committee hosted two scholars and offered one, Chad Infante, the position. He took another offer from the University of Maryland. By the spring of 2018, CSER’s search had failed.

This search was important to the Native American/Indigenous Studies track within the CSER major because, after two faculty members—an assistant professor and a lecturer––left by the spring of 2017, the track is in dire need of a replacement for the assistant professor position. CSER currently only has a single Native faculty member—Audra Simpson, a Mohawk scholar, it seems, carries the burden within the track to provide students with the lived perspective as a component to her academic work.

Still, the track’s inability to provide students with indigenous professors compounds with the immediate and alarming worry that CSER is unable to provide a consistent Native American/Indigenous Studies track at all, constantly relying on the compliance of a separate department and candidates being willing to take on the extra responsibility of a joint appointment. To secure a program for indigenous studies, Columbia needs to be able to provide possible junior faculty with more incentive to work here.


The Native American/Indigenous track is not in this precarious position due to a lack of determination from those within CSER. When speaking of her tenure as director of CSER, Frances Negrón-Muntaner argues that while the center lacked the resources of autonomous hiring power and administrative support, the faculty’s commitment to their vision allowed for a period of growth. Audra Simpson describes the growth period she witnessed when she first came to Columbia in 2009.

“So many of the indigenous studies students were taking CSER courses and were, it seemed to me, organizing their thinking and their priorities around the native studies track in CSER,” Simpson says. CSER had also restructured its curriculum, making concerted efforts to expand their profile on campus, according to Negrón-Muntaner. The track was performing above its means.

But fast-forward to 2017, and the track was losing faculty faster than it could provide long term replacements. Assistant professor John Gamber left Columbia for Utah State, while Dan Press, a lawyer and Columbia alum, did not get his teaching contract renewed.

A year later, no professor has filled Gamber’s or Press’s vacancies.The cluster of CSER faculty teaching classes in the track has dwindled to Karl Jacoby, Elsa Stamatopoulou, and Simpson, supplemented by visiting professors. Visiting professors have been brought in in past semesters, like Jaskiran Dhillon of the New School and Sandy Grande from Connecticut College, but no permanent replacement for Gamber’s position had been found. Simpson believes the students deserve more from the University: “There should be a political theorist and a political scientist. There should be a federal Indian law professor on faculty teaching this to our students.”

She’s also clear that the issue is not for a lack of academic work in the field: “There are people who are writing books on American Indian law and on researching American Indian law and policy and they're quite excellent. And our students, they sign up for excellence.”

With the lack of a growing faculty, Jacoby expressed concern that the University may lose Audra Simpson as well—and that concern was made credible when she was approached by Northwestern. Jacoby was nervous she would take the position, with its growing Native Studies initiative. Northwestern’s program is building, hiring multiple professors and enacting recommendations made by indigenous voices at the University –– that action and growth seemed absent at Columbia.


So, what are the impacts of these issues on students and faculty?

The first and most basic issue is that the track, as it currently stands, struggles to provide consistency for students. Students like Violet Victoria, a CSER major who graduated in 2018, realized that both professors she had taken classes with were gone and was suddenly at a loss for who would be her academic advisor. Eventually Jacoby, a History and CSER professor, stepped in, despite not usually taking on undergraduate advisees.

Kendall Harvey, a senior in Columbia College and co-president of the Native American Council, points out that, “every Native studies course that I’ve taken, except for one, they've all been conducted by professors who are no longer here at the University.” Even before the untimely exits, Harvey went to CSER in his sophomore year out of concern for the lack of courses available. But his perspective changed in these conversations after he learned that CSER is a center and is therefore limited in the sense of hiring its own faculty, and also understanding that they are functioning with a small staff. These concerning gaps in advising and classes were certainly not created by 2017’s exits, but were certainly exacerbated by them.

The track, and the University as a whole, also fails to provide students with proper representation of native scholars. Beyond Simpson, the only other native professor affiliated with CSER is Kevin Fellezs, who is untenured within the Music department and IRAAS. The question of representation of Native identity in CSER, then, becomes a question of pedagogy. For both professors and students, it is pedagogically imperative to have indigenous people teaching the classes on indigeneity. That is, when faced with the question of why identity matters in this story of CSER’s Indigenous studies track, it becomes evident learning and teaching are changed by it.

The gap also places a large responsibility on Simpson, one that is outside the purview of her academic contract. When Simpson first came to Columbia, she was hired through the Anthropology department, refusing a cross appointment while still untenured. Still, she gave as much support as she could to CSER and the indigenous community at Columbia. Simpson provides personal advising to native students, a burden resting mostly on her shoulders as the only tenured Native professor within CSER. “I was tapped to do everything, to speak at every event that ever was,” Simpson says. She provided counsel to native students feeling underserved by the University, helping them advocate for student advising. Jacoby also sees a disparity in his and Simpson’s workload. From his perspective, all faculty of color face this disparity in workload, but with the exceedingly small pool of native scholars at Columbia, that work is increased exponentially.


So why is Columbia finding it difficult to attract more indigenous faculty to campus? Why, as Jacoby says, “I don’t feel it’s though we’re not identifying really exciting scholars of color. It seems it’s very hard to persuade them that they want to start their careers at Columbia.”

For one, the program here lacks the resources and support comparable institutions like Northwestern and Dartmouth may be able to provide. Northwestern has put obvious resources into growing the field at their university by hiring multiple faculty at once. If a university wants to grow a field they must provide coworkers, mentors, and peers for their scholars. Northwestern’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Center, funded in 2016, functions as an interdisciplinary center similar to CSER. However, there are two important distinctions. First, indigenous studies functions is a center within itself; and second, Northwestern’s intentions are clear in making the field a priority: the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences’ associate dean for academic initiatives, Ann Bradlow, states, “This multidisciplinary research center will help establish Northwestern as a hub of scholarly activity in Native American and Indigenous studies.”

In comparison, Dartmouth’s commitment to indigenous studies reaches back further in time. Dartmouth, like Columbia, exists on land with obvious and direct connections to a Native population. In the college’s founding charter, it states that the college was created "for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land ... and also of English Youth and any others." This history guides Native Studies at the New Hampshire Ivy. Native American Studies is an interdisciplinary pursuit within Dartmouth, in which faculty may still opt for joint appointments with other units; but unlike Columbia, their program allows full hiring power and allows faculty to be affiliated directly with the Native American Studies department.

Bruce Duthu, a professor in Dartmouth’s Native American Studies department, expressed disdain for Columbia’s track-within-a-center model, and argued that it gives less resources to historically marginalized cultures compared with other possible structures. A center that studies the ethnicities and races of historically marginalized cultures now has to advocate among themselves for the fewest resources possible and the least administrative power to control the direction of their field at the University.

These fears of structural inadequacy seem to have been confirmed on a smaller scale in the saga of Columbia’s unsuccessful search for faculty. Sometimes searches fail, but when comparing Barnard’s search and CSER’s, the structural differences are clearly related. Barnard was hiring a candidate through one department, and therefore did not impose extra administrative inhibitors, or have to convince a young academic to take on the daunting task of a joint appointment.

Simpson recognizes this as an injustice: “It's like the greatest thing that can't be. Not the greatest thing that never was, but the greatest thing that can't be because of these structural issues. Because faculty are cut into a million pieces trying to serve their departments, trying to serve CSER, trying to serve these amazing students. And everybody deserves better.” However, though CSER’s center status is relevant to the searches failure, departmentalization, given how long this process would take, is not the most immediately feasible solution.

An alternative solution within the system as is currently available is to hire senior faculty, or make cluster hires. Receiving tenure at Columbia is exceedingly difficult, but a cross appointment in CSER, with its heaping responsibilities and no guarantee of improved resources or structure, is a gamble at best for young scholars who are likely looking for a program with potential for growth and mentorship.

Negrón-Muntaner describes the cluster hire: “Ideally, you’d have two senior people and one junior person, you have a cluster of three, you anchor the field.” Just look at Gamber, in many ways the position’s predecessor, who left without tenure. Candidates may have even been aware that Cristobal Silva, an assistant professor cross appointed within CSER, removed himself from the search committee after not receiving tenure in the English department. If one of the problems is that scholars don’t seem to want to “start their careers at Columbia,” as Jacoby puts it, the answer must be to provide more senior faculty and more possibilities for mentorship and support.

When asked if she thought Columbia was currently capable of attracting those kinds of world-class scholars in this field, Simpson’s answer was simple; “I think Columbia should try to. Definitely try to.”

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