Stanford’s African and African-American Studies moves closer to becoming a department

Emeritus Claude Steele (bottom-right) and Stanford trustee and alumnus Charles Y

Emeritus Claude Steele (bottom-right) and Stanford trustee and alumnus Charles Young (top-left) joined President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell during Monday’s Campus Conversation to discusses the university’s racial justice initiatives. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

At a wide-ranging Campus Conversation about the university’s racial justice initiatives, Provost Persis Drell announced that a committee will be formed to develop the details of making Stanford’s Program in African and African American Studies a department.

African and African-American Studies (AAAS) is a step closer to becoming a department as a result of a task force recommendation accepted by Provost Persis Drell and School of Humanities & Sciences Dean Debra Satz.

The Framework Task Force, which includes faculty from throughout the university, was formed to consider a new infrastructure at Stanford for the study of race and the effects of race on society. Last Thursday, it made its recommendation about AAAS to Drell and Satz. The task force recommended in principle the departmentalization of African and African American Studies and suggested the formation of a subcommittee to develop the details.

Drell announced during a wide-ranging Campus Conversation on Monday that she and Satz accepted the recommendation and are forming a subcommittee that will consider such details as the intellectual scope of the proposed department, a plan for a curriculum, an assessment of faculty needs and a detailed timeline for implementation. Among the issues to be addressed is whether faculty are willing to relocate their appointments to the new department.

Joining Drell and President Marc Tessier-Lavigne at the "Campus Conversation: Stanford’s Racial Justice Initiatives" were Claude Steele, the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences, Emeritus, and Stanford trustee and alumnus Charles Young. Steele co-chairs Stanford’s Community Board on Public Safety and the Framework Task Force. Young, who is chief operating officer and executive vice president of Invitation Homes, chairs the university’s Black Community Council.

In their presentations and answers to questions, the four addressed issues ranging from progress in hiring a more diverse faculty to examples of discrimination on campus to the future of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. In each case, they said they recognize that the campus community - and the many people involved in the myriad of initiatives underway - feel an urgent need for change.

Steele expressed confidence in the university’s ability to create change both on campus and in higher education.

"In responding to this national moment and reckoning in this area of racial justice and racial inequality, I think it is new for Stanford to step into a leadership role like this," Steele said. "I appreciate that. I think that is stepping up to a challenge that is very significant in higher education. It’s a big deal."

Exciting first step

Drell called the formation of the AAAS subcommittee "an exciting first step" toward departmentalization and made clear her support for the Framework Task Force’s interim recommendation.

But Drell warned that it will not be until next year that the faculty who want to move to the department will develop a proposal that will be reviewed by the dean, Advisory Board and, ultimately, the Board of Trustees, which must approve a new department.

At this point, some 5,665 people have signed a petition that began circulating last summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, calling for AAAS to become a department. The petition, which pointed to similar departments at peer institutions, was created by the Black Student Union and Black Graduate Student Association.

AAAS, directed by historian Allyson Hobbs, celebrated the 50th anniversary of its creation as Stanford’s first ethnic studies program in 2019. It was the first African and African American Studies program created at a private institution in the United States.

As work proceeds on AAAS, Drell said the Framework Task Force will continue its work. Steele told those participating in the Campus Conversation that committee members will likely soon propose the establishment of an outward-facing research center or similar organization. Such an entity, he said, would be a confederation of centers across campus that study race and the consequences of racial inequality.

"We have over 100 faculty from the medical school to the education school who are leaders in this area," Steele said. "The idea is to create an entity that would make the whole greater than the sum of the parts and create a community of researchers who would focus on some of the major issues around racial justice and racial inequality."

Initiative updates

Drell, Steele and Young also updated the campus community on other initiatives, many included in Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access in a Learning Environment (IDEAL) and outlined by the president in a letter last June, including:

  • The Black Community Council and the Community Board on Public Safety
  • Training and education programs for faculty, students and staff
  • Significant investments in the community of scholars focused on race and ethnicity, including the Provostial IDEAL Fellows Program and a faculty cluster hire

For instance, Drell announced that the university had received "an amazing pool of applicants" for the Provostial Scholars program, which she described as "an ambitious, multi-year commitment to recruit and support early career researchers, just past PhD, whose scholarship focuses on race and the impacts of race." Offers have gone out to prospective faculty members, with acceptances already coming in and appointment announcements expected soon.

In addition, the university has launched a search for 10 faculty members under the auspices of two "cluster-hire" search committees - one for humanities and sciences and the other in STEM fields. The new faculty members’ work will involve the effects of race on society in disciplines, ranging from the humanities and social sciences to law and business to engineering and sustainability.

Steele said his committee, which is focused on the humanities and sciences, received more than 1,000 applicants from "stunningly impressive academics" for six billets. Four offers are currently being made. He expects the committee’s work in filling the entire six billets to continue into the next year.

Drell said the new faculty hires will help make the faculty as diverse as the Stanford student body is increasingly becoming.

"We have been excited to see the growing diversity of our undergraduate and graduate students, but this diversity is not reflected in the composition of the faculty," Drell said. "We believe that a diverse student body needs to learn from an equally diverse faculty."

Also, as part of her updates about IDEAL, Drell reminded the campus community of new dashboards on the IDEAL website that outline the composition of the Stanford community in greater detail.

"We’ve never before released demographic data about the Stanford community at this level of detail," Drell said. "The reason we’re sharing this information is to improve transparency about who we are and monitor our progress toward all forms of equality. We just aren’t going to make advancements in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion unless we have a clear picture of our community, and can see where we need to improve and measure how we’re progressing."

Public Safety

Steele also reported on the work of the Community Board on Public Safety, which he co-chairs with Patrick Dunkley, deputy athletics director. The board, which includes members from throughout the campus, was appointed in July 2020 to assess the needs and concerns of the community related to policing, including community safety and equity of experience among students, faculty and staff.

Steele said committee members have been interviewing stakeholders and analyzing data. He anticipates that the committee’s work will result in recommendations by the end of the academic year. The group hopes to then continue to help the university monitor the results of recommendation implementation.

"It has certainly been the case - particularly for our minority students, faculty and staff - that for a long time they’ve had real concerns about being treated fairly on campus, feeling safe and secure on campus and feeling like they belong on campus," Steele said. "I think that is going to be a real essential focus of this board."

Black Community Council

Young, who holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s in business administration from Stanford, said a key part of the Black Community Council (BCC) charge will be to hold the university and its leadership accountable for the initiatives outlined in the president’s June letter.

Although it is early in the council’s process, Young said council members are determined to "amplify the voice of the Black community" on campus and to "use the council as a conduit to get issues and suggestions and solutions" to the president and provost. Members plan to recommend specific metrics for measuring success.

Young identified two issues that the BCC is focusing on, including respectful and equitable treatment of Black staff and faculty and Black representation throughout the university at all levels, but especially in leadership positions.

He expressed pride in the council, which he said consists of people who "care deeply about the university" and who are "not afraid to be critical when necessary." He called their conversations thus far "robust" and said the 12 members are currently doing outreach to various campus constituencies. From those meetings, he expects the identification of both long-term and short-term issues. In the meantime, he encourages anyone to submit suggestions and concerns to blackcommunitycouncil@stanford.edu.

Young also shared his Stanford journey, which started at his childhood home on the Southside of Chicago. He recounted that, when he arrived in 1986, he was surprised to find he was the only Black student-athlete in his football recruitment class. That was the first of many experiences he has had being the first or only Black person in the room.

"I’ve seen it all," he said. "I’ve experienced and witnessed mistreatment, discrimination and isolation of Black people - and frankly, just like many who are listening to this session right now. Today, this work for me is about empowering others to be their most authentic and full self."

He added, "The immediate opportunity in front us is to eliminate situations of bias, discrimination and isolation from this amazing institution. We need to get there."

President’s thanks

As part of his remarks, Tessier-Lavigne thanked members of the campus community who have participated in Black History Month events. He noted, in particular, a series of conversations, roundtables and film screenings organized by the Black Community Services Center.

"As Persis and I said in our message to the community earlier this month, it is critical that we all increase our knowledge of the Black diaspora, especially at a time when we are grappling with the racial injustices that still exist across our society," he said. "By delving deeper into the history, culture and achievements of the Black community, we can increase our understanding of this country’s past and current issues around race."

Tessier-Lavigne also thanked faculty, students and staff who have shared their personal experiences with racism on the Stanford campus, both during Black History Month events and as part of the initiatives underway across campus.

He called the testimony of those who have shared their experiences "powerful and deeply moving," adding, "I’m also grateful to the students, faculty, staff and alumni who are working directly on these initiatives and helping to ensure that we make meaningful progress that is sustainable in the long-term."

Drell echoed the president’s sentiments, saying, "I’ve really been impressed by the commitment of the Stanford community to the goals of the IDEAL initiative. It’s this commitment that will allow us to bring about concrete and long-lasting change, both to the university and to society, in general."

Racism against Asians/Asian-Americans

The president also expressed concern about a recent uptick in acts of racism, including violent attacks, against Asians and Asian-Americans, particularly in the Bay Area.

"I want to be clear again that acts of racism and hatred have no place at Stanford,” he said. "Our Asian and Asian-American students and scholars are an essential part of our Stanford family, and we stand in full support of them.”


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