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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Search for director indicates health of AAAS

Published: November 4, 2011
Section: Front Page

The African and Afro-American Studies (AAAS) department began looking for a new chair this year despite the university’s plans to turn the department into a program and reduce resources under the 2008 Curriculum and Academic Restructuring (CARS) Plan.

With a rich history, AAAS and its affiliated faculty viewed the threat of downsizing as especially painful.

“The department here at Brandeis is one of the oldest in the country,” Professor Ibrahim Sundiata (HIST) said. “It was born out of struggle.”

The struggle continued as the university found itself in need of funds after a global economic recession. Through the “impassioned appeals” of faculty, AAAS averted any action to change the department to an inter-curricular program, department chair Faith Smith (AAAS) said. Beyond the loss of autonomy, the demotion to a program could have harmed the curriculum and units offered, diminishing the attention and resources AAAS receives.

“African and Afro-American Studies, given its history in the university—and because it’s always been under-resourced—we thought it would be best to remain a department. As a program, we would attract even less attention,” Smith said.

While AAAS was ultimately not turned into a program, the department is still struggling with a smaller number of faculty than other departments. It needs an African-American historian to teach classes, and their new search for a department chair allows them to “return to normal level,” as they replace a retiring position, Smith said.

The new hire in the AAAS is anticipated for next spring. Sundiata has begun to review the applications and believes that a “superlative” candidate will be found. He is excited about the faculty-involved hiring process because the current faculty want to make sure that their new chair will “be a Brandeisian.”

They are looking at not only a combined department chair and African-American historian but they are also considering applicants in other fields. “We have a good number of really great applicants,” Sundiata said.

Throughout the university, the cuts were not limited to humanities or social sciences, as Smith had previously believed.

“As you begin to hear more and more from your colleagues and work on cross-curriculum committees … we’re all over extended. It’s a matter of feeling more or less tired.” These strains are not uncommon for private universities, but national media outlets have targeted Brandeis’ financial troubles because of its controversial decision to sell art from The Rose Art Museum in 2009.

The publicity created controversy in hiring. Smith explained, “One of the first questions that I get from colleagues at conferences is ‘Were you that school who was going to sell off all your art?’”

Now The Rose Art Museum has recently re-opened and Smith hopes that the university will discover a new and positive image, especially with the new administration’s commitment to the humanities.

Smith said she values the openness of the new administration and appreciates that officials recognize the research of faculty, hoping that these qualities, and not the previous stories of The Rose and draconian budget cuts, will rebuild Brandeis’ image and reputation in the academic community and across the country.

A renewed attention on the humanities, however, did not begin with a new administration. After the financial crash in 2008, the university has begun to refocus gradually on its mission of liberal arts and social justice. Under former President Jehuda Reinharz, Brandeis received $22.5 million from the Mandel Foundation to build the new Mandel Center for the Humanities, which opened last fall.

“The existence of the Mandel Humanities Center has created a sense of excitement. With the center, there has been a renewed sense that what we do counts,” Smith said.

Appreciation for the liberal arts and humanities expanded when the university enabled AAAS to search for a new chair and maintain their current number of faculty.

While Smith said the department is glad they were “given the chance to get ahead in line,” faculty feel a sharp sense of survivor’s guilt, and the future is still tenuous.

“It’s hard to celebrate for two things. It’s hard to understand that you’re a survivor when others didn’t make it. And you’re surviving at your previous shaky level.”