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Storm brewing at UMass Boston

Is univ. shutting down Africana Studies?

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Storm brewing at UMass Boston
Africana Studies professors at UMass Boston are decrying the removal of longtime department chairman Robert Johnson.

A shakeup that sidelined the longstanding chairman of the Africana Studies department at UMass Boston has a group of professors there charging that the administration is seeking to dismantle the department.

Author: Don WestRobert Johnson

After two years at its helm, Professor Robert Johnson was relieved of his duties and replaced by Susan Tomlinson, an associate professor of English, whom Johnson’s backers say has little experience with Africana Studies.

The controversy began last year when the College of Liberal Arts denied tenure to two Africana Studies associate professors, Aminah Pilgrim and Veronique Helenon. The moves prompted students to protest the CLA in April. In May, students and Africana Studies faculty held a public forum at which Johnson alleged that the tenure review process was unfair because there were no black faculty on the CLA Collegiate Personnel Committee or in the CLA Dean’s office.

In July, CLA Dean David Terkla removed Johnson from his post.

“At first, I thought it was retaliation, particularly against me,” Johnson said. “I was a major spokesperson against their denial of tenure.”

A spokesman for the university sent a statement to the Banner stating that Johnson’s removal came about as a result of a routine assessment of the department that recommended a leadership change.

“As is the case for every academic program at the university, the Africana studies department is required to periodically undergo an AQUAD (Academic Quality Assessment and Development) review,” reads the statement, attributed to Winston Langley, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “The most recent review, conducted by a team of both external and internal reviewers, recommended strengthening the Africana studies department by bringing in new leadership to oversee the program and recruit and develop new faculty.”

Johnson and his colleagues are keeping pressure on the administration. The Africana Studies professors were scheduled to host a forum on “The Future of Africana Studies at UMass Boston” at the Banner’s Tuesday press time.

Johnson, who received a law degree from Cornell University, specializes in race and law and has written nine books, twelve plays and has published numerous scholarly articles. He notes that Tomlinson, whom Terkla appointed as his replacement, had not specialized in Africana studies or had much involvement with the department.

“In all the years we’ve been here, she has not come to a single lecture or event we’ve hosted,” Johnson said.

Johnson filed a union grievance, alleging that the CLA dean did not have the authority to appoint a chairman to his department.

“Primary responsibility for academic matters rests with the faculty,” he said. “Before any changes, they must consult with the faculty. The faculty has the authority to elect the department chair.”

The changes at UMass Boston come as the college is grappling with years of declining state funding. The state currently spends $1.1 billion on public higher education, down from $1.3 billion in 2001, in inflation-adjusted dollars. Because the Legislature controls both funding and tuition rates for the UMass system, the universities have little leeway in managing their budgets.

The tight budgeting in recent years has led to cuts in the UMass system. At UMass Amherst, the director of the Labor Center departed in August, after she said she was ousted from her position, which has put the center at risk of closing. At UMass Boston, administration officials have moved the faculty from the alternative College of Public and Community Service to other departments as part of what many see as a years-long campaign to dismantle the program.

Johnson says Africana Studies may be facing the same pressure.

“They may be trying to get rid of us to save some money,” he said.