An Ethically Challenged Black Studies Department

Troubles continue to mount for the black studies program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Three weeks ago an internal review of the program showed 54 phantom courses over three years–classes that had never actually been taught. Last week, the Pope Center’s Jane Shaw reported that the university had asked “the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) to look into possible fraud in the department. In the words of UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp, the purpose is to investigate ‘potential criminal activity’ in connection with the former chairman of the department, Julius Nyang’oro, and his teaching of a course last summer.” 

The announcement represented a major reversal; as recently as May 8, UNC system president Tom Ross told the News & Observer that the university considered the matter closed, as “this was an isolated situation and that the campus has taken appropriate steps to correct problems and put additional safeguards in place.”

In a different environment, a scandal of this magnitude would trigger some hard questions about the merits of the program in question–in this case, UNC’s African and African-American Studies Department. But, as Mark Bauerlein and Richard Vedder have pointed out here, these departments are “one of the more insecure units on campus,” with a feeling of disrespect intensified by racial politics. The result is that such departments generally proceed apace free from challenge: “Instead of speaking their minds, entertaining contrary opinions, and maintaining a vigorous marketplace of ideas and inquiries, people adhere to current pieties, monitor the prevailing winds, and balance their fear of colleagues with wrath and contempt for outsiders.”

But UNC’s African-American Studies Department deserves a hard look, scandal or not. The department is quite large–17 tenured or tenure-track members, plus several lecturers or part-time faculty. An outside observer might assume that UNC needs a department of this size because African and African-American themes are not reflected in other departments on campus.

That, however, does not appear to be the case. The English Department, for instance, has four professors who specialize in African-American literature–including the co-editor of The Oxford Companion to African American Literature; the editor of Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology; and a professor whose latest book project is entitled Words without Masters: The Poetics of Metaphor in African American Literature. The department also employs several professors who specialize in post-colonial literature.

UNC’s political science department faculty includes the co-authors of Democratic Socialism in Jamaica; a professor who has served as a consultant on issues of constitutional design in many African countries (including Angola, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, and Zimbabwe); a professor whose research interests include “civil rights compliance of labor unions”; and a specialist in race and politics, whose last publication is “The Impact of Explicit Racial Cues on Gender Differences in Support for Confederate Symbols and Partisanship.”

A Race-Heavy History Department

The North Carolina History Department features two professors of African history. Of the department’s 24 tenured or tenure-track U.S. historians, meanwhile, at least 13 have research that in some way explores race in America, with such topics as black historical memory in the South since the Civil War; engaging music to examine black life and culture; and African-American women and social movements. To give a sense of the university’s priorities: the same department has one specialist in the history of U.S. foreign relations.

Figures such as these suggest that it would be hard to argue that African or African-American Studies topics are under-represented in UNC’s liberal arts departments. Given that the African and Afro-American Studies Department has caused the university a major scandal; that the topics covered by the department’s faculty appear to be duplicative; and that UNC, like public universities all around the country, is under pressure to restrain spending, why wouldn’t now be the time the university to reorganize? At the very least, why are the trustees at UNC (and, if necessary, the state legislature) not asking questions about whether the post-scandal department represents an appropriate allocation of resources?

The department, at the least, seems worried about the financial issue. In a peculiar move for an academic department at an elite university, the department’s official webpage has a “support this department” link (right alongside such typical topics as faculty, courses, and departmental news), informing visitors, “The Department of African and Afro-American Studies depends on the generous gifts of our many friends and alumni. Private gifts sustain the Department’s mission of teaching, research, and service. Such gifts help provide the best possible historical education for our undergraduate and graduate students, build a lively intellectual community, and support the innovative work of our faculty.”

North Carolina’s is not the only black studies department in the Triangle to have an ethical blemish on its recent record. During the lacrosse case, Duke’s African & African-American Studies Program played the key role in galvanizing the Group of 88. Eighty percent of the program’s faculty signed the Group of 88 ad, which proclaimed that something “happened” to the false accuser and promised to “turn up the volume” regardless of what happened in the case. In violation of Duke policies, the program used official university funds to run the ad in the campus paper; in violation of Duke policies, the program went several months with the ad on its official homepage; and in violation of academic norms, the program-financed ad falsely claimed that several other Duke academic departments had officially endorsed the ad. (In fact, none had done so.) Despite (or, perhaps, because of?) that record, in December 2006 the Duke trustees unanimously elevated the program to departmental status, allowing its faculty to start training Ph.D. students.

To make clear its contempt for open-mindedness, the new department then brought in as its new chairman J. Lorand Matory, who as a Harvard professor sponsored the original, anti-Israel, no-confidence resolution against Larry Summers. Recent events highlighted on the department’s webpage include “What If Du Bois had Twitter?”; “Creating S.T.E.M. Researchers in the ‘Hood'”; and a departmental graduate student presentation with a perfectly politically correct title: “A Prison-Industrial Complex Context for Morrison’s Beloved.

The student’s advisor, naturally, was a Group of 88 member.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *