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The Point: The Mass Media and Africana Studies

11/7/2022

Greetings, Colleagues:

Subject: A Student Journalist’s Take on the Dismantling of Africana Studies

Action: Read the article and attend today’s Faculty Council meeting to hear its resolution on Africana Studies

The Communications Committee of the FSU is pleased to present an article from the student paper, The Mass Media, that was posted on October 31.  A robust student voice has, for decades, been a crucial part of progressive change on university campuses, and we are delighted to see the student paper create space to engage with the very troubling developments surrounding our Africana Studies Department in recent years.  In this thorough and upsetting opinion piece, James Cerone treats these complex issues with care and thoughtfulness.  The Communications Committee shares the Mass Media article not as some kind of blanket endorsement—the truth is that we rarely all agree on every word of our own that we blast out together.  But we admire the sincere effort to ask a simple yet profound question: what on earth is going on at a campus that has rebranded as an “antiracist and health promoting” university while upper administration actively dismantles its Africana Studies Department?

Sincerely,

The Communications Committee:

Lynne Benson, Senior Lecturer, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Jessica Holden, Librarian III, Healey Library

Linda Liu, Lecturer, Sociology

Jeff Melnick, Professor, American Studies

For information on the FSU, links to our contract and bargaining updates, and a calendar of events, see the FSU webpage

Our administration’s treatment of Africana Studies is not anti-racist: it’s racist

James Cerone

http://www.umassmedia.com/opinions/our-administration-s-treatment-of-africana-studies-is-not-anti-racist-it-s-racist/article_a0e1e5ec-5660-11ed-ad4f-b77730b8c947.html

Walk around campus and you’ll see them; wanted posters for the UMass Boston leadership and black handprints on red backgrounds, all crying out for justice for Africana Studies. I’ve been seeing and hearing about horrible things going on with that department for a year now—ever since I first set foot on campus—and the situation has certainly been going on longer than that. But I never quite understood what was happening, and I’m sure most of you are equally as confused. What’s going on? How can we help?

Well, I found out. And it’s…it’s bad. Really bad.

We have a news story in the works that will explain the ins-and-outs of what’s going on between the administration and Africana Studies. But I’ll do my best to fill you in here too before I, hopefully, help you to digest this outrage. These insights come from the amazing work of Professor Jemadari Kamara, who is currently the chair of Africana Studies, and Professor Tim Sieber, who just retired this year, but has been on the community advisory board for Africana Studies for a long time and is still very much involved.

Basically, after a loss of many faculty members a few years back, our administration has bricked up the door to Africana Studies by canceling search after search for new faculty members for vague reasons. It seems that previous searches, according to Professor Seiber, have involved faculty members from Africana Studies; Professor Kamara is the only fully serving member at this point in time, with the rest being affiliates from other departments and colleges. According to Professor Kamara, the administration is deciding not to even consult the Africana Studies department in future searches at all, let alone seek their participation. A formal “report” on the department has been kept mostly secret from faculty members, and the administration has attempted to remove Professor Kamara as chair without documentation. Promotions, despite the lack of faculty, have essentially been frozen.

I despise using this word, but not as much as I despise the actions of our administration, so I’ll use it; the treatment that Africana Studies has suffered is unprecedented. Tim Sieber has worked at UMass Boston for 48 years—since our Columbia Point campus opened in 1974—and yet he told me he “can’t think of another time where a department has been treated this way, honestly.” The only precedent that does exist is with earlier treatments of Africana Studies itself—no other department. But Professor Sieber says that the past two to three years, since the loss of faculty members, things have gotten exponentially worse.

What’s the administration’s excuse for all of this? Unbelievably, they’re laying blame at the feet of the department. They point their finger and say that Africana Studies faculty members “don’t exercise good leadership” and shouldn’t get a say in their future, according to Professor Sieber. This may sound disturbingly familiar to our history buffs and our Black students, who have faced rhetoric like this time and time again. Why is a department dedicated to the study and advancement of the African Diaspora and run primarily by Black professors the only one being labeled as incompetent and poorly run? Why is this department alone being shut out of decision making on its future?

This reeks of racism. Scratch that, this is racism. All that Africana Studies wants is to stop being unfairly singled out, stop being dismantled and to have proper say in their future. The faculty that remain are top notch; Professor Kamara is well known for his work in West Africa, pushing for indigenous leadership and global reparations, and Professors Anthony Van Der Meer and Keith Jones won the UMass Boston distinguished service in 2022. This is hardly “poor leadership” and, in fact, is indicative of the fact that Africana Studies is one of the most crucial anti-racist bulwarks in our school.

I’ll put this in simple, unequivocal and harsh terms—our racist administration is frustrated with an “uppity” Africana Studies department. And, as I alluded to, this isn’t the first time that Africana Studies has been targeted in this way.

Professor Sieber told me that years ago, an older administration leadership began picking on Africana Studies and actually put them under receivership—people who follow Boston politics and education might remember this term from the most recent mayoral race. Basically, it means that an outside organization, sometimes the government, installs temporary leadership in order to save a failing education program. Well, the guy they picked to lead Africana Studies was a white man with no connection to the department and subject matter at all, who didn’t get along with anyone in the department and who eventually was forced to leave the position.

I have to say—it’s not really a good look to assign a White man with no connection to the field of study the job of, essentially, whipping an “uppity” Africana Studies department into shape. Apologies for the bluntness, but it’s how I, and I’m sure many others, see it. It’s racist, and it’s shameful. And while this specific and egregious action was the responsibility of an older administration, it seems that the apple has not fallen very far from the tree.

Basically, I am totally angry and incensed at what our administration is doing to Africana Studies and its faculty, and the racist narratives they are spinning about them. It’s doubly disgusting coming from the very same leaders who love to profess their “anti-racist” values and claim how anti-racist our school is. Jemadari Kamara is certainly angry—and so is Tim Sieber, who sent out one of the most scathing letters I’ve ever read to Chancellor Suarez-Orozco, Provost Berger and Dean King-Meadows. He covers a lot in it, and I highly encourage students and faculty to reach out to Professor Sieber at Tim.Sieber@umb.edu, Professor Kamara at Jemadari.Kamara@umb.edu or even me at James.Cerone001@umb.edu for a copy to read yourself. Professor Sieber closes out with an unequivocal warning: “It's just a matter of time before this becomes, once again, news on a local, statewide, and national level: another self-inflicted embarrassment to UMass Boston.”

So, what can we do? Well, that’s a bit tricky—I’m not sure if the faculty and staff unions have taken up this issue formally, though they have spoken about it in the past—but there are ways we can help. Firstly, we really need to make our voices heard about this in any way we can. Talk to your friends, classmates, professors and staff members. There’s a lot of confusion about what’s going on right now, but if everyone knew the whole extent of this travesty, we might have serious mass discontent right now.

Talk about this with anyone you meet too; the biggest thing that is really going to get the administration scared is if this, as Professor Sieber said, becomes bad press for UMass Boston.

“Take a stand or at least raise questions,” he pressed.

He also recommends that students can sit in on the meetings between the administration and Africana Studies that have begun just a few weeks ago and make their voices heard. He instructs people to contact the department first though, to get more information and dates, and to reach out to Africana Studies professors to see what else you can do to help.

“It takes a lot of sacrifice to be a student these days,” Sieber told me. He expresses quite a lot of sadness that students must be asked to take action on such matters. You see, Tim believes it should be the student’s job to study and flourish, and that they shouldn’t have to be responsible for keeping school admins in check; but unfortunately, it’s often necessary. I agree to some extent. But I also believe that tragedy brings opportunity—and we as students should take this opportunity to make a real difference, to be actively anti-racist and to improve our school.

As Professor Sieber said, “When students get involved, it makes a huge difference.”