Africana Studies Department at Crossroads after Faculty Turnover

Jonathan Lee ‘20

Senior Staff Writer

Left to right: Dr. Devyn Spence Benson, Africana major Jade Polly ‘19, and Dr. Garry Bertholf pose at convocation. Photo courtesy of Jade Polly ‘19. 

Nearing its fifth anniversary at Davidson, the Africana Studies Department is in a state of flux. While maintaining strong student interest, the department will find itself short-staffed next year according to some majors, prospective majors, and Africana faculty. They also question the long-term future of the department and whether, without more hires, it can sufficiently provide for student needs and interests. 

In the past academic year, six professors switched from core to affiliate status. Core faculty in Africana have voting privileges within the department and are obligated to be major and honors thesis advisors.  Beginning next fall, department chair Dr. Devyn Spence Benson and two affiliate professors will be taking leaves of absence due to sabbaticals and other teaching obligations; a core Africana professor, Dr. Garry Bertholf, will leave Davidson entirely after this semester and another core member will leave the year after next. 

These departures have caused some majors to perceive the department as unstable. The history of department chair turnover adds to this picture. This turnover began with the departure of founding chair Dr. Tracey Hucks, who accepted the position of Provost at Colgate College in 2017. The department has been led by three different chairs in the past three academic years: Hucks, Dr. Caroline Fache, and most recently, Benson. 

Hucks came to Davidson in 2014 and served as the inaugural chair of Africana Studies, helping hire multiple core faculty, including Bertholf. Hucks “is the mother of Africana Studies at Davidson and sparked a movement in academia at the college,” said Daric McKinney ‘19 via email, who added: “Personally, Dr. Hucks was one of the reasons I came to Davidson.” 

Despite her impact on the Davidson community, being offered Provost at her alma mater of Colgate “[was] a difficult thing to say no to for anybody,” according to President Carol Quillen. 

Benson, who chaired while on sabbatical this year, will not teach next year either. Instead, she will be writing and conducting research for her book project on Black Consciousness in Cuba, which is funded by a prestigious fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Though Benson will not teach nor have departmental duties, she will remain in Davidson and continue to advise students. The administration will choose a temporary chair to serve in her stead from the pool of current departmental faculty. Benson will continue teaching in the 2020-2021 school year, at which point she will also finish her time as chair. 

Six core Africana faculty have moved to affiliate status in the past year. In the summer before the 2018-2019 school year, Dr. Gerardo Marti (Professor and Chair of Sociology), Dr. Daniel Aldridge (Professor of History), and Dr. Joseph Ewoodzie (Assistant Professor of Sociology), moved from core to affiliate faculty. 

Before spring break this year, three more professors did the same: Dr. Hilton Kelly (Director, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies/Associate Professor & Chair of Educational Studies), Dr. Laurian Bowles (Chair & Associate Professor of Anthropology), and Fache (Chair & Associate Professor of French & Francophone Studies). 

While core faculty typically commit to teaching courses annually in the department, affiliated faculty can offer cross-listed courses that count for major credit, but are not required to do so regularly. Benson stressed that “affiliate faculty remain committed to Africana Studies. They will continue to teach the same courses that they offered before. This change does not affect the curriculum.”

Ewoodzie and Fache will leave on sabbatical for the upcoming school year. Benson assured that “the departments that [these] people were in are also hiring sabbatical replacements for them.” Assistant Professor of History Dr. Alice Wiemers, another affiliate faculty, will be on sabbatical in the spring. 

Students particularly emphasized the impact of Bertholf’s departure. He will leave Davidson at the end of this semester. He was awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Faculty Fellowship in the Humanities Unbounded Initiative at Duke University for the 2019-2020 academic year. In the fall of 2020, he will begin a tenure-track appointment as an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Wesleyan University. Ultimately, Davidson was unable to match the career and financial opportunities Wesleyan offered. 

“It’s definitely sad to see him go,” Oge Ibida ‘21 expressed. “He’s made such an impact on this campus. He’s influenced a lot of students to be interested in Africana […] It definitely hit me hard, and a lot of students [hard]. I wish Davidson tried their hardest to make him stay. I guess they don’t realize the influence he had.”

Benson characterized his departure as “a devastating loss for Davidson.”

Bertholf was a joint appointment between Africana and English, and Benson explained that “the administration has committed to hiring in that same line [as Bertholf].” She clarified, “we’re not doing that search immediately because so many people are going to be on sabbatical.” 

“Next year, Dr. [Brenda] Flanagan will cover many of Dr. Bertholf’s classes including African American Literature, World Literatures, and a Major Thinkers course on James Baldwin,” Benson mentioned. Flanagan is an affiliate member of the department. 

Though Bertholf’s departure partly demonstrates the “challenges that institutions face in retaining faculty of color,” Benson asserted, she maintained that “those things are typical and happen at a lot of different places.” She added that “talented professors routinely move around and leave institutions for personal and professional reasons—it is a part of the academic life.” 

Both Benson and Chair of the English Department Dr. Shireen Campbell “very strongly and adamantly petitioned the administration to do everything that they could [to retain Bertholf],” said Benson. “We knew how important he was to Africana Studies and English,” she emphasized.

Africana faculty, such as Benson, affirmed the school’s dedication to the department, while also acknowledging the validity of these concerns: “The commitment to Africana Studies is there on the part of the faculty [and] the commitment is there on the part of the administration [but] I can understand and appreciate students’ concerns.” Benson described the department’s current status as experiencing the “typical growing pains” of a young program. 

Quillen clarified the administration’s role and reiterated its support: “these structural questions need to be addressed collaboratively by these amazing faculty […] I can’t tell them what the plan should be; I can tell them I will be supportive of their plan.”

Due to upcoming changes in the administration, Bertholf stressed that Africana is at a crossroads: “A huge part of the administration is leaving. The future of Africana Studies is bound up with who the new Vice President for Academic Affairs/Dean of Faculty is.” Vice President for Academic Affairs & Dean of Faculty Wendy Raymond will depart at the end of the school year to serve as the 16th President of Haverford College. 

Despite vocalized support on behalf of administrators, students still feel that the institutional structure does not support their academic needs.  

In a Perspectives piece on page four of this issue, Africana major Phoebe Son Oh ‘22 and prospective major Ricardo Pinnock ‘22  call for a greater commitment to Africana studies and propose a cluster hire of Africana faculty.

Other Africana majors and prospective majors expressed similar concerns. “I’m very angry. I’m angry at the institution. I’m angry that there’s this lack of transparency with the students,” Ibida said, who added: “Voices aren’t heard.”

“I’m questioning the financial commitment,” Uyen Nguyen ‘20 stated. Saidah Rahman ‘20 highlighted faculty turnover: “It’s one of the fastest growing majors on campus, but if they can’t retain professors, what does that really say about Davidson?” 

Jalin Jackson ‘19 placed some of the onus on the department’s faculty: “The faculty need to take some responsibility in terms of determining the direction of Africana.” 

Africana Studies majors gather at Sankofa induction ceremony  last year.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Garry Bertholf.

Some prospective majors have reconsidered Africana recently. “I was pretty set on Africana, but… I’ve been thinking about it again with what’s been happening,” Ashley Ip ‘22 said. Bertholf stated that he “had a number of conversations with students who have either recently declared or who were thinking about declaring that probably won’t now.”

A few weeks ago, concerned students formed an anonymous student group using the nom de plume James Baldwin to vocalize their concerns to faculty and administration, in part by circulating a manifesto.

On Thursday, March 21st, Benson and Quillen met with Africana majors to answer questions and reassure them of the department’s stability and the administration’s support. 

A major concern for Africana students is advising. Professors who have switched from core to affiliate are no longer required to take on Africana advisees, though they are still able to. These are usually verbal agreements with professors.

In an email, Benson informed majors that “the department recently had a meeting to think about how to re-assign Bertholf’s advisees. Even in doing so, the only person who has more than seven major advisees next year is me […] and as always, the goal will be to keep their advising number on par or below the rest of the college faculty.”

She added that “next year, Drs. Harper-Shipman and Nneka Dennie will serve as major advisors (along with the department’s other faculty) for the first time. They were not able to serve this year because they were in their first year.”

While anxiety amongst majors and potential majors is clear, steps have been taken to alleviate some of the strain on the department. 

Next year’s two core professors, Harper-Shipman and Dennie, were hired in 2018. Harper-Shipman, a political economist and tenure-track hire, is a “100% full line in Africana studies,” according to Benson. Dennie is currently in the first year of her position as Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies. She will stay at Davidson through next year, before taking a tenure-track position in Washington and Lee’s History department. 

These two remaining core faculty, plus a to-be-determined Visiting Professor of Africana Studies, will teach most of next year’s core courses, in addition to leading the department and carrying out departmental tasks. 

Dennie detailed how the lack of faculty will affect her: “Next year, I’ll need to advise some Africana Studies majors and may advise honors theses where appropriate. These responsibilities were not in my original contract.”

“However, because I’m going to be compensated for taking on additional responsibilities, I don’t think that advising is in excess of what I (or other junior faculty) should be expected to carry out,” she added. 

Bertholf asserted that “the administration can always be doing more,” and stressed “there are so many peer institutions who have committed themselves to the field by way of a cluster hire. I think moving forward, that’s probably the best thing.” According to Inside Hire Ed, cluster hiring involves “hiring multiple scholars into one or more departments based on shared, interdisciplinary research interests.”

Dennie agreed about the need for new hires: “The administration needs to grant the Africana Studies Department additional tenure-track lines in order to meet student needs and sustain, if not grow, the major.” She also noted that “two tenure-track/tenured faculty are not sufficient to consistently offer the required and elective courses necessary to complete the major and attract new students.”

Dennie concluded her comments to The Davidsonian by saying, “I trust that the future of Africana Studies at Davidson is secure for the next few years because I know that the chair, Dr. Benson, is doing everything in her power to help the department live up to its potential. For the department to have longevity, though, the Africana Studies faculty and the administration both need to commit to retaining faculty.” 

“At the faculty level, this means allowing the department to go in new directions and being open to change. At the administrative level, this entails supporting faculty, whether it’s through offering competitive salaries, providing adequate funding for research, or reducing the service demands on faculty of color, who are frequently expected to take on additional responsibilities to champion diversity and inclusion at the institution.”

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