University cuts positions in African-American history

USG signs open letter detailing decision

Sophia Yakumithis, News Editor

An open letter to President Barbara Snyder, Provost Ben Vinson and Dean Cyrus Taylor recently traveled through the student body, calling out the administration for cutting funding in an important position within the Department of History.

On Oct. 30, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) voted to sign the letter, following the CWRU Social Justice Institute, various Greek organizations, students and faculty.

Written by fourth-year student Andrew Thompson, the letter put the spotlight on the central administration’s response to filling a vacant position in African-American history. Rather than replacing a permanent faculty member who moved to a different university with one of the same ranks, it suggested the Department of History instead appoint a visiting professor, a position history professor Ted Steinberg calls a “second-class citizen of the university.”

The University defended the decision, however, stating, “With regard to the position in African American history, the [College of Arts & Sciences] did not have funds available to support a permanent hire. Because of the importance of this area of teaching and scholarship, central administration proposed that the department recommend a visiting professor with expertise in the subject for a two-year term.”

In the spring of 2017, Rhonda Williams, a specialist in African-American history accepted an offer to move to Vanderbilt University and the Department of History immediately began a search for a new permanent faculty member to take the position. While no one was hired during the 2017-18 cycle, the department requested authorization once again to continue the search this academic year. The request was denied.

USG President Maya Rao said, “The General Assembly felt that it was crucial that we as an institution support the field of African American History and African American students on campus. Additionally, since an African and African American Studies minor was recently approved, we wanted to ensure that there is continued support for study in that field.”

Rao added that ensuring the funding of a tenure-track professor is “a top priority” as USG moves forward and that transparency is maintained between CWRU students and College of Arts & Sciences.

Steinberg said that in the meantime, the decision not to provide the department sufficient funding contradicts CWRU’s apparent emphasis on diversity, especially in the context of current events.

“You do have to ask yourself at a university that is touting a program called ‘Diversity 360’ whether this decision conflicts with its goal [to promote faculty diversity],” noted Steinberg.

On Oct. 28, following the terrorist attack in a Pittsburgh synagogue which killed 11, an email entitled “Our Core Values” was sent out to the community from President Snyder, stating, “History is replete with examples of people who perished because of one aspect of their humanity. No matter how complex their personality, they became defined by a single characteristic.”

“You do have to wonder how on one hand, [CWRU] can profess strong values,” said Steinberg, “and on the other hand, cut funding in African American history. There seems to be radical disconnect between these values.”

Taylor explained that various factors led the central administration to its decision, including “existing enrollment, enrollment trends, accreditation requirements, departmental justifications, projected retirements or other departures, and others.” He added, “It also includes assessment of resources available for faculty positions, such as funds available through grants or endowments.”

The decision not to grant the Department of History funding to hire a permanent faculty member also sparked great concern among both students and faculty members in areas like community engagement and the curriculum itself.

In his open letter, Thompson pointed out that the population of Cleveland is 53 percent African American, but the undergraduate student body is only four percent with faculty at just three percent.

“The presence of a tenure-track faculty member and a postdoctoral scholar will not solve these issues, and they shouldn’t bear that weight,” he wrote. “That said, for [Case Western Reserve University’s] administration to decide that now is an appropriate time to de-prioritize the study of African American History is reprehensible.”

As for the curriculum, Steinberg, a U.S. historian, pointed out the complications in teaching subjects like American history without a specialist in African-American history on site. “To my knowledge, there’s no reputable history department in the United States that doesn’t have an African American historian,” he said.

Additionally, he said not replacing the faculty position will be “devastating” to CWRU’s community outreach efforts. “It’s an essential need for our department and for the university.”