The story begins in a promising way. In 1956, C.S. "Syl" Whitaker, Jr., after graduating with high honors from Swarthmore College, became the first black graduate student accepted by the university's prestigious department of politics. My father wrote his doctoral thesis on the transition from colonial rule to independence in Nigeria, and it was published as a book entitled "The Politics of Tradition". After receiving his doctorate, he was recruited by UCLA, where he obtained the position and became assistant dean of the graduate school at age 30.
Then in 1969, after the most publicized uprisings in Berkeley, Columbia, and Harvard, Princeton's small contingent of black students occupied New South Hall in protest of the university's investments in South Africa. In a calculated attempt to deflect those costly divestment cries, President Robert Goheen and Chancellor William Bowen accepted another student's demand: the creation of a Black Studies curriculum. Because my father was one of the few Princeton alumni to reach his academic height, they set out to lure him back with an apparently attractive offer to chair a new "African American Studies Program" and a permanent position at Woodrow Wilson School. .
My father agreed, but soon discovered that the university did not take the creation of the academically rigorous black studies department he envisioned very seriously. A 1968 committee chaired by Princeton economist William Baumol had recommended an annual budget of $ 500,000 for a program that would eventually include eight tenured professors, a library, a research center, and graduate education. But when my father arrived, the first year's budget had been reduced to $ 63,000.
My father had to make a condition of his hiring that the university provide a small building on the edge of campus and sufficient funds to buy scarce modern Danish furniture. He was the only full faculty member in the program, and had to prepare a course that offered administrative staff with an interest in black history, visiting university professors from other universities, and occasional guest lecturers, including a book publisher and an aspiring novelist named Toni Morrison
At the same time, sadly, my father fell victim to another Princeton tradition: chronic use. As a graduate student, he had been under the influence of a charismatic senior white professor in the politics department who was also an alcoholic. Now back in his mentor's orbit, and tormented by the lack of support he was receiving from cynical administrators and the dubious white faculty, my father began to drink more than ever.
That vice had long been tolerated among Princeton's white faculty. But he soon concluded, from the administration but also from my proud father in his sober days, that it would not be good for someone who was supposed to announce the university's new commitment to the black scholarship. When his attempts to quit drinking at a local clinic failed, the university stripped my father of his presidency and eventually forced him to step down and resign by promising to pay the bill for the expensive rehabilitation treatment.
While my father was fighting his demons, the acting presidency of African American Studies was handed over to Badi Foster, a black graduate student who had helped lure him from UCLA. But Foster was only awarded the rank of professor and a mere $ 20,000 increase in the program's annual budget. Frustrated after two years as a placeholder, he announced plans to move to a full-time position at Rutgers. The job was given to a newly hired associate professor of Near East Studies named John R. Willis. After a year, Willis also concluded that the cause was futile as long as Princeton refused to create a royal department rather than a program of requirements from other disciplines that awarded students only a patronizing "certificate of proficiency."
In 1973 Princeton hired sociologist Howard F. Taylor of Syracuse to direct the program, and Taylor at least brought stability by remaining in the position for 15 years. But it was only when Princeton named the highly popular lecturer and philosopher Cornel West to head up his renowned African American Studies Program in 1988 that he began to gain royal prestige. West was succeeded by Valerie Smith (now President of Swarthmore), who secured a prominent home for the program at Stanhope Hall in the center of campus. However, it was only five years ago, under the leadership of eminent religious scholar and television commentator Eddie Glaude, Jr., that African-American studies became an entire department that college students could focus on. Meanwhile, in an expired celebration of his former black lights, Princeton named a Hall and an auditorium, respectively, to honor Nobel Laureates Toni Morrison and economist Sir Arthur Lewis, and a Center for Equality after Carl A. Field. , the oldest black administrator at the university. .
Along with the latest decision to rename the Woodrow Wilson School, these concrete changes reflect another, broader lesson: about who sits at the highest decision-making tables. As Rector of Princeton in the 1980s, Neil Rudenstine helped the university attract Cornel West; Later, as President of Harvard in the 1990s, Rudenstine hired and trained black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. to build the best Department of African American Studies in the world. As associate dean of Princeton, Ruth Simmons supported Valerie Smith in her expansion efforts before becoming the first black president of Smith College and Brown University. Princeton current President Christopher Eisgruber was guided to Woodrow Wilson's resolution by University Administrator Brent Henry, a prominent black medical lawyer who appropriately received his degree from the Wilson School in that fateful year of 1969.
However, as Princeton accepts his imperfect legacy in the race, he must not forget the first generation of black scholars and administrators who were sent into battle with so little reinforcement. In my father's case, he proved his worth when, after leaving Princeton and drying himself, he became dean at Rutgers and the University of Southern California. Foster chaired the Phelps-Stokes Fund for Africa's Development and has only recently been recognized for having a jackpot that bears his name. Willis stayed at Princeton to become a tenured professor and do prophetic work on the global reach of Islam.
These early beleaguered pioneers did not fail Princeton: Princeton failed them. Perhaps it is time for the university to follow the big decision on Woodrow Wilson with the modest amendments to find a place to hang the portraits of these academics or honor them as a group on campus.