When the University announced it had hired famed African writer Chinua Achebe last month, it brought into its Department of Africana Studies one of the world's highest-profile thinkers on Africa. But rather than an isolated move, the hiring is just the latest indicator of a consistent effort to enhance the University's contribution to African scholarship.
"Brown is moving towards … establishing itself as a leader in scholarship on Africa," said Anthony Bogues, professor of Africana studies and the department's former chair. "There's no way we can consider ourselves a leader at this point."
Recent hires, such as Achebe, suggest that "Brown is willing to spend serious resources on scholars who are of and from Africa," said Associate Professor of Anthropology Daniel Smith, whose own research focuses on HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and marriage, mostly in Nigeria.
But despite those efforts, the University has its work cut out to establish itself as a destination for African scholars. The faculty, academic departments and University centers that have long focused their work on the continent are looking to Professor of Anthropology Matthew Gutmann, the new vice president for international affairs, and Michael Kennedy, the new director of the Watson Institute for International Studies, to lead the way.
Bogues said he expects the two new leaders of Brown's internationalization efforts to bolster the University's reputation for scholarship on Africa. "I've been in discussions with both of them, and both have expressed support for movement in this direction," he said.
The University's Africana studies department, which houses much of Brown's interdisciplinary scholarship on Africa, has proposed to introduce a graduate program, an offering that could galvanize Brown's academic reputation in the field. The proposal has been in the works for more than two years, according to Dean of the Graduate School Sheila Bonde.
The proposal for an M.A./Ph.D. program in Africana studies has been approved by the Graduate School Council, Bonde wrote in an e-mail to The Herald, and is slated for review by the Academic Priorities Committee on Oct. 20. If the committee approves the proposal, it will be reviewed next by the faculty and then by the Corporation, Bonde wrote.
The proposal is one of a host of programs drawing attention to the importance of Africa as a subject for research, teaching and collaboration. Last year featured a "Focus on Africa," a series of events and speakers sponsored by the Africana studies department that was similar to the current "Year of India," said Bogues, who directed the series.
Bogues considers each year's focus to be a part of the University's commitment to internationalization and to providing understudied regions such as Africa and Latin America, which enjoyed a similar year of attention two years ago, with "some kind of intellectual home at Brown," he said.
Smith, the associate director of Brown's Population Studies and Training Center, said the center recently received renewed funding to recruit and train young scholars from the developing world — and will now focus exclusively on sub-Saharan Africa. The center provides stipends and scholarships for pre- and post-doctoral population scientists, and plans to support African scholars in their early careers so that "they'll actually be able to go home and benefit their places of origin," Smith said.
The University also recently created a scholarship fund to support undergraduate students from Africa.
Such investments in academic support for African students augment a long history of academic interest in Africa at Brown. Since the mid-1960s, Professor of Anthropology Philip Leis has directed the Africa Group, a loosely organized network of faculty, undergraduates, graduate students and outside scholars that usually hosts events on topics related to Africa.
But this year, Leis said, the Watson Institute has not allocated any money to the Africa Group, an indicator of the University's tight financial situation.
Nor have further plans to create a center for teaching, research and collaboration on Africa materialized, though the University's internationalization committee made establishing such an institute one of its central recommendations more than two years ago.
Still, Leis said he thinks the University's commitment to internationalization, particularly as it pertains to Africa, is "not just lip service."
With Gutmann and Kennedy still new in their posts, the University's road ahead is unclear. But Bogues listed several specific ways he thinks Brown could improve teaching about Africa: regularly offering African languages for study, or hiring faculty who can teach about the political economy of Africa and who specialize in the politics of Africa's regions.
Bogues said he recognized the limitations on how quickly Brown can build its international reputation. "The process has begun," he said, "but you can't become a global university in two years."
"I've been on the job for four weeks, and in four weeks I have not set policy on everything," Gutmann said.
Calling Brown's work in Africa "extremely important," he added that "we plan to build on the successful work we have in South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana, many other places, and build these into signature programs for Brown."
Gutmann emphasized that Brown faculty and students are already doing important work in Africa. "It's not a question of starting from scratch," he said. "Brown is not going global. Brown is global."