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Q&A: The departmentalization of Stanford’s African and African American Studies (AAAS) program

Two academic leaders involved in departmentalizing the African and African American Studies (AAAS) program at Stanford explain the process and the rationale for the move.

In summer 2020, shortly after the killing of George Floyd and continued Black Lives Matters protests to end racial injustice, the Black Student Union (BSU) and Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) circulated a petition calling for the departmentalization of the African and African American Studies (AAAS) program at Stanford.

In October, Provost Persis Drell announced that she was creating the Framework Task Force, which was charged with “recommending a new infrastructure at Stanford for the study of race and the impacts of race on society.” Ultimately, the goal of the task force is to identify ways in which Stanford can increase research and teaching about race that can lead to overcoming racism and inequality in our world.

This February, the university announced that Provost Drell and Dean Debra Satz of the School of Humanities and Sciences accepted the task force’s recommendation to move AAAS forward to becoming a department.

Here, Dean Satz, the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Professor Claude Steele, co-chair of the task force and the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences, Emeritus, discuss key issues and the process toward AAAS’s departmentalization, as well as the rationale for the change.


What is the rationale for departmentalizing AAAS at this point?

Claude Steele (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Steele: I think the recommendation to the provost and H&S dean to put AAAS on a path toward departmentalization is rooted in a number of considerations:

First, it has become abundantly clear that African and African American studies have become, especially over the last 40 years or so, a large, revelatory and high-quality area of research and scholarship with implications for, and relationships to, many other important areas of research and scholarship. Its strength supports strength in many disciplines.

Almost all of our peer institutions have now departmentalized African and African American studies. And many colleagues at these institutions testify to the benefits of departmentalization – to the richness of academic life on their campuses, to meeting a growing student appreciation of the importance of this area of knowledge to their education and eventual work lives, to the recruitment and retention of Black and minority faculty, and more.

It also became clear that departmentalization is critical to building academic strength in this area. While the development of this field benefits in major ways from work in many humanities and social sciences disciplines especially, it is clear that strengthening this area on campus will require faculty whose primary focus is in this area of work and program development.

Thus departmentalization, and the ability it confers to make faculty appointments (either half-time, especially early in the department’s development, or full-time), is the most straightforward way of accomplishing this. It is also clear that the ability to make such appointments in a department of African and African American studies is critical to recruiting and retaining strong faculty in this and related areas.

There is also skyrocketing student demand in this area – for coursework, for an integrated curriculum, and for research and scholarship opportunities. As an IDP, AAAS has grown to nearly 50 majors. Also, an increasing number of students from every part of campus want coursework in this area.

Lastly, a strong AAAS department, along with our other strong programs in race and ethnic studies – CCSRE, the Martin Luther King Jr., Research and Education Institute, the Stanford Center for Racial Justice and the Institute for Diversity in the Arts (IDA) – will help assert Stanford’s leadership in this increasingly important area of research, scholarship and teaching.


What are the differences and similarities between departments and interdisciplinary programs?

Debra Satz (Image credit: Richard Morgenstein)

Satz: In the School of Humanities and Sciences, there are 23 departments and 25 interdisciplinary programs, often referred to as IDPs or programs. Some of our most popular majors are IDPs and they can be bigger or smaller than departments.

In general, departments are organized around single disciplines, like history, psychology, or biology. They share a method or set of methods of inquiry; they have established procedures for peer review, and they can appoint faculty in their disciplines. Most of our doctoral programs (but not all) are organized around single disciplines. The reasons for this are straightforward: as a philosopher, I am well trained to assess and comment on work in my field. However, I lack similar expertise when it comes to work in quantum mechanics, much as I have interests in that domain.

By contrast, in general, our programs are interdisciplinary. Because of their breadth across multiple disciplines, programs do not hold faculty appointments. Instead, they leverage the expertise and assessment of the departments to appoint faculty. Our IDPs bring leading scholars from their departmental disciplines together to address interdisciplinary topics and problems. Or, in the case in programs, faculty from many departments, like English, economics and political science for example, can offer courses so students learn from faculty across multiple academic areas.

The reason for the “in general” qualification is that we have a few programs with the ability to search jointly with departments: the Woods Institute for the Environment, the Center for Ethics in Society, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) and a few interdisciplinary departments, such as the biophysics program in the Department of Physics.

In the final analysis, peer review is critical to our ability to assess quality and remain at the forefront of research. One of the questions that will face the new proposed Department of AAAS is the scope for such a department. The broader the scope, the more inclusive the department will be, but there are going to be challenges determining scholarly evaluation and assessment. For example, an art history professor is unlikely to be able to judge the quality of work of an economist. However, these issues are not insurmountable. I am confident the subcommittee will make strong recommendations to these and other issues.


What issues does the subcommittee need to address and solve before AAAS can become a department?

Steele: As a process overseen by the faculty, the path toward departmentalization has several stages.

The first is to develop a broad conception of AAAS that will enable it to be as strong an academic department as possible, that will enable it to have as distinctive a Stanford identity as possible, and that will enable it to support other developments in the area of race and ethnic studies on campus.

This phase will be managed by a soon-to-be-appointed subcommittee of the larger Framework Task Force. It is important that this subcommittee include members of the Task Force so that the planning of both entities – the Task Force and subcommittee – can be coordinated. The subcommittee will also include faculty from outside of the Task Force and two student members, one undergraduate and one graduate student.

Following this first stage is a second stage in which AAAS faculty will flesh out the details of a AAAS department and shepherd that proposal through the university’s various faculty review processes. (See below.)


What is the process for a proposal to become an official Stanford department?

Satz: To create a new department at Stanford, the cognizant dean – in this case me – submits the proposal to create a new department and asks the provost and Academic Council Advisory Board for approval. If the provost and board approve, then the Board of Trustees must review and approve the proposal.

In addition, once there is a new department, the Senate has to approve the department’s degree-granting authority through the Committee on Graduate Studies (C-GS) and/or Committee on Review of Undergraduate Majors (C-RUM).

In this case, AAAS has had degree-granting authority for decades. The Faculty Senate will only need to get involved if AAAS wants to offer new degrees. Currently, AAAS offers only undergraduate degrees. Also if the degree requirements or other things change substantially, it is likely the Senate would need to approve the new degree.

Media Contacts

Joy Leighton, Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences: