Response: Funding Challenges and Opportunities in African Studies Research

By James Pritchett

Thanks to former ASA President Aili Tripp for her thorough, cogent and comprehensive overview of funding challenges and opportunities in African Studies research. Thanks also to Ruby Bell-Gam for her focused examination of the funding issue through the specific lens of academic library collections and services.  University libraries are undoubtedly at the heart of the research enterprise.

I would like to continue the conversation, first from the specific viewpoint of a director of a Title VI-funded area studies center, and secondly from the perspective of one entrusted with leadership within the African Studies Association.

Despite periodic protest, the mandate of the Title VI program has remained rather clear and consistent over its 50-year history.  Title VI funds are American taxpayers’ dollars, dedicated to producing specific outcomes deemed useful to the American public.  First and foremost it is the task of federally-funded African Studies Centers to produce the next generation of African specialists; academicians, policymakers, as well as applied practitioners, and to equip them with better books, better research materials, better theoretical frameworks, better methodological approaches than were available to previous generations of Africanists.  Secondly, it is the task of African Title VI Centers to increase the nation’s supply of speakers of the less commonly taught languages, thereby fostering the capacity of Americans to act as global citizens, sustaining the global competitiveness of American economic enterprises, and supporting the global readiness of the American military.  The third mandate of Title VI Centers is to provide educational outreach services to k-12 schoolteachers, community colleges, businesses and government groupings that have an interest in African affairs.    

Through 50 years of sustained collaboration the combined African Title VI Centers have built up products, procedures, capacities and specialized personnel to carry out these mandates.  Indeed, an “Architecture of African Studies” has emerged on the landscape that has served the nation well.  It consists of a network of campuses with a broad array of Africa-focused courses, certificate and degree programs, scholarships, research and teaching fellowships, Africa-focused workshops and symposia, intensive summer language institutes, a specialized center for the production of African language pedagogical materials, training programs for African language instructors, study abroad programs for school teacher, joint library acquisitions projects, digitalization programs targeting valuable but decaying African primary materials, technical training and capacity building initiatives for library and archival staff in Africa, support for research centers on the African continent, scholarly exchanges, and so forth.  The federal and foundation cuts identified by both Tripp and Bell-Gam are unraveling, brick-by-brick, the national African studies edifice that it took 50 years to build up.  At this point, momentary infusions of cash resources alone will not be sufficient to reestablish that which took decades of dedicated action to construct.

 Interestingly, the curiosity of young American students about Africa has yet to wan.  They continue to flock to the continent for a host of reasons.  Yet they do so, as Tripp noted, less familiar with African languages, history, and culture, less steeped in the critical questions that have guided intellectual engagements with Africa thus far, and less conversant with the paradigms and perspectives that have led to current levels of insight about the complexity of African affairs.  This trend is troubling.  It does not bode well for the development of the next generation of scholars and practitioners who will be called upon to devise and execute America’s international policies.  

The current state of affairs, the slow evisceration of the Title VI network, is not the result of benign neglect on the part of the US government.  Indeed, while Title VI funds have declined precipitously, reduced by nearly $56 million annually in the last three years alone, federal funds to military-managed programs of language and cultural studies have skyrocketed.  The Defense Language Institute, Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) in Monterey, California receives nearly $345 million annually, over four times the funding provided to the 125 Title VI Centers combined.  The Human Terrain System (HTS), an army program that employs social scientists to provide the military with cultural knowledge has an annual budget of $150 million.  AFRICOM’s new Socio-Cultural Research Advisory Team (SCRAT), a robust crew of deployable ethnographers, and the newly formed AFRICOM Social Science Research Center (SSRC) will absorb millions more.  These, along with the Minerva Project and the various Boren and National Security Education Programs (NSEP) stand as clear evidence that to the US federal government, culture does indeed matter.  What seems not to matter, however, is the traditional campus-based structures of African Studies, referenced above.  

Why?  Here one could insert ones favorite theory.  Perhaps it is the result of lingering beliefs that America’s campuses are controlled by “Tenured Radicals” producing left-leaning students unlikely to serve “The National Interest.”   Perhaps it is a question of methodological efficacy.  Universities take too long to produced useful experts.  Military-style language and cultural boot camps can speed up the process.  Perhaps it is a matter of career and geographical orientation.  Universities tend not to aggressively assert where and what their students study, thereby often producing too many of some things and not enough of others.  The military, on the other hand, is defined by its capacity to command that personnel with specific arrays of skills be moved around the world as needed.  

Rather than adding my own pet theory to the list, I switch my focus to the African Studies Association, and briefly suggest how a premier “Learned Society” might be useful in addressing the current situation:

  1. It is important to remember that African Studies existed prior to the federal Title VI program.  Carnegie was fundamental to the establishment of African Studies at Northwestern back in 1948.  African studies at Boston University, UCLA and several other universities owe their origins to Ford Foundation grants in the early 1950s.  The Institute of Current World Affairs, the International African Institute, and the African-American Institute were important sources of funding prior to the age of overdependence on US government sources.  ASA could spearhead a movement to reengage with foundations, particularly newly emerging ones, to make the multifaceted case for the importance of basic research in African studies and seek to cultivate new alliances around shared global interests.
  2. It is important to reflect on the fact that pockets of innovation in African Studies regularly occur outside the Title VI network.  For example, the African Studies Multi-Campus Research Group (MRG) was launched in 2008 to mobilize the personnel and material resources of ten University of California campuses in reconceptualizing  African studies as a multi-sited discipline.  Likewise, a half-dozen East Coast Universities in the mid-1990s brought into being the Northeast Regional Consortium of African Language Programs (NERPAL), again with the aim of sharing resources, personnel and digital expertise in pursuit of fundamentally new ways of teaching African languages.  The academic landscape is rich in experimentation, not all of which will invariably be successful.  Nevertheless, there are valuable lessons to be learned, best practices to be absorbed.   Hence, there is a role for the ASA to play in convening and aggregating the experimenters, and publicizing the results of their initiatives.
  3. Ultimately, the quality of American research on Africa can best be improved by increasing the level of collaboration between American and African researchers and research institutes.  Here again, as Tripp noted, ASA could blaze new pathways to address the current inequalities and balance of power that favor western institutions.  Africa must become the senior partner in the exploration of its own cultural, political, historical and economic dynamics.  Indeed, US institutions might best establish their own legitimacy with funders by serving as junior partners, facilitating African access to America’s African studies edifice.  Even in the current financially depressed condition US institutions possess an immense repository of Africa-focused print and digital resources, well trained faculty and student Africanists, and perhaps most importantly dynamic and engaged members of the African Diaspora.  We cannot continue to build fences and make claims about the proprietary nature to our individual resources.  ASA could pave the way toward a new era of open educational access, and an Africa-lead research agenda.