Head of African American Studies Department at Penn State Resigns in Protest

Michael West, head of the African American studies department at Pennsylvania State University, has resigned as chair but will remain a member of the faculty. He has served less than one year of a five-year term.

In a letter to colleagues, Dr. West criticized Clarence Lang, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, noting that five faculty members had left the department since 2019 and only two new faculty members had been hired. Professor West wrote:

“Where Dean Lang has fallen short and, more crucially, effectively reneged on his commitment, is on faculty capacity: replacing faculty members who left the university, or who were denied tenure, or who did not apply for tenure. The result is that the Department of African American Studies has become the proverbial ‘sick man’ of the College of the Liberal Arts, with insufficient tenured faculty to fulfill critical functions, starting with the most basic ones, like departmental officers. For me to remain as head under such injurious conditions would, to evoke Dean Lang’s discourse and design, amount to accepting the assignment of a fool’s errand.”

Before coming to Penn State in 2019, Dr. West was a professor of Africana studies and sociology at Binghamton University in New York. Professor West is the author of The Rise of an African Middle Class: Colonial Zimbabwe, 1890-1965 (Indiana University Press, 2002).

Dr. West is a graduate of Lake Forest College in Illinois. He holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

In the fall of 2022, the university scrapped plans announced a year earlier to establish the Center for Racial Justice on Campus. (See JBHE post.) A 2021 report found that 8 out of 10 Black professors reported experiencing racism at Penn State. Almost half encountered racism within the first year of their appointment and one-third within 1-3 years. (See JBHE post.)

Blacks make up 6 percent of the undergraduate student body at the main campus of Pennsylvania State University. African Americans are 11 percent of the Pennsylvania population.


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