Over 40 students stood in silence outside the Trustee’s Room of Alumni Hall as members of the faculty and administration filtered in for the May 1 faculty meeting. A few held signs which read “Keep Brother Shabazz.” Students were protesting the plan to not extend Visiting Professor of Africana Studies Kwame Zulu Shabazz’s contract after this spring, as he has served as the temporary replacement for Professor of Africana Studies Fred Hord for the last two years.
Freshman Nikyra Washington, freshman Iesha Said, junior Sofia Tagkaloglou and senior Courtney Kayiza spoke before the faculty meeting began.
“I’ve already taken four of Brother Shabazz’s classes and Brother Shabazz essentially became a mentor and a human resource for me, and has made this campus feel like home,” Washington said at the meeting.
Washington, Said and Kayiza are African-American and spoke about their personal experiences with Shabazz, who has acted as a resource for them inside and outside the classroom.
“Shabazz really hit it home for my parents, for my dad in particular, and because of him, that’s why I’m here. He’s my academic advisor, but he’s more than that,” Said said.
Shabazz originally came in to replace Hord temporarily, but Hord is retiring and will be replaced in Fall 2018, according to Dean of the College and Vice President of Academic Affairs Laura Behling. Students see Shabazz as a natural potential replacement.
The Africana Studies department has increased in size over recent years, with Shabazz’s current Introduction to Africana Studies class having 63 students in its one section this Spring Term according to students in the class.
“It’s essential for him to stay on campus because the impact that he has on … not just students, everybody. It’s remarkable and I feel like it’s essential for him to stay,” senior Donald Harris, one of the students at the protest, said in an interview after the protest.
Africana Studies majors and minors were informed of Shabazz’s departure by email from Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies and Africana Studies Magali Roy-Fquire on April 21, according to senior Hajah Turpin. She, junior Tamia Phifer and senior Ogy Nwana talked about the issue on April 27, and Turpin connected them to other students who were organizing around the issue, including Tagkaloglou.
The following day, Phifer met with Professor of Biology and Conservation Stuart Allison to get the students on the agenda for the faculty meeting.
“After that, everything kind of took off,” she said.
On April 28 Phifer, Turpin and Tagkaloglou met to plan out the protest and social media campaign. They created a hashtag, #KeepBrotherShabazz, and encouraged students to send emails to Behling and Amott between 10 a.m. and noon.
Students organizing the meeting on April 30 and the protest acknowledged that Shabazz’s black nationalist views are unique at Knox, but emphasized that that uniqueness has made his presence all the more valuable.
“He was a perfect blend of listening and also challenging you in a great support group in the classroom and outside the classroom. And I think he’s a definite necessity for the future of Knox and what we want here,” freshman protester Yasmine Davila said.
Phifer, one of the student organizers, noted that Shabazz’s views may seem alienating to some white students but attributed their discomfort to an unfamiliarity to being challenged. For her, Shabazz is a vital resource for the students of color on campus and he provides an important challenge to white student perceptions.
“He does it respectfully, but people just don’t like what he has to say. It’s not that he’s mean or he’s disrespectful, he carries himself like a professional but people are just not used to being told like it is,” Phifer said.
Shabazz declined in an email to comment on the matter. Student organizers emphasize that they are leading this effort without his direction or even clear confirmation from him that he wants to stay. The administration would provide no details on his specific situation, citing confidentiality.
Initially, no further discussion of the issue occurred at the Monday faculty meeting after the students spoke. However, a few faculty members asked later in the meeting for an open discussion of the issue. One of these faculty members was Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Nate Williams.
“I want you to look around this room — only one other person looks like me,” Williams, who is black, said.
Some faculty members reiterated student questions about the non-renewal of Shabazz’s contract, which were met with silence from the members of the administration present, President Teresa Amott, Behling and Vice President of Student Development Anne Ehrlich. The conversation then expanded beyond the issue of Shabazz’s retention to the overall demographics of faculty on campus and the support for faculty of color.
“I think we should think long and hard before we let him go,” Chair of Anthology and Sociology Nancy Eberhardt said. She and others spoke on the difficulty of hiring faculty of color and retaining them.
Associate Professor of History and Chair of American Studies Konrad Hamilton said that he and other faculty of color could serve as resources in hiring and retaining faculty of color.
“We actually know a number of things which you can do. … I don’t want to be on every search committee, but you can at least ask us, you can at least make us aware that there are people in your pool who might resemble us.”
After the meeting, Assistant Professor of Sociology Teresa Gonzales spoke on this issue and the additional “emotional toll” of supporting students of color and her own isolation on campus.
“So it’s advising, not just advising in terms of coursework, but also informal conversations with students dealing with some of the emotional concerns that students have regarding familial issues, issues with documentation status, private issues,” Gonzales said.
Echoing comments from the faculty meeting, Gonzales pressed that Knox needs a more explicit statement of support for its faculty of color.
“I don’t think they’re doing anything targeted as an institution to be completely honest. I think there’s departments who do things and there’s individuals who do things, but I think as an institution, I don’t know. There may be things, but I don’t know what they are,” she said.
Many faculty and students addressed the issue at hand as an issue greater than one professor alone. Like Gonzales, they noted that faculty of color often serve as the first people students of color turn to with even non-academic issues as students of color might feel intimidated by approaching white professors.
“That intimidation is there, having that feeling all the time is not really helpful. Then imagine that added on top of the fact that you may not be doing well in your classes, you know? You’re intimidated by your own faculty, by your professors, who do you go to for help?” Phifer said.
In speeches at the faculty meeting, Amott and Behling acknowledged the wider issue. Behling explained that it was expected that the demographics of the faculty would lag behind changes to the demographics of the students.
“Students are here for four years and therefore it is possible to experience a rapid change in student body. In contrast, faculty and staff don’t turn over at anywhere near that rate. Therefore, if a student body is changing, college staffing will always lag behind,” Behling said.
“There are many variables that go into account for making decisions about staffing. And I will also add that staffing decisions are some of the most difficult and emotional aspects of my job,” Behling said. She cited concerns about increasing enrollments, oversized classes, provide a breadth of courses from different disciplines and financial concerns.
Shabazz’s status is uncertain for next year. In an email to TKS, Behling stated that faculty staffing decisions occur on a rolling basis up to early and mid-June. Continued student conversations about the issue will occur at Student Senate on Thursday, May 4, at 7:30 p.m. in the Trustees’ Room. Student organizers will be having another meeting with administration later this week. The students hope to bring an Africana Studies professor with them.
Faculty and students were not completely pessimistic about the situation though. Turpin was encouraged by the feedback she saw from administrators and other students. Gonzales believes that while Knox does have improvements to make, it can improve with better guidance.
“I do think that Knox does a better job than some institutions, [but] that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t be better, we couldn’t be more thoughtful and intentional,” Gonzales said. “I think we want to do better, but I think we’re also all very tired and we don’t know what to do, so sometimes we just need someone to tell us, ‘This is what you need to do.’”