Students of Seton Hall University (SHU), New Jersey, United States of America (USA) took their protest over the state of Africana Studies in the University to the public space yesterday, Friday, May 5, 2023, as they and community members gathered at the main gate of the institution on South Orange Avenue with placards and public address system while different speakers articulated and spoke in favor of the grievances and demands of the students.
Supported by the People’s Organization for Progress (POP), the diverse protesters, operating on the platform of the PROTECT AFAM Movement, a coalition of students, community members and Alumni of the University, displayed placards, some of which read “TEACH BLACK HISTORY IN ALL SCHOOLS, COLLEGES & UNIVERSITIES,” “RACISM IS EVIL,” ” READ – STUDY – CELEBRATE BLACK HISTORY,” “MARTIN LUTHER KING, HIS STRUGGLE CONTINUES” and “IF THERE IS NO STRUGGLE, THERE IS NO PROGRESS.”
The protest, addressed by acclaimed activist and chair of POP, Larry Hamm, Director of Africana Institute of Essex County College (ECC), Newark, New Jersey, Dr. Akil Khalfani, Bashire Akinyele, an SHU alumnus and African History teacher at a high school in Newark, as well as by students, had support and attendance from other student organizations at Seton Hall University, from Rutgers University, New Brunswick students as well as from students of other Colleges and Universities.
Those who spoke all stressed the need for Black History studies in schools and universities across the country and advocated the institutionalization, proper staffing and full funding of Africana Studies at Seton Hall University.
One of the key speakers, Mr. Hamm, traced the history of the struggle for the commencement of Black History Studies in institutions in America, insisting that “the actual serious study of Black History and the establishment of Black History courses came about through struggle …No one gave us Black History. We fought for Black History.
“If there are Black History courses and Black History Departments today, it is because we fought and sacrificed and some of us gave our lives for Black History. And so, in the 1960s students began to walk out of schools all over the country, …. demanding Black and Third World Studies ….and students did the same things students of Seton Hall are doing right now, taking over buildings,” Hamm noted.
The protesting students at the University, founded by the Catholic Church, had for the last two days preceding the Friday rally, occupied the President’s office building, insisting, among other demands, that the institution “honor its commitment to the Africana Studies Program by supporting it as a department.”
According to the PROTECT AFAM Movement, “Since 2019, Seton Hall’s Africana Studies program has been severely understaffed with only one full time professor, who has since departed. We are protesting because the institution has not been genuine or cooperative. We have been meeting with administration since Fall of 2022 and negotiations have been stagnant. For this reason, we have occupied President’s Hall and are prepared to further engage in advocacy and peaceful civil discourse as we stand up to the institution’s discriminatory acts.”
According to one of the students’ leaders, who said that the protest has been very successful, “we are getting the attention we need to push through our case.” She said they have an Assembly Woman acting as their liaison with the University administration, that the Police personnel on ground are standing with them and that though discussions are ongoing, they will continue to occupy till their demands are met.
Their demands include that ….”ANY and ALL participants of Protect AFAM demonstrations be pardoned from any and all punishment proposed by Seton Hall University policy,” since according to them, the University’s “protest policy is a direct attack on our first amendment rights (freedom of the press and freedom of assembly).”
They also demand that there should be “a cluster hire of 3-4 full-time professors at a minimum who are experienced and recognized as Africana studies professionals” and that “the Africana Studies Program be reinstated as a department that is fully funded and supported by the institution by spring 2024.”
The protesters also demand “the hire of a full-time tenured director of the Africana Studies program” which will not include the demanded 3-4 full-time professors. They also want “the inclusion of Africana Studies students to serve as liaisons with voting power on the search committee for the new director and professors.”
Also, among their demands are “increased and truthful advertisements for AFAM” and a reinstatement of the Black House “physically, as a safe space for black students and a center for the organizations of the Black Caucus.”
The protest has received widespread support from academics, community members and other stakeholders, all of whom insist that the demands of the protesting students are reasonable and should be met by the University administration.
Director of Africana Institute of Essex County College (ECC), Newark, New Jersey, Dr. Akil Khalfani, in a letter to the President of SHU, Joseph E. Nyre, for instance, said pointedly that he supports the action of the students, stressing that they “are making reasonable demands” concerning the hiring of tenured faculty, institutionalization of Africana Studies in the University and its proper funding.
Dr. Khalfani, who also spoke at the rally also supported the students’ call for immunity for all the students participating in the action stressing that “We must create avenues for students to develop their dissent from the mainline of thinking, which is in alignment with the ideas of a democratic and diverse process of governance in this country. ”
Insisting that the students, instead of punishment, “should be applauded for exemplifying the spirit of what the university says its Africana Studies program is about,” counselled that “the University has the opportunity to bridge the gaps or fan the flames.”
More information about the protests are available via instagram: @protect.afam.shu.
Full text of Dr. Akil Khalfani’s letter to the President of Seton Hall University reads:
Dear President Joseph E. Nyre:
I write this letter, as a private citizen, in support of the students of Protect Af.Am. Movement who are pushing for the institutionalization and staffing of the Africana Studies Program at Seton Hall University. As a professor of Sociology and Africana Studies and Director of the Africana Institute at Essex County College for over 17 years, I have intimate knowledge of the value of these programs to institutions of higher education and the various surrounding communities.
Seton Hall has done a good job of recruiting students of African descent in recent years, but how do you keep them and how do you make them feel whole and humanized on campus and as alumni? If they and their peers feel isolated, alienated, and betrayed, you can rest assure that there could to be tension. The students are making reasonable demands for the University to maintain the commitment that was fought for during the protest that ushered forward the hiring of Dr. Harris.
His tenuous hiring was the precursor to the current situation. The reasonable demand for hiring tenured faculty is the basis of institutionalization of the long-standing (since the 1970s) Africana Studies program at SHU. This type of hire will demonstrate good faith on behalf of the university. Furthermore, establishing a multi-year annual budget will demonstrate the institutional commitment to future students of African descent and other Africana Studies majors and minors.
SHU’s efforts to recruit and admit a sizable population of African diaspora students should be met with an effort to understand the needs of this population so that they are both retained through their matriculation and graduation. As impressive as the admission of these students in record numbers is, it would be equally great to see them graduate in four years as happy SHU alums.
The efforts of the Protect Af.Am. Movement students and their peers, demonstrate that the students do not feel welcome, loved, or supported by the administration. And now they feel threatened by some SHU staff and even some peers who disagree with their action.
The students want SHU to continue the important historic role it has played and stood for in more than 50 years of leading the way for Civil Rights and Africana Studies in the State of New Jersey and the region.
The University has the opportunity to bridge the gaps or fan the flames. The students would rather be in class or preparing for their final exams. I support the protestors’ call for immunity as they were exercising their voice through freedom of speech and the right to assembly. We must create avenues for students to develop their dissent from the mainline of thinking, which is in alignment with the ideas of a democratic and diverse process of governance in this country.
I previously taught the Political Economy of Race/Soc of Race Relation class at Seton Hall many years ago. The students were engaging and eager to understand and participate in the development and transformation of our world. I see the current students as having similar sentiments. Their demands may seem forceful and rightfully so. These demands do not, however, seem out of alignment with the long-term objective of the institution or the stated ideas of the tradition of Africana Studies by the University. “The Department of Africana Studies has been a community of scholars founded on and rooted in the emerging discipline of Africana Studies” (emphasis added). If there are no faculty directly in Africana Studies, there is no “community of scholars.” Furthermore, the website states “It is based on several sources, including the Black Intellectual Tradition, the traditional academic disciplines, and the insights and lessons of the historic struggle against racism and for social justice” (emphasis added). Here again, the students are struggling in the tradition of the “insights and lessons of the historic struggle against racism and for social justice.” How can the University punish the students who are doing the very thing that the institution celebrates on its website and in its literature? They should be applauded for exemplifying the spirit of what the university says its Africana Studies program is about.
There are no faculty listed in the major on the website and the faculty listed in the minor do not teach Africana Studies. This void again fortifies the demands of the students.
In closing, I support the students. I see a great need for SHU to engage in a meaningful and nonthreatening dialog with the students to create healthy space for the students who want to major in Africana Studies and for the community of students of African descent on campus. They need a welcoming environment and supportive mentors and a space to thrive. Let us work together to bridge the gap and protect the voices of the students as they seek reasonable demands. Let SHU be seen as a place where Africana Studies is celebrated and supported.
Akil Kokayi Khalfani, Ph.D.