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What Does African American Studies Need to Thrive?

Acouple of Robin D.G. Kelley’s colleagues are not speaking to him right now — colleagues for whom he’s written book blurbs and recommendation letters, colleagues he’s known for years.

Those relationships have been collateral damage in a crisis that has rocked the African American-studies department at the University of California at Los Angeles — and spurred a small faculty exodus.

The crisis began in March, when a group of master’s students anonymously posted criticisms of the department and its chair, Marcus Anthony Hunter, on social media. Students complained of, among other things, inadequate funding and alleged a Title IX violation in the department. They said Hunter had ignored their concerns and engaged in unethical, unprofessional behavior.

Publicly, Hunter said nothing. Months later, through an attorney, he called the statements by the students — who were now going by the moniker “Concerned AfAm” — “libelous.” And he claimed that Kelley, a professor of history and African American studies, along with a junior professor in the department had either helped the students prepare their allegations or endorsed them.

Delete and retract, the lawyer demanded, or “we will commence appropriate legal action against all those responsible.”

Now, Kelley and at least three of his colleagues have taken steps to leave the department. A couple others are considering it.

Academic culture is notorious for big fights over stakes large and small. But the accusations and counter-accusations that have rocked this well-respected department point to more than just clashing personalities or ego run amok. They offer a cautionary tale of what can happen to a department when a university neglects it for years.

In any department, people will make mistakes. But when a department is starved of resources, those mistakes are much more difficult to mend.