Who is Funding African Studies Research?

Aili Mari Tripp, political scientist and former president of the African Studies Association, has drafted a report on funding challenges and opportunities in African Studies research. In the report she sheds on the recent changes that international (and specifically African) research support has encountered as sources of funding shift. She starts by looking at the nearly nonexistent support for international research by private foundations (which used to provide large amounts of support) and the drastic reduction in funding from the federal government. Title VI and Fulbright-Hayes were both cut nearly in half, which has and will continue to completely reshape area studies as a field. Tripp quotes one report that found that cuts in 2011 led to

 a reduction or cancellation of over 400 less commonly-taught language and area studies classes, affecting over 6,300 students; reductions in international business programs with 10,000 fewer business professionals trained; and reductions in language resources and research, which has resulted in over 5,900 fewer language teachers trained, involving 29 languages.  It is not clear that the universities are stepping in to fill the gaps.

Indeed, most are either unable to unwilling to. When I looked into Yale’s African Studies program it was made clear that federal budget cuts played a central role in the program’s downsizing, but that the university was also either failing to step in or was proactively tightening belts in anticipation of more cuts (or in the interest of shuttling money towards other focuses). But that’s just one case – across the country international and area studies are shrinking at an alarming rate as they lose financial and academic support. As current ASA President James A. Pritchett, anthropologist at Michigan State and director of that school’s African Studies Center, has said that funding cuts are “are unraveling, brick-by-brick, the national African studies edifice that it took 50 years to build up.”

The biggest shift we’re seeing today as Department of Education funds dry up is the arrival of State and Defense Departments’ renewed (and fairly robust) interest in international and area studies. Things like the Critical Languages program and the Minerva Project aim to train scholars to do work that supports and reinforces U.S. goals abroad. Although Tripp says some Africa-focused scholars involved with Minerva say that they feel independent in their work, I know Southeast Asia-focused work at Arizona State was centered on Muslim discourse and identifying “good” Muslims in the region to spread moderate Islam over extremism (yes, I’m simplifying).

This shift isn’t an accident. DoE’s Title VI foreign language funding is being reduced while DoD’s language programs and institutes get bigger and bigger.  As Pritchett says, “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.” Study of the world around us is becoming increasingly directed by the military, and this is something scholars should be aware or and worried about.

It’s important to note (and Tripp gives it a passing mention) that the ASA has long stood against DoD funding, passing several resolutions against it in the past.  These resolutions were passed specifically to reject U.S. policy in Africa, which supported apartheid and oppressed revolutionaries in decolonization struggles at the time. Today, U.S. policy in Africa centers on counter-terrorism efforts that have resulted in militarization and Islamophobia across the continent. I wrote a little about that African Studies’ refusal to work with the military here, but I think David Wiley’s recent work [gated, ASR] addresses the biggest worry:

In this time of austerity, especially at public universities, there is a growing sense that civilian agency funding is collapsing and military and intelligence funding increasingly is the “only game in town.” As a result, two university African centers and linguists in two other universities that have Title VI Africa centers (with the dissent of their African center faculty), have taken funding for African language instruction programs from the DOD’s NSEP [National Security Education Program].

The other increase in funding is from the State Department, concentrated mostly on aid and development or the promotion of democracy and human rights. These also come with lots of baggage, although probably less so than military funding.

The bright side of the story is Tripp’s focus on private foundation funding for African higher education through grants, scholarships, fellowships, and collaborations with universities. This is much-needed, greatly impacting news for higher education across Africa.

Both Tripp’s and Pritchett’s posts are worth reading in full. The takeaway is that area studies in general is losing big. Both of them offer ways forwards, engaging with Africa directly, departing from government support in favor of foundation or corporation support, etc. The key will be to continue forwards with a heightened consciousness. There are a lot of ways forwards, we just need to ensure that we navigate properly as Africanists.

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