Defying the Boundaries of Academia: African Studies Come Into Their Own At Harvard University

Education is key to ALN’s mission of bringing prosperity to Africa, something Harvard University does extremely well. In part due to the efforts of Professor Caroline Elkins, Oppenheimer Faculty Director of Harvard’s relatively young Center for African Studies (HCAS), Africa has returned to the top of Harvard’s education agenda.

Leading the charge to convert what had then been the Committee on African Studies at Harvard into a fully-fledged Center, Elkins has tirelessly campaigned to promote rigorous Africanist training at the institution. “‘Harvard doesn’t take Africa seriously’ was the common refrain, until the Center for African studies opened,” explained Elkins.

Now, the Center operates with instruction contributed by 500 faculty members and an offering of roughly 400 courses, including 39 African languages. The Center is well-endowed, and is able to engage with institutions and organizations throughout Africa. As ALN’s exclusive academic partner, HCAS will host a panel at the Annual Gathering in November to facilitate conversations with Africa’s leaders on HCAS’ role on the continent.

A 3-year Post-Doc program is now available at Harvard University, and HCAS has opened service centres, to facilitate field work and academic exchange, on the continent. This January, an HCAS field office will open its doors in Cape Town. “We want to climb out of our ivory tower and partner as an equal with African institutions and organizations,” said Elkins.

The advent of Harvard’s Center for African Studies has prompted the inclusion of Africa among Harvard’s top institutional priorities. Further underlining Africa’s importance to Harvard, Elkins elaborated, “It matters that this part of the world is the site of important innovation.” From a sparse committee to a full Center, HCAS has championed African studies, employing the vantage point of deep scholarship and understanding to gain traction and momentum.

A self-described ‘Jersey girl’ at heart, Professor Elkins completed her undergraduate degree at Princeton University in African studies. She went on to do a stint on Wall Street, returning to academia to complete her PhD at Harvard in 2001.

Most often, the hallowed field of historical studies restricts itself to the discourse of experts and scholars; Professor Elkins’ dissertation, later turned into a popular book and documentary, were about to thrust a young American woman academic into the gritty and bright glare of celebrity. Initially setting out to research the British battle for hearts and minds in an unraveling colonial empire, Professor Elkins began to notice startling lacunae and unexplained gaps in the record-keeping of that time and place.

Turning instead to oral Kenyan traditions, Professor Elkins was able to piece together revelations concerning mistreatment and a subsequent cover-up by British colonial officials. Professor Elkins’ work was received with a mixture of disbelief and outright denial by members of the public, academia, and government. She was eventually vindicated when 300 boxes of documents containing information on this period of British colonialism were released, winning the Pulitzer prize in 2006 for her book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.This trial by fire is an indication of the grit and ambition of Professor Elkins.

HCAS is now classified as a National Resource Center, a prestigious designation from the US government, ensuring its continued work. Professor Elkins described her prescription for success, both for her own and that of HCAS, as, “People who are change agents are risk takers, they are committed to excellence, and they are right.” It is this courage of conviction that will pave the way for an exciting future of Harvard in Africa.

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