On April 29, the Coalition to Save the Africana Studies at UMass Boston met with Dean of the College of Liberal Arts David Terkla to bring forth their concerns about the future of the Africana Studies Department, as well as their grievances regarding the current contract situation of both Tony Van der Meer and Aminah Pilgrim.
Despite numerous contributions to both his department and the campus community, Van der Meer has not been offered a contract renewal. This means that he will no longer be able to continue his career as an exceptional educator and mentor at UMass Boston. It is expected and has been unofficially disclosed that Pilgrim’s application for tenure will also be denied, and students and faculty alike are outraged.
When word got out that such potentially devastating decisions were pending, a group of concerned students sprang into action and formed the Coalition to Save Africana Studies at UMass Boston.
They wrote with resounding urgency about how both Van der Meer and Pilgrim have impacted their lives. “[Van der Meer] encourages critical thinking, promotes civic engagement, hands[-]on learning, and self-advocacy,” the coalition wrote. “Professor Pilgrim embraces her students with open arms and a welcoming classroom environment.”
Manny Monteiro, a senior majoring in Africana Studies, offered an impassioned testimony to both Van der Meer and Pilgrim’s character and significance. “Their transformative education and teaching styles have been, in large part, the reason why I’m still here at UMass Boston,” Monteiro said. “Van der Meer taught me that struggle is constant, [and] once you understand that, you have two options: you can be complacent or you can fight against it.” Monteiro said that he learned to fight it instead of remaining complacent.
Both professors, Van der Meer and Pilgrim, have been affectionately described by many students and faculty members as the cornerstones of the Africana Studies Department. So what does it mean for the Africana Studies Department that the requests for Van der Meer’s contract renewal and Pilgrim’s application for tenure have both just been denied?
“The loss of Van der Meer and Pilgrim will be detrimental to the Africana Studies program,” said Anny Rodriguez. She is a junior double-majoring in anthropology and women and gender studies.
Some students mentioned their most recent trip to Selma with Professor Van Der Meer as a display of his incredible passion and dedication to learning and leadership. Van Der Meer facilitated a 25-hour bus trip to Alabama, providing an engaged group of students the opportunity to participate in events honoring the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma. Pilgrim, like Van der Meer, has been accredited with an exceptional ability to engage her students both inside and outside of the classroom. On her long list of involvement in community engagement projects is the H.I.P.H.O.P. Initiative, of which she is the founder and beloved advocate.
Other students pointed out the hypocrisy of the university's urban education commitment and mission. At a university such as the University of Massachusetts Boston—one which prides itself on its commitment to diversity and community engagement—this decision to discard Van der Meer and Pilgrim, two cherished professors who are the embodiment of such values, seems contradictory to everything it stands for.
The decision to let such valuable professors go is a reflection of UMass Boston’s shifting priorities. Representatives of UMass Boston have repeatedly expressed a growing interest in a “global mission” and have been actively seeking to staff the university with more research-oriented academics. Such professors will undoubtedly be a valuable asset to the university, but not if they come at the cost of those who are unmatched in the field of student and community engagement.
Such a decision has left many wondering whether or not there will continue to be an Africana studies program at all. In such a critical turning point in history—with all that is happening in the U.S. in regards specifically to social justice and racism—the relevancy of an Africana Studies Department could not be more evident, and the need for it could not be more urgent.