African American life and culture hiring effort results in nine new faculty

Susan Burlingame
June 24, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Penn State College of the Liberal Arts will significantly enhance the diversity of its faculty and strengthen its scholarly expertise in African American and African Diaspora life and culture when it welcomes nine new faculty members to its ranks on July 1.

While all nine incoming faculty will have at least a partial academic appointment in the Department of African American Studies, their academic homes will encompass an array of disciplines within the College of the Liberal Arts, including English, history, philosophy, political science, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

“This is the biggest single step forward in faculty and academic diversity in the history of the college,” said Susan Welch, dean of the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts, describing the outcome of the college’s effort to recruit a robust cohort of African American and African Diaspora life and culture scholars.

“I'm familiar with cluster hires at other universities, but to my knowledge this one is unprecedented in terms of the breadth of disciplines and levels of expertise on African American and African Diaspora life and culture it brings to one institution,” said Cynthia Young, head of the Department of African American Studies. “I am particularly pleased to have been able to recruit people of color. It’s extremely exciting, and the potential for what we can build with this cohort of scholars together in one place is limitless.”

“The department needed to add senior leadership, and we have been working to increase the number of diverse faculty members in the college and at Penn State,” Welch added. “By deciding to form a faculty cluster in African American life and culture, we were able to attract both senior and junior faculty members from other institutions to Penn State. The enthusiasm of the candidates, the department heads, and the faculty far exceeded my expectations.”

“It is critical to Penn State’s long-term success that we foster a diverse and welcoming community. The appointment of nine accomplished liberal arts scholars with a shared interest and interdisciplinary expertise in African American life and culture is a testament to the breadth and strength of the college’s academic programs and another important step forward as a University,” said Penn State President Eric Barron. “I look forward to the contributions they will make to the humanities, the social sciences, and the Penn State community.”

The nine incoming faculty members, who are diverse in academic rank as well as background, include:

Lubin comes to Penn State from the University of New Mexico (UNM), where he was professor of American studies and a former associate provost. Also a former director of the Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut, Lubin researches the global histories of race, the African Diaspora, and America in the world, with a particular focus on U.S./Middle East relations. Young refers to him as “one of the top scholars in the country in African American studies.”

“I was happy at UNM, but I was open to other possibilities,” said Lubin, who spent 17 years combined at UNM and the American University of Beirut. “I know it’s hard to get full professors to move, but the time was right for me, and the community of junior and senior scholars being built by Penn State—under the strong leadership of Cynthia Young—was extremely appealing.”

Timeka Tounsel, assistant professor of African American studies and media studies at Penn State, served on the search committee for the new hires. She said Penn State is on the forefront of reimagining an academic discipline that began some 50 years ago.

“With this group of scholars, we have the opportunity to examine the black experience in the 21st century and study it more broadly,” she said. “It’s interdisciplinary. It’s transdisciplinary. We now have the chance to answer old questions differently and ask new questions. We are thrilled to have been able to attract such well-established top scholars. It’s exciting to imagine the possibilities when this many African American studies scholars come together.”

Soon-to-be assistant professor J. Marlena Edwards, who completed a postdoctoral fellowship with Penn State’s Africana Research Center, echoed Tounsel’s sentiments.

“We are disrupting the canon and redefining what the discipline looks like,” said Edwards. “It was such an incredible draw to be part of a group of people who understand African American studies as a global phenomenon. It will make a difference not just for the scholarship but also for graduate and undergraduate students, black students and non-black students. I came to Penn State as a post-doc not thinking I would stay here, but the opportunity to be part of this initiative is inspiring.”

Edwards is particularly excited to be reuniting with her undergraduate mentor, Michael O. West, who is one of the new full professors with a primary tenure home in African American studies.

“Dr. West is the one who encouraged me to go to grad school,” she said. “He saw my potential as a scholar, something I wasn’t even considering at the time. Now, all these years later, we will be able to work together and be part of a paradigm shift in the discipline. Penn State is poised to be the model for what African American studies looks like going forward.”

“I believe our existing strengths in the liberal arts and our growing prominence in African American studies were key factors in attracting such a rich cohort of scholars,” remarked Welch, who said it is unusual for a cluster hiring to be this successful and for so many to accept the University’s offer to join the faculty. “Ultimately, I hope this helps people from all backgrounds realize that Penn State is a wonderful place to work and to live.” Welch is returning to Penn State’s political science faculty after 28 years as dean of the college. Replacing her on July 1 as the Susan Welch Dean of the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts will be Clarence Lang, who comes to Penn State from the University of Kansas, where he served as interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Dean’s Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the Department of African and African-American Studies, and professor of American studies.

“I feel privileged to be joining the Penn State community for reasons other than being the next dean of the College of the Liberal Arts,” said Lang. “As an historian of the African American experience, a Black studies scholar, and someone invested in the hard work of creating a more inclusive campus work and learning environment, I am thrilled about the cluster hire of so many stellar faculty. How an institution recruits faculty, staff and students is the most visible signal of its commitment to equity. I applaud this accomplishment and the efforts on the part of so many people that have brought it about. Needless to say, I look forward to working with these new colleagues as well as playing my part to build a diverse faculty."

“It’s very rare to have a collection of African American studies scholars doing research in four different centuries and working across the humanities and social sciences together in one place,” Young concluded. “We’re hopeful this initiative will help us recruit top graduate students — the next leaders in our field. It will help us build new curricula, teach in different ways, develop programs and centers and events, and shape African American studies in the 21st century. It’s exciting as a department head to have a vision and then to receive such enthusiastic support from the dean and from University leadership.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 01, 2019