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Tufts University to offer Africana studies major

Tufts University is designing an Africana studies major for the first time and opening a center devoted to the study of race and democracy amid a broader push to integrate diversity into the school’s academic fabric.

It is an endeavor long overdue, Tufts students and professors said, coming decades after some peer institutions began granting similar degrees, and having centers of research.

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Students and faculty live in an increasingly diverse world but participate in few substantive conversations about race and ethnicity, professors and administrators said. Exchanges about diverse communities often stumble into stereotypes, fall prey to hyperbole, or are simply brushed aside, they said.

“Unfortunately, too many people in this country, also in academe, feel that a place or a space to discourse and debate race and democracy is passé. You know, ‘We have a black president, blah, blah, blah,’ ’’ said James Jennings, a Tufts professor of urban environmental policy who will work with the university’s new Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. “So the issue of race and democracy has not become a focused discussion.’’

Students have been pushing for an Africana studies program for about two years, saying it was unacceptable for Tufts, one of the country’s top research universities, to lag behind its peers in having a comprehensive course of study on race, gender, and class. The major could be introduced in the fall, putting Tufts in the company of other Boston-area schools such as Harvard, Brandeis, Northeastern, and University of Massachusetts Boston.

The Tufts Pan-African Alliance, an umbrella organization of cultural groups that advocate for students of color, stood at the forefront of the campaign to create the major. In November, the movement intensified when as many as 80 students occupied the administrative offices, protesting what they said was a lack of progress.

“The experiences of the African diaspora are extremely informative in understanding democracy, specifically American democracy,’’ said Joshua Reed-Diawuoh, a junior who sat on the Pan-African Alliance’s executive board as a freshman. “For so long, and this continues to be the case, the narrative is Eurocentric. We’re really failing ourselves if we don’t incorporate ourselves into these different academic curriculums.’’

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The university agreed.

Historically, black studies departments and cultural centers were established after the civil rights and black power movements. In later years, said Robert Bruce Slater, managing editor of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the impetus for such programs waned. “The big push . . . occurred in the ’70s and got pretty big for a while,’’ he said.

Still, Slater said, Tufts is not unique. “Generally,’’ he said, “there are a lot of universities that have programs in black studies or Africana studies but don’t have degrees in the field.’’

Currently, Tufts only offers Africa in the New World, a program students can minor in. Not having a program that provided a comprehensive examination of Africa and the African diaspora “was a hole in the education,’’ acknowledged the dean of the Tufts School of Arts and Sciences, Joanne Berger-Sweeney, who became aware of the students’ demands early in her 18-month tenure.

Soon after assuming her position, Berger-Sweeney, a neuroscientist previously at Wellesley College, started laying the groundwork for what she said she hopes will be a comparative race and ethnicity program, with an Africana studies major as its core. It will be an undergraduate program that students could start enrolling in as soon as the fall semester if the faculty approve the curriculum. Tufts already has majors in areas such as Asian studies, Latin American studies, and women’s studies.

The school’s new center and Africana major, while complementary, are separate entities.

“When I assessed the situation at Tufts, I thought I saw a couple of very, very strong needs,’’ Berger-Sweeney said. “I saw needs in terms of faculty diversification. I saw needs with curricular efforts, particularly to start a major. And I saw a need for research efforts in terms of race and ethnicity.’’

The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy is designed to fill that need. It is the brainchild of history professor Peniel Joseph, who has written extensively on race, politics, and class. Joseph was part of the committee that hired Berger-Sweeney and mentioned to her his desire for such a center.

A year after he began teaching at Tufts in 2009, Joseph helped facilitate a biennial conference, “Barack Obama and American Democracy.’’ That conference gave birth to the new center.

The center, Joseph said, will be a place for critical analysis and debate about the intersection of race and democracy in social movements and what are thought of as basic human rights: water, food, and medicine. It will also transcend national borders.

“Race still matters in the United States, but we can talk about race in a very progressive and enlightened way,’’ said Joseph, who will serve as the center’s founding director. “It’s not about blaming but about analyzing why there are disparities, analyzing the ways race and democracy are inextricably linked.’’

Jennings, who will serve as the faculty principal of the center, said his role will be to demolish the walls between scholarly discourse and ground-level work by helping students and colleagues experience the real-world applications of classroom theory.

“Perhaps,’’ he said, “it becomes a bridge for people in academia to understand more perceptibly the nature of the challenges facing people in neighborhoods.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.

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