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Fight over African center heats up at BU

There's nothing diplomatic about the battle being waged between Boston University and the Rev. Charles R. Stith, the former US ambassador to Tanzania and longtime civil rights activist.

BU has decided to pull the plug on the African Presidential Center, which Stith founded in 2001, when he returned to Boston from his diplomatic posting. The center's stated purpose is to further understanding of Africa, particularly its political and economic trends. It hosts former African presidents as visiting dignitaries, participates in conferences, and sponsors research.

Barring something unforeseen, the center will close at the end of this academic year, and the dispute over its closing is being waged in unusually blunt terms. Stith describes it as a part of a pattern of marginalizing blacks on campus. BU says Stith simply hasn't honored his obligation to raise enough money to keep the center's doors open; it is no more complicated than that.

Stith says that he and BU's president, Robert Brown, have been at odds for years. He also contends that BU, the alma mater of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has no commitment to issues concerning black people.


"If you ask could this be about something other than the marginalization of African-Americans and racism, the answer is no," Stith said in a telephone interview. "If there had been a program inviting European presidents that was as successful as ours, I doubt if it would have gotten the same treatment."

The center opened in 2001 with the blessing of then-BU chancellor John R. Silber. Brown took over in 2005.

The two sides agree on little. But according to both, college administrators met with Stith last spring to discuss the center's financial woes. Like other such programs, the center operates largely on money that it raises, though the school also contributes to its budget. Stith said that BU had been contributing too little for years, adding that he has raised $10 million since it opened its doors. The exact amount that Stith was obligated to raise was never specified.


In a statement, BU spokesman Colin Riley said the center's closing was based solely on the inability to raise enough cash to keep it open, despite a year of warnings.

"Approximately one year ago we met with Ambassador Stith to discuss the fact that the APC would not have sufficient funds to operate through the end of the fiscal year that ends June 15, 2015, and that in the absence of acquiring those funds the center would have to close," Riley said. "APC assured us on several occasions that funding was forthcoming, yet it was not."

Riley said the school has also approached the State Department, among other potential donors, on the center's behalf, without success.

End of statement, end of issue.

Stith said the discussions "were clearly conducted in bad faith," and that Brown was never committed to the program.

The issue of racial insensitivity is not new for BU. In December, Brown's refusal to appear at a City Council hearing exploring campus diversity irritated councilors. He relented only under the imminent threat of a subpoena from the council.

And in a 2012 report, BU's Faculty Senate did the math on the school's diversity, and the results were terrible. Of roughly 2,000 faculty members, a total of 73 identified as black or Latino. The student body was 3 percent black.


"While there are aspects of the city of Boston that make this particularly challenging, no other Boston-area university has ratios as low as ours," its authors wrote of the faculty breakdown.

Stith has never been one to shy away from a fight, and he insisted that the fate of the center has yet to be decided. "The final chapter of this has not been written," he said. "There's no chapter that begins, 'Stith walked quietly into the night.' ''

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.