March 27, 2024

UC Berkeley’s African American Studies (AAS) Department launched a groundbreaking project this week with a $100,000 Affirming Multivocal Humanities grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Banned Scholars Project is a direct response to increasing restrictions on academic freedom, particularly in the fields of critical race theory, DEI and gender studies. It was spearheaded by AAS professors Michael M. Cohen, Tianna S. Paschel and Ula Taylor; department chair Nikki Jones; and managed by staffer Barbara Montano.

The Mellon Foundation, known for its commitment to fostering educational and cultural enrichment, is supporting this initiative as part of its broader mission to keep such studies and programs at the forefront of university agendas with an $18-million total investment to 95 public college and university programs at 66 institutions under the Affirming Multivocal Humanities initiative.

“We are proud to support colleges and universities in the United States that are advancing deep research and curricular engagement with the stories and histories of our country’s vast diversity and the modes of inquiry that race, gender, and ethnic studies explore and expand,” Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander said.

The Mellon grant comes at a critical time when academic freedoms face challenges from elected officials, such as former presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ push to ban the teaching of specific curriculums and DEI in public universities, telling students who want to study race and gender that they should “go to Berkeley.” Professor Cohen describes this as a “very explicit attack on public higher education,” and calls for the need to “defend the university as a public resource.” 

“The constant desire for anti-diversity, anti-DEI and anti-critical race theory partially stems from the 2020 George Floyd uprisings and it tapped into a deep-rooted anti-intellectualism within American politics,” Cohen said. 

He describes the Banned Scholars Project as a way to combat these attacks and as a sanctuary for academic freedom, allowing scholars to connect, share research, and engage with students and faculty beyond their home institutions.

The Banned Scholars Project not only offers a safe space for academics to work and share their experiences in restrictive academic environments, but it also aims to preserve and promote curriculum related to race, gender and equality. With plans for a series of public programming talks across various venues – including UC Berkeley, Berkeley High School and community spaces – the initiative seeks to amplify the importance of African American Studies and similar departments as essential and vulnerable entities in today’s educational landscape.

“The study of U.S. history is nothing without the examination of race and its impact. To study without it, is to willfully misunderstand the history of the U.S., its cultural productions, political formations and economic structure,” Cohen said. “The project isn’t just an academic exercise; it’s a direct counter to the growing far-right movement that’s trying to silence discussions on race and gender. It’s about protecting spaces where young Americans can learn and lead discussions on these critical issues.” 

The Banned Scholars Project also highlights the struggle against those who fear and hate the shift toward a more inclusive and understanding society. 

Alisha Gaines, the Timothy Gannon Associate Professor of English at Florida State University, will be the first faculty member to join the Banned Scholars Project. She’ll share her experiences of teaching in a state where the classroom is becoming a battleground for what can and can’t be discussed. 

“Black Studies continues in Florida,” Professor Alisha Gaines said.

In the Fall, the African American Studies Department will welcome political theorist and coordinator of the W.E.B. Du Bois Movement School for Abolition and Reconstruction, Geo Maher, for the second residency of the program. Maher will share his experiences as a target for right-wing political and media attacks along with the work of the Movement School.

“Critical thought is under attack today, when we most need it,” Maher said. “Our world is in crisis and we desperately need solutions, but the powers that be are criminalizing precisely those ways of thinking that will allow those younger generations tasked with navigating the crisis to understand reality and to change it for the better. The Banned Scholars Program is a beacon in this self-imposed fog.”

As the initiative gets underway, it represents a pivotal moment in the ongoing struggle for academic freedom and the right to explore, teach and discuss critical societal issues without fear of censorship or retribution, Professor Cohen said.

Professor Gaines will be at UC Berkeley on April 16 and 19 to present her work and join a conversation with UCLA History Professor Robin D. G. Kelley about academic freedom. For more details, please sign up for the African American Studies newsletter.