Africana studies professor Neil Roberts to assume Schumann Faculty Fellowship in Democratic Studies on July 1

Neil Roberts was recently appointed to the Schumann Faculty Fellowship. Photo courtesy of Williams College.

Last Wednesday, the College announced the appointment of Associate Professor of Africana Studies Neil Roberts as the next W. Ford Schumann Faculty Fellow in Democratic Studies. Roberts will begin the three-year fellowship on July 1, succeeding the current Schumann Faculty Fellow, Professor of Art Ondine Chavoya.

The fellowship, which was endowed in 2000 with a gift of $2.5 million by the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, tasks the given faculty fellow with bringing speakers to campus and creating programming and conversation around the topics of democracy and civic responsibility. The funding includes an additional $500,000 for the W. Ford Schumann visiting professorship, for which the fellow recruits candidates.

Roberts received his master’s degree and doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in political theory. He earned his undergraduate degree at Brown.

At the College, Roberts is a member of the Africana studies department, but he is also a faculty affiliate in the political science department and has taught classes in the religion department. Many of his courses are cross-listed in different departments with combinations of Africana studies, American studies, political science, leadership studies and religion. This year, his courses include “Contemporary Africana Social and Political Philosophy,” “Rastafari: Dread, Politics, Agency,” “The Black Radical Tradition” and “The Political Thought of Frantz Fanon.”

Roberts hopes to use the fellowship to spark conversation about democracy and civic responsibility outside the classroom and throughout the College. Despite his fields of expertise, however, he does not want his work to simply be a division I and division II discussion. “I want to create a campus-wide discussion across the fields and disciplines,” he said.

Roberts hopes to accomplish his goals through two main projects. The first is a conference in the spring with various speakers on the relationship between democracy and freedom. “The event is meant to involve the community,” he said. The second is a more continuous endeavor; “I am creating a new year-long series on race and democracy,” Roberts explained. The potential series would consist of forums and talks throughout the year in order to keep the conversation going. “My hope is that this is not something that will be simply for faculty, but also for students,” he added.

Roberts is looking for speakers not only from the United States, but from abroad as well. Roberts himself has focused on Caribbean political theory, and he hopes to bring a global perspective to the topic of democracy. “I want to help build the Africana studies program but also make the case for how questions are pertinent not only to the traditions they belong to, but also to larger global thought,” he said. Roberts is particularly interested in the intersection between Africana studies and political science. “How do we actually think about concepts such as democracy and freedom? How can we look at Afro-modern thought? How can we talk about them together?” he asked.

In addition to bringing speakers for various programming, another one of Roberts’ responsibilities as the Schumann fellow will be to choose the Schumann visiting professor. In his vision for that position, Roberts is again focusing on the College as a whole. “I am looking for a scholar who can convey the ideas they have been working at to members of the community,” he said. In the spirit of the liberal arts, he also wants the chosen person to be an intellectual with the ability to spark powerful conversations.

When talking about civic responsibility, Roberts posed many thought-provoking questions. “How do we think about our existence in our world? To what extent [is] each of us involved in thinking about what is a democratic way of life? To what degree do we have a responsibility to engage?” he asked. Through the Schumann fellowship, Roberts hopes to generate a dialogue surrounding these questions and explore democracy and civic responsibility across campus and throughout the community.

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