Renewed Debate Arises Over James Farmer Post
The James Farmer Professorship in Human Rights, created to honor Farmer’s Civil Rights accomplishments, will be undergoing significant changes at the beginning of the spring semester.
Following the departure of Dr. Gregory Stanton in April after six years with the University, the James Farmer Professorship offered by the History Department was left vacant.
Now, Provost Jay Harper and President Judy Hample have devised a new plan for the $80,000 professorship. According to Harper, the visiting professor aspect will be removed, to be replaced by a single presentation on human rights by a “big name” historian.
The details to this program are still in the works.
As Harper explained the plan, the purpose of the James Farmer Professorship from the outset was to bring prominent speakers to the university. The University only recently implemented a visiting professorship.
“That was how the funds were used,” Harper said. “At some point it became difficult to find the big-name speakers.”
However, according to Carter Hudgins, the Hofer Distinguished Professor in the Department of History and American Studies, the formation of the James Farmer Professorship was not changed due to a lack of access to prolific speakers.
“There was a brief period when funds from the faculty position James Farmer held was indeed used to bring ‘big name’ speakers to campus,” Hudgins said, but pointed out that, “it is not accurate to say that these one-off lectures ended because ‘big names’ were difficult to find or attract to the university. These one-off lectures ended because a better idea replaced them.”
This “better idea” was the addition of a visiting professorship, an approach Hudgins vocally supported during the creation of the program.
“When the James Farmer Visiting Professorship was created I made the argument that allocating relatively large sums of money for a single lecture did offer an important opportunity for students,” Hudgins said. “However, it made more sense to me to invite a prominent figure with significant experience in human rights as both a scholar and activist to spend a semester, or longer, in residence on our campus.”
This approach had been maintained for the past six years during Dr. Stanton’s tenure as the James Farmer professor.
According to Harper, the new approach does not signal a reduction in the program.
“What we’re doing is not scaling it back but changing it,” Harper said.
Student leaders have had varying responses to the new approach.
Senior Joe Buonannata, chair of the Diversity and Unity Coordinating Committee (DUCC) on the Executive Cabinet, was most concerned about the preservation of the professorship’s intent.
“Whether it’s through a specific UMW course or a community wide lecture,” Buonannata said, “Any changes made to the James Farmer Professorship must continue to reflect upon and honor the life and work of James Farmer.”
Sarah Lowdon, president of the UMW Chapter of STAND, a student organization that works to raise awareness about genocide, was more distressed by the loss of a valuable professorship.
A former student of Stanton, Lowdon was inspired to form STAND after taking classes with the former James Farmer Professor.
“While I can see why they’d like to change [the professorship], getting to know Dr. Stanton was just as invaluable as the knowledge he bestowed on us,” Lowdon said. “We’ve kept in touch with him, and that is the best part about UMW, that we get to know our professors. Every student should be so lucky to have such an opportunity.”
Hudgins echoed Lowdon’s sentiment.
“The extended contact between students and James Farmer Professors this arrangement allowed was professionally and intellectually more beneficial than attendance at a single lecture,” he said.
Harper was adamant that the change has nothing to do with budget cuts.
“The James Farmer Funds have not been a casualty of the budget cuts,” he said. “I remember sitting there looking at the budget, and the President said ‘don’t even bother asking to cut the [James Farmer funds].’ The president’s commitment is strong. I’ve learned that.”
Recently, Harper has created an advisory committee to help search for a high-profile speaker in the spring. According to Harper, the university is currently negotiating with several “big names.” He was also contacted by a group interested in holding a screening of their independent James Farmer documentary at the university.
After the spring semester, Harper signaled that both he and the administration would be open to considering other options, including maintaining the use of speakers, or searching for a visiting professor to fill the spot.
“What we’ll do next year, I don’t know yet.” Harper said. “These are both options.”
As for Hudgins, he continues to support the view he held when he initially took part in the creation of the James Farmer Professorship.
“It remains my opinion,” Hudgins said, “that the expenditure of relatively large fees to attract a speaker for a single lecture (or for a lecture and a meeting that day with a class or two) is less effective, less efficient, and less beneficial than the scholar-in-residence formula we applied for some six years.”