Black Leaders in Academia: An Interview with Barbara Savage

Today I continue an interview series on black leaders in academia. The interviews will take place once a month and feature discussions with African Americans in formal leadership positions in academia, including department chairs, deans, associate deans, and organization directors. My goal is to provide our readers with information on the various challenges and opportunities that come with such positions and an understanding of the type of training necessary to become a successful academic leader. The first interview was with Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, Dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, Business and Education and John W. and Anna Hodgin Hanes Professor of the Humanities at Winston-Salem State University. The second interview was with Dr. Jeffrey B. Leak, Professor of English and Africana Studies at UNC Charlotte. The third interview was with Dr. Banita Brown, Associate Dean for Academic and Student Success at UNC Charlotte. The fourth interview was with Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Associate Professor of Communication and African and African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland.


Today’s interview is with Dr. Barbara Savage, who is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania and chair of its Department of Africana Studies. She is a scholar of twentieth century African American history with a focus on political and intellectual history, religious history, and women’s history. She is the author of: Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Harvard, 2008), which won the prestigious 2012 Grawemeyer Prize in Religion and Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 1938-1948 (UNC, 1999) which won the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Book Award. Her co-edited works are: Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (UNC, 2015) and Women and Religion in the African Diaspora (Johns Hopkins, 2006). She is currently working on a biography of Merze Tate, a pioneering black woman diplomatic historian and faculty member at Howard University from 1942-1977. Savage holds a B.A. from the University of Virginia, a law degree from Georgetown, and a Ph.D. in history from Yale.

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Dr. Barbara Savage

Cameron: You are currently the chair of the Africana Studies department. What are your major responsibilities in this role?

Savage: Ours is a relatively new department that was formally established in 2013, although we already had an undergraduate major and Ph.D. program in place under the aegis of the Center for Africana Studies. The big change is that as a department, we also are now able to hire, tenure, and promote faculty independently.  Our department has brought in four great new faculty members – Dorothy Roberts, Heather Williams, Grace Sanders Johnson, and Michael Hanchard. Getting positions authorized and filled is very labor intensive work. My other major responsibilities include overseeing the curriculum, admitting and training doctoral students, and providing a space for the intellectual work of Africana Studies. Most of that work is done by our graduate/undergraduate chair (formerly Herman Beavers and now Heather Williams) and by Carol Davis who serves as undergraduate/graduate coordinator and assistant to the chair. While the ultimate responsibility of managing and growing the department rests with me, we as faculty and staff pride ourselves on a collegial, cooperative style of leadership. That said, starting a new department means just that, including the nuts and bolts work done by my colleague Camille Charles (the Center’s Director) who led us in acquiring and renovating our beautiful shared space. She and I have worked very well in tandem.

Cameron: What positions/experiences prior to becoming chair best prepared you for that position?

Savage: Perhaps most helpful was that I had been involved with Africana Studies from the time of my arrival at Penn in 1995 (it was then an Afro-American Studies program), had participated in its transformation from program to doctoral program to department, and had been in some formal position of service since 2008. I also served elsewhere at Penn on many search and administrative committees, including the SAS appointments and promotion committees. From all of that, I learned how things work at Penn and I also had established relationships with faculty, administrators, and staff. As in most of life, people and relationships matter in getting anything done within institutions. I also had considerable administrative experience that I was able to transfer from my work life (both in and outside of academic settings) to life in graduate school.

Cameron: You also served as Interim Director of the Center for Africana Studies at Penn. What are some of the major duties and responsibilities that come with directing such a center?

Savage: The Center’s functions used to overlap with those of a department, but its exclusive functions are primarily programmatic and co-curricular. These include a series of high profile annual public events which are designed to reach the broader Philadelphia community while also bringing in speakers, conferences, performances that highlight on-going intellectual and political issues. All of these widely publicized events are free and open to the public. That is one of the strengths and obligations of an Africana Studies center in an urban university committed to bridging academic work, public education, and contemporary political and social issues.

Cameron: What have been the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of academic leadership for you?

Savage: The most challenging and the most rewarding aspects are identical – acquiring resources to hire faculty and staff, to bring in the best graduate students, and to provide a space that encourages rigorous training and work for our faculty, students, and staff. The struggle is always to convince those with the resources that your own needs not only serve your department and your field, but also the broader intellectual mission of the university. Making that case is a constant part of my job as Chair. When successful, one then shares in the bounty of great colleagues, stellar teaching and mentoring, and the successes of our undergraduate and graduate students. For those of us committed to the work of global black studies, this place we call Africana Studies at Penn provides that reward to all who want to share in it.

Cameron: For graduate students and junior scholars who may be interested in academic administration and leadership, what advice would you give? What skills are most beneficial in a successful academic leader?

Savage: My most salient and urgent piece of advice: get your own scholarly work done first, or you risk derailing your academic career in favor of formal administrative responsibilities taken on in the early stages. I have been able to keep my scholarship alive through collaborative projects, co-edited works, and talks about my ongoing research. But the solitary, creative work of writing and publishing longer works has been postponed. This is a sacrifice I made freely as a senior scholar because I believe that institutionalizing Africana Studies is crucial to extending our field beyond our times as faculty.

As for skills needed to do this work, again, academic institutions are made up of people – whether they be students, faculty, staff, administrators – and understanding how to work with integrity with people in varying positions of power and authority is key. Working with other people brings its own frustrations and joys of course, but I have found that being direct and true to one’s word and vision helps – win, lose, or draw. A mentor once told me that you can get so much more done if you do not mind who gets the credit, and I have found that to be true even though ego and pride make that easier said than done.


Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. His first book is entitled To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent State University Press, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. His first book is entitled To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent State University Press, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.