Monday, February 25, 2019

Dr. Robert A. Thornton and Black Studies at CMU

by Bryan Whitledge

On June 1, 1969, the administration at Central Michigan University took a proactive step to improve diversity at CMU. President William Boyd hired Dr. Robert A. Thornton, a dean and professor of physics at San Francisco State University, to be a racial affairs consultant at the University. Dr. Boyd came to Mt. Pleasant from UC Berkeley in the summer of 1968 and, as he noted in a 2014 oral history interview, CMU struck him as a relatively homogeneous campus made up mostly of white students from Michigan.

Before Dr. Thornton came to campus, strides were already underway to improve curricular offerings in African-American studies. Just a few months into Dr. Boyd’s tenure, CMU convened the "Ad-Hoc Committee on Black Experience" with a charge of developing curricula and programming dedicated to exploring and informing the CMU community on matters of black culture. Additionally, the History Department was given permission to fast-track filling positions with professors to teach African-American history courses, and other departments, including English and Political Science, were encouraged to bring forward proposed courses that would incorporate the emerging discipline of African-American studies.

But Dr. Boyd knew that expanding curricular offerings in the humanities and social sciences was not enough. He drew upon his Bay-Area connections and requested that Dr. Thornton come to CMU to serve as a special assistant. His charge was "to help departments develop courses related to black studies, establish better relationships with predominantly black high schools, and recruit black students and faculty members." Dr. Thornton was a distinguished physicist and administrator who knew academia very well. He also came from San Francisco State University, which gave him a particular insight into the development of black studies curricula – only five months earlier, San Francisco State had officially created the first Department of Black Studies in the country. Dr. Thornton was a man familiar with the cutting edge of the black studies movement and he was asked to impart his knowledge to the CMU community.

Dr. Thornton arrived in Mt. Pleasant on June 1, 1969 and stayed at CMU for two months. He then returned for another two weeks during the following winter break. The programming developed by the administration, with the help of Dr. Thornton, resulted in several changes on campus directed at the African-American community and those interested in black studies. The University sponsored a Black Symposium, bringing black scholars and artists to campus to give students on the majority-white campus insight into black culture.

Another initiative was the creation of the African-American Cultural Center in 1969-70. It was established in the "Old Library," known today as Ronan Hall, as a place for all students on campus to go, but specifically geared toward African-American students for academic resources, cultural programming, and a location for studying. Just one year later, students, faculty, staff, and administration developed programming for the first African-American History Week at Central in 1971 with various performance art exhibitions, forums, and guest speakers aimed at increasing awareness and a sense of community at CMU.

Not all of the efforts undertaken during the Boyd administration resulted in success. Despite an effort to recruit African-American faculty, in 1974, ten of the 604 faculty (1.6%) identified as minority with eight African-American faculty members or 1.3% of the total faculty. The course in History about the African-American experience was taken off the books after only year because the university could not find a qualified instructor.

In the years immediately following Dr. Thornton’s time on campus, small and meaningful steps were taken to improve diversity and cultural understanding. While Dr. Thornton was not an instructor at Central, he made an impact on the many students who took part in the black studies programming he helped to establish. In 2019, the 50th anniversary of his visit to our university, we reflect on Dr. Thornton’s groundbreaking tenure at Central. His contributions to physics, academia, and our society serve as an inspiration to academic pursuits here in Mount Pleasant and beyond.