Washington is a town that is always rife with rumors -- sometimes false, often true. Rumors prove a source of both inspiration and anxiety for the capital city. One of the latest rumors being whispered among the monuments is that Howard University intends to dissolve its African Studies and Research program.
On the chance there might be an inkling of truth in this talk that has been sending shock waves across the Potomac and beyond, since Howard has the country's only recognized African Studies Center at a black university, I contacted Dr. Michael R. Winston, the university's vice president for academic affairs.
"There are persons . . . who equate evaluation with abolition or a prelude to abolition," he told me. "But there is no such recommendation that our work in African studies be curtailed, reduced or abolished . . . . The rumors are an unfair tactic of people opposed to evaluation."
But as I inquired further, I found evidence that the fear and apprehension that is being whispered have at least some basis in fact.
Four summers ago, the Howard administration, which depends on federal money for roughly half of its budget, then $245 million, killed an essay in the university magazine that sharply criticized Reagan administration proposals for cutbacks in student loans and other programs benefitting black students.
That article was written by Robert J. Cummings, director of the now embattled African Studies and Research program. At the time, Cummings said he believed the administration killed his essay because it found his ideas offensive.
Howard later reappointed Cummings for three years. But last year, Cummings, who is recognized as a foremost expert on Africa, formulated the African policy statement that Jesse Jackson used in his Democratic presidential nomination bid. That, too, was greatly at odds with the Reagan administration position on Africa.
It might be said that Cummings was gradually being seen by some Howard officials as aggressively negative toward the Reagan administration, an administration with which Howard President James E. Cheek has long maintained an amiable, even cozy, relationship.
Sources familiar with Howard say that officials there employ the "preemptive strike" to assure the university's continued good favor in securing large amounts of federal funds. Meanwhile Cummings, coincidentally the first black president of the African Studies Association, has declined to go public.
Late last year, Cummings was asked to consider resigning his post so that the African Studies Department could be restructured. He refused. Shortly afterward, the university refused to sign off on a routine renewal grant from the U.S. Office of Education that would have provided .2 million to the African Studies program, saying the program would soon undergo evaluation.
When the evaluation got under way, Dr. Winston said African Studies was only the first of 24 doctoral programs at Howard that would undergo similar evaluation. "Zoology is currently being evaluated," he said the other day.
But it wasn't zoology that Phaon Goldman of the Afro-American Research Center in Annapolis had on his mind when he sent out an alert letter last month to some fellow Howard alumni and Africanists across the country, enclosing a copy of a letter he had sent to Cheek.
"It is unthinkable," he wrote to Cheek, " . . . that Howard would ever again be without departments devoted exclusively to the study of the 3 1/2 million-year-old history of black mankind and the collective experience of people of African descent throughout the world."
Judging from bits and pieces of evidence, one could conclude that the administration might be eliminating the program to get rid of Cummings, an inference that Winston calls "irresponsible." Last week, however, an Africanist at a major northeastern university suggested, "We don't feel Cummings is the target; his ideas are. The big thing now in African and Caribbean studies is to show the connections between Africans in Africa and those in the diaspora, and that is dangerous. The Reagan administration doesn't want that," the scholar said.
I am sure that it is today's conservative climate that's fueling the anxiety that an effective voice for change may be muted. The rumors are that the new "restructured" program will downgrade research, graduate degrees and influence. Dr. Winston says wait and see. But the interminable rumor mill grinds on.