Inside the Gothic, ivy-covered halls of Yale University, a picture of Muhammad Ali graces the office of art historian Robert Ferris Thompson.

Thompson teaches a course on African and Caribbean art and music, long a favorite among students at Yale, which in recent years has become a leader in a field of scholarship largely unknown at predominantly white colleges 20 years ago: Afro-American studies.

The conspicuous success of the program at Yale has boosted the stature of Afro-American studies as an academic discipline and encouraged more white scholars to study and teach about the black experience. But even so, Yale's example is not followed everywhere.

On many other predominantly white campuses, the course catalogues today barely reflect the legacy of the civil rights movement, which spawned Afro-American studies as a separate academic discipline in the late 1960s. Although many academics agree that scholarship on black America is among the most exciting in the liberal arts today, professors generally get mixed grades for including works by and about blacks in traditional courses.

Now, as the nation again marks Black History Month, there are Afro-American studies programs at about 400 schools -- 12 percent of the total number of institutions of higher education -- down from a peak of 600 in the mid-1970s, according to the National Council for Black Studies.

Locally, American University and Catholic University never had Afro-American studies programs and currently offer only a smattering of courses relating to the black experience. At Georgetown University, there are about 15 related courses, fewer than were offered in the mid-1970s. George Washington University has no program or department, although Afro-American historian James O. Horton offers regular courses in black history and there is a move to hire a specialist in Afro-American literature.

At the University of Virginia, attributable in part to resistance from the faculty and administration, it took years before the Carter G. Woodson Institute, a research center that offers fellowships and sponsors about 35 courses, was established in 1981.

Howard University, the University of the District of Columbia and the University of Maryland at College Park were the only schools in the region to create separate departments in Afro-American studies. Thanks in part to sizable numbers of black students, the programs have maintained healthy enrollments.

"Most of the major institutions had something, but some for a very brief time," said Nathan I. Huggins, director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University and author of a report last year for the Ford Foundation on the state of Afro-American studies programs.

Black students who have taken Afro-American studies courses are among the strongest boosters of the field, but they worry that too many students, black and white, omit learning about the Afro-American experience.

John Norwood, a senior philosophy major at Howard who is minoring in Afro-American studies, said he took courses on the black experience because he had little exposure to black history and literature at his predominantly white high school in New Jersey.

"The first thing I felt when I started taking the courses was rage," Norwood said. "Because so many things had been left out, so many things had been ignored in the high school history books."

The history of Afro-American studies programs is rooted in the controversies of the 1960s. It was then that American universities began to change roles and perceive themselves as vehicles for political and social change. At the same time, blacks began to enroll at white institutions in greater numbers and, bolstered by the civil rights movement and like-minded white liberals, began to question courses in the liberal arts that discussed only white Americans.

According to Huggins and other black scholars, some universities established Afro-American studies programs simply to quiet the protests, rather than to promote serious academic scholarship on the black experience.

"The programs were a kind of containment area for people who were different, not entirely welcome, and certainly exotic," said Michael Winston, vice president for academic affairs at Howard.

At schools such as Cornell, Harvard and a host of others, where the political battles left deep scars, it took years for Afro-American studies programs to stabilize and win respect. At Cornell, strife between blacks and whites led to a demonstration by armed black students who demanded and ultimately won a nearly autonomous black studies program. But, according to many scholars, the program was so alienated from the university that, until recently, it had difficulty winning respect and influence.

At San Francisco State, conflicts between blacks and president S.I. Hayakawa, who later became a Republican U.S. senator from California, erupted in 1968 after the firing of an untenured instructor who was a member of the Black Panthers. Tensions continued for two years and, after Hayakawa accused the black studies department of instigating a "reign of terror," the department's faculty was ousted in 1970.

Where programs were established solely for political reasons, Huggins argued in his report, they were doomed to fail. Some faded away because they lacked academic credibility, others became victims of 1970s budget crunches and increasingly career-minded students. At the University of California at Riverside, for example, the dean of the faculty last year recommended abolishing the black studies department on economic and academic grounds.

The most successful programs are at Yale, the University of California at Berkeley (the first to offer a doctorate in Afro-American studies), the University of Wisconsin, Temple and Stanford, according to Huggins and others. Even the University of Mississippi, a longtime symbol of segregation, has an energetic Afro-American studies department.

"You succeed by doing the academic work, not by rhetoric and discourse," Huggins said in an interview.

When student unrest erupted at Yale, the administration of Kingman Brewster, the faculty and the students conducted a symposium on black studies and invited guest speakers of all points of view to offer opinions on the academic legitimacy of the field. The late Charles Davis, a highly respected black English professor and master of Calhoun College, led the fight for the Yale program, which instantly gave it credibility throughout the community, according to students and faculty.

"It was the luck of having a body of women and men who totally believed in the tradition of black culture ," said Yale's Thompson, whose course includes work on reggae, jazz, rap, rock, funk and other genres of black music, art and dance.

John Blassingame, a noted black historian who helped create the department at the University of Maryland and is now director of Yale's program, said one result of Yale's commitment to Afro-American studies is that there is "an increasingly high level of specificity and sophistication in terms of courses" offered. Students can take separate courses in three African languages (Hausa, Yoruba and Swahili), a history of jazz, black folklore, black writers, blacks and the law and blacks in the 20th century, to name a few.

The mixed success of Afro-American studies programs on predominantly white college campuses has led to debate about the degree to which the black experience has been incorporated into the mainstream of academic scholarship.

For decades, the study of the black experience has been a staple of the curriculum at historically black colleges, although even on some black campuses there are complaints that the curriculum is too narrow and traditional.

"Most of the traditional black institutions did not establish black studies because they were in a sense already involved in black scholarship," said sociologist Andrew Billingsley, acting director of the Afro-American studies department at Maryland.

Howard, for example, has been home to some of the most famous black scholars -- Woodson, DuBois, historian Rayford Logan, philosopher and cultural critic Alain Locke (the first black Rhodes Scholar), classicist Frank Snowden, and sociologist E. Franklin Frazier.

"We had our debate over the curriculum in 1907," said Howard's Winston, adding that the university established an Afro-American studies department in 1969 partly out of a commitment to promote research and scholarship about blacks.

At predominantly white schools, academics agree that some progress has been made, but not enough.

Despite the paucity of course offerings in Afro-American subjects at many universities, a number of academics said that reading lists increasingly have come to reflect the black experience. Also, scholars have begun to revise their interpretations of American culture to reflect the role of blacks in society. Civil War historians, for example, who once focused almost exclusively on Northern abolitionists as the key players in fighting slavery, now acknowledge the role that slaves played in undermining the institution.

"The black experience is related to so many central questions in American history," said Eric Foner, a highly respected professor of history at Columbia University, which never established an Afro-American program.

Progress, albeit slow, is visible in standard texts, such as the Norton Anthology of Literature, used frequently in undergraduate survey courses. Today the anthology includes works by black writers including Booker T. Washington, DuBois, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Alice Walker.

Prestigious university presses, too, are beginning to publish more works by and about blacks, according to scholars.

Some academics have argued that these changes make separate Afro-American studies programs unnecessary, a point hotly contested by some scholars.

"I think the existence of Afro-American studies does a lot to prod other departments," said Ronald Bailey, chairman of the Afro-American studies department at the University of Mississippi. "It is exciting and largely unexplored territory."