First black woman to earn tenure at Cornell retires
by Liz Lawyer, Itaca Journal
Cornell University Professor Josephine Allen has worn many hats in her day, and now she wears yet another: professor emeritus.
Her newly printed business cards, delivered last week as she was mulling over her years at Cornell, don’t mention all her achievements or anything her lengthy curriculum vitae may say about her, nor do they note the milestone her career marked for the university.
As the first tenured black woman at the university, she has provided motivation and support for dozens of young people in her classes and who are starting careers in academia, said one of her former colleagues, professor emeritus John Ford.
“It has changed things for the better having Josephine and faculty members like Josephine at Cornell,” Ford said. “She has been a great role model for other young faculty members of color — not just women, but young men, too. I think Josephine has seen part of her role as having some obligation to be a mentor in those kinds of ways.”
Allen said she doesn’t see herself as a path maker.
“No, I was just participating in ongoing efforts to provide opportunities for advancement,” she said.
Allen grew up in Atlanta during the Jim Crow era and attended a segregated high school. When desegregation came and she had a choice to go to a predominantly white high school, Allen said she stayed where she was.
“I stayed because I was getting a very good education,” she said. “Because African-Americans had limited opportunity at the time, I had teachers in high school with PhDs. The lack of opportunity for them created opportunity for me.”
She went on to be one of six black students in her cohort at Vassar College, where she studied political science and East Asian studies. She then went to the University of Michigan for a master’s degree and a doctorate in political science and social welfare administration. When she joined Cornell’s faculty in 1977 she was still working on completing her thesis.
The department of policy analysis and management she joined in the College of Human Ecology was interdisciplinary and “revolutionary,” Allen said, in that it had so many faculty members of color. The only department with more was Africana.
“It was good because there were other colleagues before me,” she said. There were several people who took time to help mentor her, including Ford.
“One of the critical issues is having a critical mass,” she said. “The environment was a collegial one that was welcoming. When people come one by one and are isolated it’s more difficult.”
Ford was on the search committee that eventually hired Allen.
“A number of us in the department and university were hoping to diversify the faculty in some way, either by gender, ethnicity or race,” he said. “We were very fortunate that we were able to attract Josephine Allen to the search.”
Ford said he had known Allen when the two were in grad school together. He saw then that she was scholarly and invested in student success.
“I remember not only through the department, but throughout the college, there was great interest in her qualifications and experience,” he said. “She showed all signs of being tenurable after the long ordeal that Cornell puts young professors through.”
Allen taught classes on social welfare, policy analysis and critical perspectives at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Sean Eversley-Bradwell, assistant professor at Ithaca College’s Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity, said his former professor and the head of his dissertation committee passed that welcoming, nurturing environment on to her students.
At a retirement party last month, Eversley-Bradwell noted how many people spoke about how comfortable they felt with Allen.
“Students in her classes said she taught a critical analysis which made them think deeply, but also made them feel comfortable,” he said.
For himself, Eversley-Bradwell said the most important thing he learned from Allen was how to use his own voice.
“There’s a particular way in academia you’re expected to speak,” he said. “She taught me to say what I wanted in a way I wanted.”
Another thing he picked up by following Allen’s lead was that it is possible to do work within the community and still carry on objective research.
Allen has participated in boards and groups in Ithaca and on campus dealing with youth, the elderly, and gender, health and academic issues. Just a few of the groups she has contributed to are the Board of Directors of Hospicare, the Ithaca Rotary Club, the Board of Directors for Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Board of Directors at Longview Retirement Community, the Faculty Senate, the Family Life Development Center on campus, the United Way Board and the College of Human Ecology First Year Mentoring Program.
She was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and was in South Africa for eight months last year, she said. That scholarship has been extended, and she’ll be continuing her research there and taking up a position at Binghamton University.
Another project she is working on is a book called Letters to President Obama, publishing letters to the president elect submitted to letterstopresidentobama.com.
Though she is no longer a full-time professor at Cornell, she still has advice for young people: to understand the work of those who have gone before us — people like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X.
“To use the words of Mahatma Ghandi, you need to be the change you want to see in the world,” she said. “By actively advocating for that change, and by creating an environment in which underprivileged people can succeed makes life better for all of us. We must understand that those efforts were made so that people who come after will find a better place.”
Eversley-Bradwell said Allen’s accomplishment in breaking through barriers at Cornell should not be downplayed.
“It warrants some reflection about her career path,” he said. “People hear and dismiss it. But that’s a profound accomplishment. You must think about what must have been like to work there. Cornell didn’t have 1ots of black faculty and still doesn’t. No doubt there was a legacy that was set beforehand. For a black person to be considered good at anything they have to be exceptional. Professor Allen is exceptional, and the students she taught are evidence of that.”