IAS Purpose & Mandate

The Institute of African Studies (IAS) at Columbia is one of the few autonomous African studies institutes dedicated to serious scholarship on the continent in the U.S. today. It is a dynamic intellectual space devoted to thinking critically about the issues facing the continent both historically and in the contemporary moment. It seeks to explore all aspects of the continent and its oceanic connections as well as its rich philosophical, religious, spiritual, and artistic resources.

The IAS serves the needs of its students and faculty on campus, and contributes to intellectual debates on Africa in the U.S. and abroad through its national presence and its overseas alliances with African and European universities. Its mission for the past 65 years has been to bring an African presence to Columbia to educate students across the campus about the continent and to provide resources and opportunities to build exciting faculty and student driven programs.

The IAS prepares Columbia students for careers in development, diplomacy, business, governance, social work, journalism, law, human rights, academic research and teaching through its undergraduate and graduate academic and co-curricular programs. Students may pursue undergraduate and graduate study of Africa through the Africa Specialization (IAS/SIPA), and Certificate in African Studies (IAS). Undergraduate students can complete a major in African Studies through the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS). In addition to Africa-related courses, students may engage in language training in Wolof, Arabic, Pulaar, Swahili, Zulu, and Yoruba through MESAAS and the Language Resource Center (LRC). IAS sponsors one graduate course at SIPA each year on citizenship and social movements that is open to graduate students in all schools and departments. IAS advises students on these programs and guides them on internships and other other study and employment opportunities on the continent.

The IAS’s co-curricular programming fills a critical educational gap in Africa Studies at Columbia. Students from all over the campus—Columbia College, GSAS, SIPA, Journalism, Social Work, Business, Law, and Public Health—are eager for Africa events and programs that focus in a serious way on the continent and all of its complexities. The IAS’s co-curricular activities—conferences, seminars, films, performances, exhibits, workshops, and lecture series—are essential to their education and to the Africanist community at large. These programs bring together faculty and students with widely varying interests and disciplinary backgrounds. In response to Covid restrictions, IAS launched a series of Zoom-based webinars in the fall of 2020 that attracted a surprisingly large audience (70-100 participants) from all over the world. We were pleasantly surprised to see so many people joining us--from our faculty and students in NYC and abroad to Africanists scholars and students in Africa and Europe. This technology has enabled us to capture a much larger and more diverse audience and we intend to add more high and lower profile events to the spring 2021 calendar to benefit students and faculty on and off campus, and to establish IAS as an important center for global discussion and debate.

The IAS partners with departments, centers, institutes, and student groups across the university to reach new audiences and facilitate an exchange of knowledge about Africa. It maintains links to the United Nations, the diplomatic community, and international agencies in New York City. It is partnered with Columbia Global Centers in Nairobi and Tunisia, Sciences Po, Paris 1 University, and the Centre d'Etudes des Mondes Africains (CEMAf) to support collaborative research groups and conferences on Africa and to facilitate faculty and student mobility between these sites. Through these partnerships and alone, the IAS has supported the publication of 9 edited books on issues of citizenship, religion, philosophy, and politics. In the recent past, it has partnered with the South African Consulate to host a lecture series in honor of Columbia alumnus and ANC founder, Pixley ka Seme, and the Mellon Foundation and the Italian Academy to host an international conference on the question of restitution in the realm of African art. It has worked with the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and CODESRIA to host postdoctoral scholars from Africa, and the African Studies Association (ASA) to bring scholars from Africa to Columbia for short-term visits. All of these collaborative engagements have nourished the IAS and sustained its strong Africanist presence and community at Columbia and beyond.