By Barry Waldman
When the College of Charleston appointed Dr. Kameelah Martin as Dean of the Graduate School, University of Charleston, S.C., it was making a statement about its place in the world and the world’s place at the graduate school.
Martin, professor of African American Studies and English, believes the university has an opportunity to better leverage the resources of The Holy City to attract international students and scholars, raise academic standards and enhance its worldwide reputation. She plans to begin exploiting that opportunity.
Charleston as a Research Laboratory for Scholars
A scholar of African American literature and folklore, with degrees from Georgia Southern University, UCLA, and Florida State, where her dissertation earned the English department’s award for outstanding dissertation, Martin served as a professor at the College of Charleston for four years until her appointment to dean, which took effect June 1, 2021.
Her first order of business on Day One was a conversation with the Lowcountry Graduate Center (LGC) about her vision for the graduate school, which starts with the school’s singular advantage in downtown Charleston. The city is a citadel of Colonial and Civil War history and ground zero for African American history, a magnet for diverse people through the various military branches here, a research playground for historians, cultural anthropologists, military historians, maritime scholars and so many more.
This is particularly trenchant to an African-American literature scholar like Martin. The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, McLeod Plantation, and the soon-to-open International African American Museum are just three sources of scholarly research around Charleston that can enlighten the work of academics in her field and offer experiential study to students at Graduate School. As the site for an estimated 40% of this nation’s slave importation, Charleston offers a primary source for a wide variety of scholars.
“I am taken aback that there aren’t more graduate programs here in the city,” Martin said. “Everyone is coming here to do research and going back to their institutions elsewhere. We must get in on that because we are literally already here.”
“The Lowcountry Graduate Center hopes to fund such new initiatives through awards from our Opportunity Funds designated to support new graduate program initiatives that particularly fit the resources of this region and demands of the US,” comments Nancy Muller, director of the LGC.
Signature PhDs and Enhanced Diversity
Charleston may be the American city most connected to the Old South and the New South simultaneously. Vestiges of antebellum days abound, in plantations, places of worship, and streets while Boeing, Volvo, and Mercedes ship their locally made goods through the bustling ports.
“While Charleston is the root of the Deep South, with cobblestone streets and carriage rides, it is also an international space,” Martin said.
Adjunct to the strategy of recruiting more international talent is the development of new signature doctoral programs that would be unique or unusual to Charleston. Specialized graduate degrees might include marine biology, historic preservation and sustainability, which are hard to find elsewhere and are naturally suited to the Lowcountry. They could attract scholars from around the globe and create areas of preeminence for the university.
Simultaneously, Martin proposes putting into practice the strategies that many colleges articulate but don’t execute: to diversify their student body and ensure the success of minority students.
That requires, she says, more than attracting and admitting minority students. Schools must recognize that first-generation college students, as she was, may need a supportive environment that nurtures their natural talent.
“If a student feels alienated, they can go somewhere else,” she said. She knows of promising students who have done just that. “This is where most well-meaning institutions miss the mark.”
The Attraction of Serving Graduate Students
Martin did not set out to become an administrator and says she would not have considered any other administrative position. But the prospect of mentoring graduate students through their research and graduate education attracted her. The prospect of raising the international reputation of the school sealed the deal.
“My vision is to integrate their experience more into college and community life,” she said. “Graduate students are pigeon-holed now. Charleston is a living lab, so we should be recruiting more international students and sending more of our grad students abroad.
The changes that Martin envisions are admittedly an evolution and could take decades, at best. She hopes to lay the groundwork during a five-year plan developed with College of Charleston Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Suzanne Austin. Nonetheless, she is impatient to begin the process.
“I dream big! With the right collaborators and strategic plan, we should be bringing in international scholars in and around Charleston.”