This week, Northwestern political science professor and Director of the Undergraduate Studies for African Studies William Reno was named the new director of the Program of African Studies, the nation's first and oldest interdisciplinary research program in African Studies. PAS is known internationally for encouraging innovative research and new ways of thinking about Africa. Professor Reno’s research centers around the role of violence and war in the political structures of West Africa.
Why did you decide to pursue research in violence and conflict in Africa specifically?
The first decade of my career was focusing on West African wars and trying to understand the politics of that. I was researching something else, and then war broke out in the place where I was conducting research — Sierra Leone — and that disrupted my original project. So I shifted to focus basically on what was happening around me, and I found that interesting and ended up focusing on that instead. It was a critical point in my career.
In what direction do you intend to steer the Program of African Studies?
I would say that one of the main things is that we need to get more outside funding for research projects supported with external fellowships and foundations – people who want to pay university researchers to explore big topics. One of the other areas of focus is that we have a strong program on the study of Islam in contemporary Africa. The other [objective] is to deepen our contacts with scholars and students in Africa.
What has your experience in the field contributed to your research?
The importance of scholars of Africa. I think one of the problems particularly with my field is that, in this country, people develop their ideas about African politics without really reading what African scholars have to say about it. When I did my research, it [was] important to listen carefully to people who live in these societies and write about their own political problems and political relationships and to take your ideas to these people and see what they think. I think they’re better measures of whether what you’re writing about is realistic or not.
How can students get involved in the Program of African Studies, and what advice would you give them?
Getting involved is easy – we have an adjunct major and the minor is even easier access. Our majors do all sort of interesting things – we’ve had conferences the last few years that have been student organized. We have other areas of entry – we’ve got a seminar series called Afrologue, which is research-related and run by undergraduates. We support undergraduate research grants. We don’t award them, but we help people prepare grant applications and apply for things and try to get as many for African studies as possible.
What do you think is the most pressing issue Africa faces today?
Economic development and stability. There are lot of social scientists and other scholars who see that economic development is a precondition for solving a lot of other problems, but it creates its own problems. So I think that with what’s happening in Africa now is that we’re starting to see some countries that really are starting to leap ahead economically, which I think is very interesting to study, but I think for the rest of them the question is how to follow that lead and how to manage the problems associated with it.