N’Dri Thérèse Assié-Lumumba speaks to pre-university students at Aduvie International School in Abuja, Nigeria, in December 2019.

Assié-Lumumba leads Institute for African Development

When N’Dri Thérèse Assié-Lumumba came to Ithaca in 1991 as a Fulbright senior research fellow and Ford Foundation/Africana Studies fellow, one of her first stops was Cornell’s then-new Institute for African Development (IAD), founded in 1987 as part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.

Nearly three decades later, Assié-Lumumba – now a professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center of the College of Arts and Sciences – took the helm on July 1 as IAD’s third director.

“My time at Cornell is intertwined with the Institute for African Development,” she said.

Assié-Lumumba is chair of UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformations Scientific Advisory Committee and in her second term as president of the World Council of Comparative Education Societies. In a recent UNESCO video, she argued for building a post-pandemic world based on our shared humanity: “Those borders in Africa, and in many parts of the world, have no meaning. The coronavirus didn’t apply for a visa to cross borders.”

It’s a point she has reflected on as people across Africa and around the world have joined protests against racism. “The tragedy that occurred here in the United States has renewed international efforts to recognize the global structure of racism,” said Assié-Lumumba. “We have shared histories that we need to address collectively if we are to create a new world of common humanity.”

Assié-Lumumba is leading IAD’s contributions to the Einaudi Center’s new thematic initiative on global racial justice.

“This is an exceptionally important moment for IAD,” said Rachel Beatty Riedl, Einaudi Center director, the John S. Knight Professor of International Studies and professor of government in A&S. “IAD is an internationally renowned leader in models, frameworks and new ideas for social justice and development. Assié-Lumumba’s leadership, global networks, research excellence and dynamic vision will elevate our international programming and research collaborations across Cornell.”

The previous director, Muna Ndulo, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of International and Comparative Law at Cornell Law School, led IAD since 2001, defining the institute’s research and applied policy focus on African governance, access to justice, and human rights. Under Ndulo’s leadership, IAD built university and nonprofit partnerships across the African continent and a network of distinguished African alumni who support Cornell student internships.

Africa’s current borders, delineating 54 countries and five geopolitical subregions, represent a complex colonial inheritance with enormous cultural diversity – the “reality of how different places function,” Assié-Lumumba observed.

Africa is notable for its linguistic richness. These African and colonial languages have contemporary implications in every aspect of African societies, from educational systems to politics.

“I would like these complexities to be reflected in who we bring to Cornell and those we support on the continent,” she said.

Assié-Lumumba aims to expand IAD’s partnerships in Francophone countries – from Senegal to Madagascar and her home country of Côte d’Ivoire – building on IAD’s existing strengths in English-speaking countries and tapping Portuguese-speaking countries.

“Through my work with pan-African development, continental and diasporic organizations, I’ve been able to build networks from Egypt to South Africa, from Senegal to Ethiopia,” Assié-Lumumba said. “Cornell is in a unique position as a land-grant institution to reach outside of academia. I hope we’ll be able to open up opportunities to everyone, beyond colonial borders.”

A top priority for IAD will be engaging with Cornell students and student organizations and connecting Cornellians with students and scholars in Africa. Assié-Lumumba is eager to find ways to bring African students, emerging scholars and practitioners to Cornell for short visits. After she completed her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and returned to Africa, Assié-Lumumba benefited from a similar opportunity at Stanford University.

“Based on my own experience, I know it will be valuable support,” she said. “Even a few weeks or months in a different context, at Cornell, will provide extraordinary possibilities.”

Sheri Englund is associate director of communication for Global Cornell.

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Rebecca Valli