November 28, 2022

SUNY Cortland teacher joins Ivory Tower


Michael Tillotson was a student at Indiana University in Bloomington, on his way to becoming a classics scholar, when he encountered not a fork in the road, but a dead end.

“When I studied Othello, I think that was the only time I studied people of color of the world in the classics,” recalled the SUNY Cortland associate professor of African studies who remembered a lot about the attention lately, both in academic circles and as a regular guest professor on WCNY-TV’s popular public affairs talk show, “Ivory Tower.”

“They did a wonderful job of putting Europe in my head,” Tillotson said, adding that he studied under some of the best classics scholars in the world, including the first person to translate Inferno from Dante from Italian to English, the late Dr. Mark Musa, Distinguished Professor of Classics.
“They have failed at all to put the Caribbean basin or the African continent in my head.”

Yearning for a broader view of human history, Tillotson embarked on a new academic career path.

After earning a Bachelor of Arts in Classical Arts in the Liberal Arts, he retained those early impressions of the traditional educational mold by earning a Master of Arts in African Studies from the University of Albany and a Ph.D. from the Department of African American Studies at Temple University, the birthplace of doctoral-level African American studies.

As of fall 2021, Tillotson has been the first full-time faculty member in Cortland’s African Studies department with a Ph.D. in the field.

Elected to the board of the National Council for Black Studies, the accrediting body for African American studies, he currently co-chairs committees on curriculum and department and program evaluation.

His first book, Invisible Jim Crow: Contemporary Ideological Threats to African American Homeland Security (2011, Africa World Press, Trenton, NJ), won the Diopian Institute for Scholarly Advancement’s “Best Scholarly Book Award” in the social and political thought category.

Additionally, the growing popularity in academia of Tillotson’s theory of agency reduction formation, as articulated in Invisible Jim Crow, which was published shortly after completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the program of African American Studies from the University of Houston.

The working definition of the theory is: “Any thought system that distracts, neutralizes, or reduces the need and desire for collective agency asserted by African Americans is agency reduction training.”

Globally, it is the pursuit of the agency that has driven African resistance movements from the days of European colonization through the summer of protest 2020 and beyond, Tillotson explained.

“Generally speaking, there is an urgent need to understand – from a theory-building perspective – systems of thought rooted in bad faith that run counter to the interests of the Africana people,” he said. he declares.

“Therefore, it is imperative that not only the history of this reality be studied and taught, but also that a compelling theory be developed by scholars of African studies to draw attention to the phenomena that made possible the various forms of lasting oppression.”

Tillotson said many African studies scholars have embraced his theory in recent years to the extent that at least five doctoral students have based their dissertations on his concept.

For example, Cherise Burden Stelly, associate professor of African studies at Wayne State University, chose Tillotson’s theory as the platform to launch her article, “Black Cold War Liberalism as an Agency Reduction Formation during the Late 1940s and Early 1950s”, appeared in the peer review International Journal of African Studies.

Since unseen jim crowTillotson has expanded his research to encompass the global African experience in more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles in leading African studies journals.

On April 21, her innovative scholarship was the centerpiece of a day-long symposium with 17 presenters at Indiana University in Bloomington, hosted by the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University. ‘institution.

Much to Tillotson’s delight, three additional academic conferences on his theory are now being held at universities including Temple University, the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, and the University of Connecticut; with others in the planning stages with Tillotson.

“It’s something that rarely happens at the American Academy,” Tillotson said. “Usually the pattern is: you write a book, you come in and give a talk, you sign books, you go out to dinner with nice people and that’s it. It’s not that model at all.

The theory itself builds on its broad early immersion in global human history.

Michael Tillotson takes stock of his theory on a whiteboard in the Moffett Center and, top left, welcomes a visitor to his adjacent office.

“As I navigated through Africana studies, I started thinking about the quality of life of Africans,” he said. “I understood that there were six eras of oppression: colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, apartheid, de facto and de jure.”

These six eras of oppression had placed some Africans in four “crisis places”: hermeneutics, that is, trying to understand the nature of scripture and the divine; ontological, which tries to understand the nature of their being; axiological, namely, trying to understand if this place called America has any ethics or values ​​towards them; and existential, or trying to understand the nature of their existence.

“These anti-egalitarian actions and the particular corollary tragedies are tied to each of these periods that mark over 400 years of people of African descent,” Tillotson said.

The gradations and various forms of oppression can be different in every part of the world, Tillotson said.

“But consistent negative outcomes related to quality of life indicators and social indices are linked to persistent problems associated with reduced human agency,” he said.

Tillotson also brings his unique vision of world affairs to life each time he joins other upstate New York scholars to talk about the news on the 20-year-old regional public television program, “Ivory Tower” from WCNY-TV.

On September 16, the recurring panelist took part in the one-hour 20th anniversary segment, with a live audience (which can be streamed on demand at

It thus maintains SUNY Cortland’s high profile on this program following the departure of longtime commentator Robert Spitzer, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and Emeritus Professor of Political Science at SUNY Cortland.

Tillotson focuses her research on the functioning of worldview and the intersection of anti-egalitarian ideologies and their influence on the contemporary intra-racial social landscape of African Americans.

He has continued to build his reputation with many achievements. He chaired the Research Advisory Board at the Center for Race and Social Issues at the University of Pittsburgh in the School of Social Work and serves on two editorial boards, the journal Race and Social Policy and the Journal of Black Studies. He is a policy analyst and senior research associate at the MKA Institute in Philadelphia.

Internationally, Tillotson served as the American Representative for African Studies to deliver the inaugural address for Black Studies at Birkbeck University in London. He gave the keynote address to heads of departments and the academic community on the curriculum frameworks essential to the development of an African Studies curriculum in the UK.

Tillotson’s scholarship body positions him as a central figure in the field of African Studies and his work to date as an important launching point for current and future scholarship.

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