Department, Program, Institute or Other?
When officials at the Alabama Commission on Higher Education announced in February that they would not approve a Black Studies major at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, it was a slap in the face to university officials and students who say they have been fighting since desegregation to bring the discipline to their campus.
That the commission reversed the decision last month and gave the university the green light was of little consolation to some faculty and students who say they now have to persuade the administration to give the discipline department status.
“Having the major is a good starting point, but until we get department status, it just won’t be sufficient,” says Dr. Adeniyi Coker, director of the program.
Just as the curricular emphases of African American Studies units may vary considerably depending on the faculty’s interests and training, the school’s collections and the geographical location, the units themselves can take a variety of forms.
Some schools offer programs, others have departments, and still others prefer the research center. Hybrid arrangements may have evolved at some institutions, with research centers attached to — or even separate from — a departmental program.
And then there’s the question of whom the unit is intended to serve. Does the institution offer an interdisciplinary undergraduate or graduate major? Or is the program merely a concentration of courses within a more traditional discipline? Are there plans to attempt to offer the Ph.D.? And what will that Ph.D. be in? African American Studies? Or will the school opt for one of the new joint programs and offer a Ph.D. in African American Studies along with one in a traditional discipline?
The debate has a history. When African American Studies units were emerging out of the ferment of late ’60s and early ’70s campus activism, there were those voices that insisted on establishing programs rather than departments.
“There was the feeling that African American Studies was so marginal that the faculty would not be respected unless they were appointed from other disciplines,” notes Dr. Nellie McKay, professor of American and African American literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her school, she is careful to add, fought hard for a department and won.
In contrast, there was the approach taken by Armstead Robinson, the founder of the University of Virginia’s Woodson Institute. Daryl Scott, associate professor of history at Columbia University, relates that officials at Woodson rejected departmental status in favor of the greater flexibility offered by being a program-cum-research center.
Decades have intervened, but the battle still rages. Dr. Hazel Carby of Yale University made headlines earlier this year when her long-simmering frustrations over program status erupted into a tense standoff with Yale’s president, Dr. Richard Levin.
After Levin appeared to slight Yale’s program at a dinner party attended by Harvard University’s Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Carby resigned as chair of African American Studies. Only a promise from Levin to upgrade the program into a department persuaded her to reverse her decision.
Though Carby did not return phone calls about the matter, her reasoning was crystal clear to observers around the nation. Departments make the university go round — they have access to funds, the ability to hire and, some say, more respect.
“With programs, you just don’t have the same kind of clout,” argues McKay. “The faculty is too dispersed. When issues or problems arise, you can’t fight in the same way.”
But the program need not be, by definition, inferior to the department, notes Dr. Dianne Pinderhughes, professor of political science and director of the Afro-American Studies and Research Program at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“It’s true that as a department, you have power, but not every department is powerful,” she cautions.
Scott, who’s leaving Columbia University’s history department at the end of this academic year to revive the moribund program in African American Studies at the University of Florida, has thought long and hard about the program vs. department debate.
He says he tends to agree with Pinderhuges, pointing out that Black Studies departments tend to be small and that — particularly with broadly interdisciplinary fields like diaspora studies — coverage of necessary fields of study can be a problem.
Programs, however, “have the advantage of always bringing in fresh blood from the other disciplines,” he says, explaining that this allows much greater “nimbleness” in responding to new developments within the various fields.
An Uphill Battle in Birmingham
Still, for their part, University of Alabama at Birmingham students and faculty say they just don’t understand why administrators would hesitate to make the program a full-fledged department.
It was hard enough convincing the state board that the field was worthy of study, despite the fact that Tulane University in New Orleans and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., had been the only other Southern colleges offering the major.
The Birmingham university has had courses in Black culture since the 1970s and has offered a minor since 1989. Discussion about a major in Black studies first began in the mid-1990s. The university’s student body is about one-fourth Black.
Coker told the commission in February that 75 students were minoring in African American Studies. The board — which has only three Black members — voted 5-4 in favor of the major, but seven votes were required for approval.
Commissioners at that meeting questioned whether the program would produce enough graduates and what kind of jobs a Black Studies major could obtain after graduation.
But at last month’s meeting, commission member Bettye Fine Collins, who had voted against creating a major earlier, said she would support it after obtaining additional information. University officials had raised their estimates for the number of students the program would serve, among other things .
And now that that battle is won, Coker says he and other Black studies supporters have to contend with university officials over department status.
“In this day and age, with schools around the country celebrating more than 30 years in the discipline, I just don’t see why we are still fighting for this,” says Coker, who was among the first graduates of Temple University’s Ph.D. program in Black studies. “But like everything else that we’ve had to fight for, I think we’re going to have to prove ourselves on this one.
“I just don’t think we should have to go through this,” he adds.
— Jamilah Evelyn and Kendra Hamilton
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com