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Future of ethnic studies divides UW

Future of ethnic studies divides UW

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Arturo "Tit" Diaz

Arturo “Tito” Diaz leads a discussion about creating a College of Ethnic Studies to convert ethnic studies programs into departments and secure their financial futures.

Though the transition into college is tough for many freshmen, Marianna Rivera’s move to UW-Madison was especially isolating. She grew up in Chicago in a drastically different community climate.

“I was always surrounded by people who spoke like me, had the same customs as me, the same traditions as me,” Rivera said. “I really struggled coming to campus and feeling comfortable around the people in my dorm or in my classes.”

Rivera said she felt no one was interested in getting to know people with different backgrounds and that they believed her differences in experience were trivial.

This frustration led her to pursue a certificate in Chican@ and Latin@ Studies, one of four ethnic studies units that prompted passionate debate in Spring 2014 discussions over consolidation.

Some leaders say consolidating four ethnic studies programs could save money while others, including Political Science Professor Ben Marquez, the former Chican@ and Latin@ Studies chair, said it exemplified a greater pattern of marginalization.

Though resource concerns loomed, they feared the move would ruin the autonomy of the programs, reduce their areas of study and further disrupt funding.

Discussions ended last semester largely due to the outpouring of negative feedback.

All four programs face unique challenges and cover different academic territory, but common themes prevail.

They all grew out of students and others calling for the university to study their lens on the American experience, and faculty and students from all of them worry about continuing their mission amid cutbacks.

Combining resources or ‘an ethnic studies trash can’

The ethnic studies units are classified as such by the university and include four areas of study. Chican@ and Latin@ Studies, Asian American Studies and American Indian Studies have certificate programs, but Afro-American Studies offers a major and can be the home for tenure-track and tenured faculty because it has department status.

College of Letters & Science administrators recommended consolidation as part of a 10-year self-study, hoping to foster greater sharing of resources.

Afro-American Studies Chair Craig Werner spearheaded discussions and said there was never anyone “holding a sword over our heads,” but he wanted to look at pooling resources.

For some, the discussions exemplified a greater pattern of marginalization.

Several American Indian Studies faculty objected to the program’s classification as “ethnic studies” because tribes are sovereign nations and are distinct from groups designated as American ethnic minorities, said American Indian Studies Director Rand Valentine.

Marquez said he views consolidation as “a big push to just dump us into this ethnic studies trash can.”

Christy Clark-Pujara, a history professor in Afro-American Studies, also said the issues and histories of each group are too distinct to combine into one department.

Similarly, UW-Madison student Amani Alexander, who is double majoring in Afro-American Studies and Rehabilitation Psychology, said consolidation undermines the mission of educating students to be culturally responsive and competent.

“We’re moving in the opposite direction of what is important to culture on this campus,” Alexander said.

In the face of budget cuts

Though consolidation efforts have been tabled, the future remains unclear.

The 2011-’12 biennial budget saw an 8 percent decline in state funding to the College of Letters & Science, and programs could face more cuts in the coming years.

Frenzied over reports showing the UW System was holding on to billions in cash reserves, legislators responded by slashing the System’s budget.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank is steeling the university for another round of cuts by asking units to plan for 2, 4 or 6 percent slashes to their funding next year.

The programs have not had their funding drastically cut, but being relatively small means any funding declines have large consequences.

This financial instability prompted Greg Downey, the social sciences associate dean in the College of Letters & Science, to examine current ethnic studies structures.

However, Downey said there are also other reasons consolidation was explored, such as changing “intellectual landscapes” and increasing globalization.

Since cuts have to come from somewhere, faculty who retire, change universities or otherwise leave are not replaced.

“That’s kind of where we’re frozen for a while until we can start slowly building back the resources to start rehiring,” Downey said.

For instance, in 2008, American Indian Studies had 4.5 faculty positions in the program through joint appointments; in 2014, they had 2.27. Also, by the end of 2014, Asian-American Studies had 1.39 faculty positions, down from 2.5 in 2011.

When making funding decisions, Downey says administration will weigh a huge number of factors, including total credit hours delivered, “high impact” practices like Freshman Interest Groups, research prominence and thresholds for the cuts each program can withstand.

Downey refers to the last as a program’s critical mass–the point at which “if you cut them anymore you’ve destroyed them.”

He also said they consider the role of the ethnic studies programs in fostering a campus environment with “diversity of experience and thought.”

The campus-wide diversity framework currently being implemented aims to support faculty who “further the fields of ethnic studies through education or research.”

“It’s not as simple as the university supports or doesn’t support us,” Clark-Pujara said of Afro-American Studies. “I think the university does support the department, but they’re dealing with some real number issues.”

Marquez, however, said the university is actively allowing the programs to “wither away.”

The Chican@ and Latin@ Studies program has no faculty appointed to it and instead relies on faculty from other departments to teach classes.

“We’re always trying to make something out of nothing,” Marquez said. “We’ve been defunded, we’ve been neglected, we’ve been marginalized.”

Marquez and Michael Thornton, a professor of Afro-American Studies, Asian-American Studies and Sociology, see a larger pattern over the last several decades of ethnic studies programs losing funding or being dismantled altogether.

“If something is a priority, even with declining state budgets, you find a way to do it,” Thornton said. “It might be more difficult, but you still find a way to do it.”

Asian-American Studies and American Indian Studies rely on joint faculty appointments, which means their salaries and duties are divided between departments or programs. Afro-American Studies is a department, but this has seen similar issues.

The Chican@ and Latin@ Studies Program relies wholly on associations with faculty who volunteer their time and energy, Marquez said.

“Any kind of bureaucratic entity can’t depend entirely on volunteers, because it’s just too unstable,” Marquez said.

On the other hand, Werner said the Afro-American Studies Department is stable, and they were able to rehire several faculty members in joint-appointment roles recently.

Werner said increasing cross-departmental collaboration in this way creates somewhat of a “golden age” for students; however, some of his colleagues disagree.

Clark-Pujara said the decline in faculty since the 1980s curbs what the Afro-American Studies Department can accomplish.

Additionally, Thornton said it is “naïve” to believe reliance on jointly committed faculty does not negatively impact the program.

“[It] doesn’t encourage those faculty to be 100 percent involved in the department, because they have another home,” Thornton said.

Arturo “Tito” Diaz and Cheyenne Coote gathered students in October to explore creating a School of Ethnic Studies, housing four distinct departments. They said a school could allow for higher retention of faculty of color and more control over the ethnic studies class requirement.

Downey also said Letters & Science would take proposals for this seriously, though it would likely necessitate moving existing faculty into the new department.

Fostering diversity

As ethnic studies units face a murky future, students face the reality of trying to explore diversity on campus.

The stories of many students involved in ethnic studies resemble Rivera’s story: students who found a sense of community amid a sea of white faces at UW-Madison, where last year approximately 72 percent of students and 76 percent of faculty and staff identified as white.

Rachelle Eilers, a former certificate student and current PEOPLE Program academic advisor, said events like weekly dinners can bridge the divide to college for first generation and underrepresented students.

Although some are passionate enough to pursue a certificate or major, some say ethnic studies classes are vital to the thousands of other students, who, many professors say have never been taught about race.

English Professor Leslie Bow, part of the Asian Studies Program, said via email she would also like to see the program recognized for its ability “to develop the tools to understand the structures, histories, and contexts that surround racialization and globalization,” rather than just being a diversity initiative.

Alexander said the “broader lens on history” from her Afro-American Studies major may help her in a future career in education.

Moving beyond ethnic studies units, individuals across campus are working on ways to facilitate outlets for diversity. Bao Nhia Moua, an Asian-American Studies certificate student, said she sees a stark divide between students of color and white students that needs to be addressed.

“We need to be in each other’s space,” she said.


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