[Paleopsych] CHE: (Black Studies) Past Their Prime?

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Mon Apr 18 14:40:47 UTC 2005

Past Their Prime?
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.22

    After 35 years on campuses, black-studies programs struggle to survive

    The "on air" sign lights up in the recording studio here at the
    University of Minnesota, and Quintin Brown begins to read from a
    script in a strong voice, carefully articulating every word. Two
    professors listen closely, offering pointers from the studio's cramped
    control room as Mr. Brown -- an African-American high-school student
    -- narrates a multimedia presentation aimed at attracting
    undergraduates to the university's black-studies department.

    By the fifth line of the presentation, Mr. Brown gets to the crucial
    question: What exactly can you do with a major in African-American
    studies? He lists several real-life examples of students who majored
    in black studies and went on to hold jobs in government, academe, the
    arts, and other fields.

    But black students on this campus do not seem very interested in the
    message. Most of the dozen or so students gathered in the Black
    Student Union at lunchtime one recent day have eschewed black studies
    for more practical subjects like architecture, chemical engineering,
    law, and marketing.

    Alton Robinson, a freshman who stops by the Black Student Union to
    watch TV and hang out between classes, feels an affinity for black
    studies. "Since I'm African-American, I should want to study it," he
    says. But major in it?

    "I don't think society would take that seriously," he says. "They
    wouldn't be impressed."

    Minnesota's black-studies program, founded in 1969, is one of the
    oldest in the country. But it is facing an identity crisis, and it is
    not alone. Black-studies programs at many public universities are
    having trouble attracting students and are suffering from budget cuts
    that have whittled down their faculty ranks. Meanwhile, classes with
    African-American perspectives are cropping up in departments like
    history, women's studies, and English, diluting the need, some say,
    for separate black-studies departments.

    "It's a struggle for survival," says Edmond J. Keller, a professor of
    political science at the University of California at Los Angeles who
    teaches African-American studies.

    To stay alive, black-studies departments at many public universities
    are scrambling to reinvent themselves. They are changing their names
    to "Africana" and "African diaspora" studies and broadening their
    courses from a focus on black Americans to black people in Africa,
    Europe, and the Caribbean. A few departments, like Minnesota's, are
    trying to sell themselves to students by explaining just what they can
    do with a black-studies major.

    "We face some daunting challenges," says Keletso E. Atkins, chairwoman
    of the department of African-American and African studies at
    Minnesota. "But we're trying to turn this thing around."

    Some black professors outside the discipline, however, question
    whether it is worth the effort, and whether black-studies programs
    have simply grown obsolete. Established in part as a symbolic gesture
    of academe's commitment to diversity, the programs may have run their
    course, as multiculturalism and diversity have become concerns
    throughout higher education. "These programs may have been a victim of
    their own success," says Carol M. Swain, a professor of political
    science and law at Vanderbilt University. "Other departments now see
    the need to teach these courses, and we need to assess whether the
    need today for black-studies programs just isn't as great."

    Shelby Steele, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover
    Institution, takes an even more critical view. To his mind,
    universities never had a legitimate reason for establishing
    black-studies programs.

    "It was a bogus concept from the beginning because it was an idea
    grounded in politics, not in a particular methodology," he says.
    "These programs are dying of their own inertia because they've had 30
    or 40 years to show us a serious academic program, and they've

    Elites Thrive

    Black-studies programs were established on campuses in the wake of
    Martin Luther King's assassination in April 1968. King's death touched
    off protests among the growing number of black students at
    predominantly white institutions. The students accused their
    universities of ignoring black culture and history, and pressed the
    institutions to establish black-studies departments, to create
    scholarships for black students, and to step up efforts to recruit

    Taking their lead from the civil-rights and black-power movements,
    some of the student protesters staged sit-ins and strikes. At San
    Francisco State University, protesters shut down the campus for four
    months. While police arrested hundreds of people during the incident,
    the university did accede to students' demands and created a
    black-studies department in 1969.

    That kind of student activism no longer exists. "The clock has been
    turned back," says Valerie Grim, interim chairwoman of black studies
    at Indiana University at Bloomington. "The students we have today
    don't even know who Martin Luther King is."

    The number of students seeking degrees in African-American studies
    nationwide is minute. In the 2001-2 academic year, according to the
    U.S. Department of Education, just 668 undergraduates earned
    bachelor's degrees in the field, representing only 0.05 percent of all
    degrees conferred. That doesn't mean black-studies programs are short
    on students. In fact, on many campuses the courses are quite popular
    among students who are majoring in other subjects but want to have a
    black perspective on history or literature, for example. Within the
    financial politics of most universities, however, it is still the
    number of majors in a field that matters.

    Clearly, not all black-studies programs are in trouble. Those at elite
    private universities -- like Cornell, Duke, Harvard and Princeton
    Universities -- are thriving. They are attracting students and hiring
    new professors because they have plenty of resources and are home to
    star professors like K. Anthony Appiah and Cornel West.

    "Fortunately, I don't live in that kind of environment," Henry Louis
    Gates Jr., chairman of the department at Harvard, says of the problems
    plaguing black-studies programs at public institutions. But while
    Harvard's department may be healthy -- it has lost some high-profile
    professors lately but is planning to hire several new ones this year
    -- Mr. Gates says it is important that black-studies programs flourish

    "The field can't take root if there are only a half-dozen
    sophisticated departments and they're at historically white, elite,
    private schools," he says.

    Black-studies departments at some public institutions, including the
    University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Illinois at
    Urbana-Champaign -- are holding their own. And while programs at many
    other public universities may be struggling, few have actually been
    shut down. About 450 colleges and universities offer either an
    undergraduate or graduate program -- or both. That number hasn't
    changed much in a decade, says Abdul Alkalimat, who directs the
    Africana-studies program at the University of Toledo and keeps track
    of figures nationwide.

    Still, some programs are barely limping along because administrators
    have cut support but are reluctant to eliminate them for fear of being
    accused of bias. "Some are surviving only in name, for political
    reasons," says Mr. Keller, of UCLA.

    While many programs are contracting, graduates of the nation's
    half-dozen Ph.D. programs in African-American studies are still
    finding faculty jobs -- in part because many of those scholars are
    marketable not only within African-American studies but also in
    English, history, political science, and psychology.

    In better times, Minnesota talked about expanding its course offerings
    for graduate students by starting a master's degree in
    African-American studies. But right now all of the focus is on shoring
    up its undergraduate program. Only 19 students are majoring in
    African-American studies at Minnesota this year, making it less
    popular than all but one of the 29 other majors in the College of
    Liberal Arts -- statistics.

    In all, 1,282 of the undergraduates at Minnesota's Twin Cities campus
    are black, or 4.5 percent of the student population. When Ms. Atkins
    took over as chairwoman of the department of African-American and
    African studies nearly four years ago, she says, administrators here
    warned her "we were in serious trouble and had to do something" to
    increase the number of students majoring in the discipline. While she
    doesn't believe the university "is going to cut off our head,"
    administrators have made it clear that "if we don't get our numbers up
    they won't renew our faculty lines, and they will let us die a slow,
    natural death."

    That's a painful prospect for John S. Wright, who has been here since
    the beginning. As a graduate student he helped lead a handful of black
    students who staged a sit-in at the Morrill Hall administration
    building in 1969, demanding that the university create a black-studies
    program. Now, Mr. Wright is an associate professor of African-American
    and African studies here.

    "The university is forced to place increasing emphasis on the numbers
    game -- the number of majors and the number of students enrolled," he
    says. "We are a bottom-line enterprise now."

    Since the mid-1980s, Mr. Wright has watched the number of full-time
    professors in African-American studies slip from a high of 10 to just
    6 today. The department has stopped offering Swahili because Ben Pike,
    the professor who taught the language for about 25 years, is retiring.
    Minnesota is working on a plan to bring Swahili back, but for now the
    department points students who want to learn African languages to
    programs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

    At the same time, African-American studies has seen other academic
    departments at Minnesota encroach on its territory. "Everybody is
    poaching," says Ms. Atkins. "Women's studies is teaching
    African-American women's literature. History taught a survey of
    African history. Where does that leave us?"

    Steven J. Rosenstone, dean of the college, says the spread of courses
    with an African-American perspective is just natural. "To have
    scholars in American studies, in women's studies, who are concerned
    about race is a very good thing," he says. But that doesn't mean, he
    adds, that the black-studies program at Minnesota is endangered. "We
    don't use spreadsheets to make decisions about academic investments."

    But that is not the message that professors in black studies here seem
    to be getting. As far as Ms. Atkins is concerned, the department's
    life is on the line. A 5-foot-tall, straight-talking dynamo with a
    ready laugh, she is the department's most energetic cheerleader and is
    not afraid to throw stones.

    While other departments here may offer a course or two on black
    issues, Ms. Atkins says, those classes lack the in-depth approach that
    black studies provides.

    "It is fashionable to read a number of novels by black writers, but do
    the professors know the entire context -- the history of black people
    and of the authors?" she asks. "We have folks in our department who
    have all of their expertise in these fields." Ms. Atkins and her
    colleagues even have a name for courses with an African-American
    perspective that are offered outside her department: "African-American
    and African studies lite."

    The black-studies department here uses an interdisciplinary approach.
    Students who major in the subject take classes in literature, social
    sciences, economics, political science, and history, for example. They
    also commonly take courses on research methods. Like other
    liberal-arts degrees, the program does not train students for a
    specific career. But it develops "self-knowledge," says Ms. Atkins,
    and hones students' critical-thinking skills.

    This year Ms. Atkins is trying to get that message out with an
    unprecedented campaign to tell black students about careers they could
    pursue with a major in African-American studies. "They don't see the
    relevance until it's shown to them," she says.

    Last November her department started tacking up big posters across the
    campus featuring 13 prominent black Americans who earned degrees in
    African-American studies. Among them: Mae C. Jemison, the first black
    female astronaut to go into space, who majored in chemical engineering
    and African-American studies at Stanford University; and Aaron
    McGruder, who pens the cartoon strip The Boondocks and earned a
    bachelor's degree in African-American studies from the University of
    Maryland at College Park. The poster lists 65 other careers -- from
    "ambassador" to "zoo administrator" -- that people have pursued after
    earning a black-studies degree.

    The department is also busy assembling a brochure that offers "150
    Answers" to the question: "What can you do with a major in
    African-American and African studies?" It lists short biographies of
    150 people who majored in black studies. Some of them gave Minnesota
    personal testimonies, including Claudia Thomas, the country's first
    black female orthopedic surgeon, who in the late 1960s changed her
    major at Vassar College from mathematics to black studies. For her
    senior thesis, Ms. Thomas -- who knew she wanted to be a doctor
    -- studied sickle-cell anemia in African-Americans in the
    Poughkeepsie, N.Y., area.

    Clearly, the famous people Minnesota features in its brochure and
    poster could have become scientists, lawyers, and journalists without
    an undergraduate major in black studies.

    But Ms. Atkins contends their black-studies background not only gave
    them "a knowledge of who they are and where they came from," but also
    provided "an understanding of the most important issue that confronts
    all of us in this society, and that is the problem of the color line."
    Race, she says, is a crucial issue if you are a lawyer who may have
    black clients, a doctor whose patients are members of minority groups,
    or a journalist in an urban area.

    By the end of this academic year, Ms. Atkins hopes to send the
    brochures and the multimedia CD's to Midwestern high-school students
    who have indicated an interest in attending the university. She wants
    to appeal not only to black Americans but also to the huge influx of
    African students who have migrated to the Twin Cities.

    "The African population here has grown since 1990 by 620 percent," she
    says. "It is the fastest-growing immigrant population in the state."
    That, says Ms. Atkins, presents a "golden opportunity" for the
    department. She has already tried to capitalize on it by hiring young
    women from Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Somalia to run the department's
    office. One of the women -- Hibaq Warsame, an undergraduate who works
    as the department's part-time secretary -- brought 220 Somali
    high-school students from the Twin Cities to the campus in February.
    "A lot of African Somalis don't know the black experience here," she
    says. "They didn't know about African-American studies."

    A Tense Relationship

    Ms. Atkins's own scholarly specialty is South African labor history
    and the historical connections between South Africa and black
    Americans. She has painted the cinder-block walls in her office here a
    bright aqua blue and decorated the space with African treasures,
    including dolls from South Africa and a West African beaded medicine

    It isn't clear that her department's efforts to meld African
    immigrants with black American students will work. The relationship
    between the groups is sometimes tense, a dynamic that plays out within
    the Black Student Union.

    "The African immigrants are the new group in town, and everyone is
    embracing them at the expense of black students," says Wynfred N.
    Russell, a graduate student at Minnesota, expressing the feelings he
    says some African-Americans have. Whenever African-Americans take over
    leadership of the Black Student Union, he says, African students are
    less active -- and vice versa.

    Even as the African-American-studies department here has taken some
    steps forward, it has suffered setbacks. Last year the department
    hired Mr. Russell, who is from Liberia, to help recruit students. But
    after eight months, the university pulled the plug on his position.
    Now the university says it will pay half of Mr. Russell's salary if
    the department pays the other half. But, asks Ms. Atkins, "where are
    we going to get the money?"

    Gerald L. Early, a professor of English and African-American studies
    at Washington University in St. Louis, says a shakeout may be coming
    within the field of black studies that will leave only the programs at
    elite institutions standing. Undergraduates at those institutions, he
    says, can afford to major in a field like black studies, one that may
    be intellectually stimulating but does not necessarily lead to a
    specific job. Such students, says Mr. Early, "want to go into public
    policy and be part of the intellectual elite." But students at places
    like Minnesota come from middle- and lower-income families and "want
    skills that are going to be immediately useful for them in the job
    market," he says. That may eventually be the kiss of death for black
    studies there.

    Nonetheless, black professors at Minnesota who are not part of the
    African-American-studies department say it is still important despite
    the small number of students who chose the subject as their major. "I
    think African-American studies communicates an institution's
    commitment to people of African descent," says Guy-Uriel E. Charles,
    an associate professor of law at Minnesota. "It represents the
    institution's intention to take these issues of race seriously."

    The Shrinking Faculty

    Struggles like those faced by Minnesota's department are playing out
    at other public universities. At the University of Alabama at
    Tuscaloosa, money has dried up for the African-American Research
    Institute, which awarded $25,000 each year in grants to faculty
    members studying the American South.

    The African-American-studies program at the University of Georgia,
    which at one time had 14 faculty members, is now down to just 8. "The
    issue is the dominance of the Republican cycle in the country, and how
    it effects money and student support," says R. Baxter Miller, director
    of Georgia's program.

    Even some of the country's more robust programs have seen their
    faculty ranks thin. Temple University has one of the largest
    departments of African-American studies in the country, with 75
    undergraduate majors and 65 students who have it as part of a double
    major. It was home to the country's first doctoral program in black
    studies and since 1988 has granted 125 doctoral degrees. While the
    department once had 14 tenured or tenure-track professors, it now has
    just 7. It has hired part-timers and professors on one-year contracts
    to fill in.

    Indiana University's department, which has had as many as 100
    undergraduates with the subject as their major, now has only about
    half that many. But the department is forging ahead, introducing new
    courses that compare the experiences of black people all over the
    world. The department is also drafting a proposal to begin a Ph.D.
    program. So far, only six other American universities have one.

    "When you are in a program that deals with the history and culture of
    a particular group," says Ms. Grim, the interim chairwoman, "you are
    constantly having to reorientate with the sense of trying to be more
    inclusive and expand your intellectual base." Three years ago, the
    department changed its name from Afro-American studies to
    African-American and African-diaspora studies.

    At Minnesota, Jerold W. Wells, Jr., a sophomore who serves on the
    board of the Black Student Union, is bucking the trend and majoring in
    African-American studies. When he first came to Minnesota, he planned
    to pursue a law degree. "That was a brainchild of my parents," he
    says. After taking a class or two in black studies, he decided "I
    wanted to do what I want to do." Now he plans to be a journalist.

    Still, he has had to pacify his parents, who have urged him to declare
    a double major that he might fall back on. And he has found himself
    presented with the same question that the department here is trying to

    "When I told my mom I was majoring in African-American studies, her
    first question was: 'OK, what are you going to do with that?'"

More information about the paleopsych mailing list