[Paleopsych] CHE: (Black Studies) Past Their Prime?
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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
By ROBIN WILSON
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
"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
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,
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
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?'"
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