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UCLA faculty approve African American studies department

By Jessica Doumit

April 10, 2014 8:30 p.m.

Members of the UCLA Academic Senate unanimously voted Thursday to establish an Afro-American studies department and dismantle the current interdepartmental program, despite financial concerns about the transition.

The Legislative Assembly, a committee of the Academic Senate, approved the creation of a department after it was officially proposed more than a year ago, said Jan Reiff, the chair of the Academic Senate. The university hopes to have the department fully established by the fall, Reiff added.

The Department of African American studies will be able to offer more classes, recruit more faculty members, and provide more academic resources than the current interdepartmental program, according to a 434 page proposal that called for departmentalization.

“The goal is to hire faculty that have their academic homes in African American studies and have faculty fully committed to the development of the programs offered,” said Tyrone Howard, a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and the founder and director of the Black Male Institute.

He added that he thought the department was needed because a number of students felt that other ethnic studies programs that have their own department at UCLA were considered more important than the Afro-American studies program.

The César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies was established in 2005 and the department of Asian American Studies was established in 2004.

Throughout the past year, multiple councils and committees approved the proposal for departmentalization before it reached the Legislative Assembly.

Due to the emergency medical leave of Mark Sawyer, the former chairman of the Afro-American studies interdepartmental program and a political science professor, the vote was pushed back from fall 2013 until Thursday, Rieff said.

Drafts for the proposal began around eight years ago, said Brenda Stevenson, a history professor who was chair of the Afro-American studies program from 2004 to 2010.

An eight-year review of the Afro-American studies program released in 2009 examined the accomplishments of the program and surveyed students within it. Stevenson said the review demonstrated very strong support for the program to become its own department.

Janay Williams, who is pursuing an Afro-American studies minor, said she thinks the departmentalization will improve campus climate. The third-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student added that the department’s resources could help educate a greater number of students about African American studies and build a more open community at UCLA.

But problems with the program’s budget came up throughout the departmentalization process.

In April 2013, Michael Meranze, then-chair of the College Faculty Executive Committee, which regulates academic programs at the undergraduate college, wrote a letter to the Academic Senate saying that the committee’s only worry about departmentalization was related to budget expenses.

Despite those concerns, Meranze said the committee fully supported the proposal and believed departmentalization would further improve the program and increase UCLA’s dedication to diversity on campus.

Stevenson said she hopes the African American studies department receives adequate resources, funding and space from the university, so it can move forward successfully.

One budget analysis of the department estimated that the transition would cost about $500,000, most of which would be used to pay new faculty. Following discussions about the budget, Alessandro Duranti, the dean of social sciences, and Sawyer agreed that the university would take a slow approach to funding the department and faculty would receive no new salaries or benefits, since their home departments would pay for them initially.

Kamilah Moore, chairwoman of the Afrikan Student Union and a fourth-year political science student, said she thinks the new department shows an increase in the support and validation of African American studies.

“Whatever my career choice is, I want to serve my community and it is important to know my history, which was left out throughout my schooling,” said Altagracia Alvarado, a first-year Afro-American studies and gender studies student.

Two other University of California schools – UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara – also have African-American studies departments.

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Jessica Doumit
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