Daily Egyptian

Africana studies department faces uncertainty as enrollment remains low

By Tierra Carpenter, @Tierramc_

Kia Smith said there aren’t many academic programs on campus that have taught her more about black culture than the Africana studies department. 

“This program is responsible for so many things that have shaped black culture at SIU. … If there was no Africana studies department, where would the black students go to learn about themselves?” said Smith, a junior from Chicago studying journalism with a minor in Africana studies. “If this department does not exist any more, then I worry about the future for black students on this campus.”

But regulations by the Illinois Board of Higher Education could eliminate the program. 

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The board has new standards going into effect fall 2017 that jeopardizes the future of the university’s Africana studies major, interim provost Susan Ford said. 

Ford said because of low enrollment in the department, Africana studies is under review by the higher education board, and could possibly cease being a field of study at SIU. 

Jim Allen, acting vice president for academic affairs, said in an attempt to prevent this, the department was asked in 2012 to provide the board with both strategic and assessment of student learning plans by 2014 to update the board on the status of the program and how department officials plan to increase enrollment. Other bachelor’s programs that did not meet the requirements at the time included agricultural systems, philosophy and communication studies, according to a page on SIU’s Institutional Research & Studies website.

Ford said Africana studies has not yet completed a sufficient version of these plans. 

With the new requirements, departments must have at least 40 students majoring in the bachelor’s program and an average of nine students graduating each year over a three-year period. Ford said the current rule lets departments have 25 students working toward the same bachelor’s degree. Double majors do not count toward those numbers. 

Any major that does not meet student requirements is at risk of being cut from the university, Ford said. 

Department interim chair Leonard Gadzekpo said the reason so few students major in Africana studies may be a perception issue, “where one believes Africana studies is only for African-Americans, or is only about African-Americans, when in reality Africana Studies is dealing with a large number of people in several countries.”

The Rev. Joseph Brown, a professor who previously served as chairman of the department, said Africana studies is also at a disadvantage because it is so new, and has just four faculty members.

“We have never had the ability to get 40 majors, especially since we’re a department that is only six years old,” Brown said. “We have a problem because we have so few full time faculty that we can’t offer as many classes that we used to and the classroom is the best recruiting tool for majors.”

Brown said to maintain a department that has 40 students, Africana studies would need more faculty, and he doesn’t see that happening because of Illinois’ budget crisis. He said he does not think the department will be able to meet the new requirements by fall 2017.

“It would take a conscious effort among all the advisers on this campus to do a better job to explain why our major is valuable,” Brown said. “Until we have cooperation from advisers and administrators we can only do so much.”

The department had two students majoring in Africana studies last year. That number has since grown to seven, four whom are double majors, according to information obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request. Africana studies has never met the board’s requirement of having 25 students.

Ford said when programs are not meeting requirements, its administrators are given three options: close the program, send the state a plan of action or argue that the program doesn’t cost much to keep open.

She said departments not meeting the requirements were first notified in 2012, and were recently notified again during Faculty Senate and Graduate Council meetings, where the board’s new standards were announced.

Brown said despite the approved proposal stating the department would try to recruit five students per year within its first five years, it was still placed under review after two years because of the state’s requirements.  

“Since the new standards are a more difficult bar to reach than the old standards, any of the programs that were notified in 2012, if they haven’t already elevated their numbers, they’re still on notice that we’re concerned,” Ford said. “There will be some new programs that also won’t meet the new state standards.” 

Ford said in an email that none of the Africana studies faculty is at risk of losing their employment at SIU, and they have several options for continuing to work at the university.

“As tenured faculty, they would always have an academic home here at SIUC, although the department affiliation might change,” Ford said in an email. 

If the Africana Studies department is cut, it also won’t have an impact on the education of current students, who will be allowed to complete their degrees.

“If you close a program, we are required to teach out any student that is currently enrolled in that program,” Ford said.

Despite this, students say they won’t be happy if the program ends.

Smith said it’s important for the program to continue because of what it does for students even outside of the classroom.

“Africana studies definitely sustains the quality of black life on this campus,” she said. “Without the Africana studies department you wouldn’t have your [Black Togetherness Organization]. You wouldn’t have your Black Alumni Groups. You wouldn’t have your Black Affairs Council, your [Black Male Roundtable], your Underground Arts, all of these different types of RSOs that unknowingly or knowingly have the support of the Africana studies department.”

The major’s future is even more uncertain thanks to the budget impasse in Springfield. 

The departments asked to send plans in 2012 have been at risk long before the state’s current budget crisis — an ongoing battle between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-led General Assembly — but Ford said the stalemate makes the situation more serious.

“If we get to 2017, and they apply these rules and the state has not fixed its budgetary problems by that point in time, the state may be more likely to say close rather them to say give me a plan of action, and we’ll give you another two years [to increase your numbers],” Ford said. 

Tierra Carpenter can be reached at [email protected] or 618-536-3325.

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