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Amid Reckoning Over Racial Injustice, Universities Renew Support For Black Studies — In Miami And Nationwide

Florida International University African Studies Class March 2020 Leslie Ovalle.jpg
Leslie Ovalle
/
WLRN
During a class in March 2020, students at Florida International University discuss a book about a massacre of tens of thousands of Haitians by the Dominican Army in 1937. Some of the students are pursuing master’s degrees in African and African Diaspora studies. Enhancing the program is part of a university-wide effort to battle racism and racial injustice.

The African and African Diaspora Studies program at Florida International University had been at risk of getting cut for years because of its tiny enrollment. Black Lives Matter changed that almost overnight.

This story was updated at 10:20 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 27.

Civil Rights activists in the late 1960s are largely responsible for the existence of Black studies at universities nationwide.

Now, Black Lives Matter protesters are playing a similar political role, successfully pressuring administrators to sustain and enhance the study of Africa and its diaspora — not just with words but with dollars.

Even as COVID-19 wrecks higher education budgets — and presents an existential threat to humanities programs in particular — institutions in Miami, throughout Florida and around the U.S. are committing to spend millions on dismantling systemic racism.

The change happened almost overnight.

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Following the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis and the uprisings in big cities and small towns throughout the country this spring, universities announced plans to hire clusters of Black studies professors and offer seed grants for research projects aimed at tackling racial injustice.

Black studies scholars who have fought for more resources and autonomy for their programs — and who argue the field has long been neglected by administrators at predominantly white institutions — say this is the opportunity of a generation.

“My colleagues have been training since they were 17 years old for this moment. I think of them literally as like the astronauts,” said Adrienne Davis, a Black administrator and law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and the incoming director of the institution’s new Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Equity.

“A lot of us have been saying structural racism, white supremacy, anti-ethnicity — this is one of the most toxic, longstanding, challenging problems in the world,” Davis said. “Great research universities solve the world’s problems. Our university helped put the Mars rover on Mars.

“What if we think of this as a moonshot?" she said. "What if we think about tackling racism with the same resources that we put into the Hubble telescope?”

Florida International University African Studies Andrea Queeley Leslie Ovalle March 2020.jpg
Leslie Ovalle/WLRN
Florida International University anthropology professor Andrea Queeley, seen here teaching on campus earlier this year, has been fighting for years for the survival of the African and African Diaspora studies program.

How a national reckoning with racism changed the trajectory of Black studies

Anthropology professor Andrea Queeley had spent years fighting for the survival of the master’s degree in African and African Diaspora studies at Florida International University in Miami.

Three times in the last decade, the program had ended up on a target list of potential cuts due to its tiny enrollment of only three to six students per year. As previously reported by WLRN and The Hechinger Report, COVID-19 intensified that crisis — a reality shared by many similar programs around the country.

Now, Queeley is making a wish list instead.

Following the deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and under renewed pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement, FIU President Mark Rosenberg announced an “Equity Action Initiative.” The effort to “impactfully address the issues of inclusion and equity” will be led in part by a university police captain who took over the police department in Ferguson, Mo., after an officer there killed Michael Brown in 2014.

During a virtual town hall in early June, Rosenberg presented a preliminary action plan that included “enhanc[ing] African-Diaspora studies with emphasis on global/local dynamics.”

Rosenberg hasn’t elaborated on how he plans to do that, but Queeley and her colleagues in the program have some suggestions: hiring two additional core faculty members and a lecturer who will double as associate director of the program, establishing an endowed chairmanship in racial and social justice, and offering post-doctoral fellowships.

A spokeswoman for the university said no decisions have been made yet but stressed the institution’s commitment to African and African Diaspora Studies.

“With racial injustice serving as a catalyst for discussion, education and demonstrations in our country, this program has an important role to play,” director of media relations Madeline Baró wrote in an email.

“There's this moment of awareness,” said Queeley, who is Black, “and this moment of potential for elevation, potential for pushing the agenda of justice further.”

Florida International University Equity Action Initiative slide June 2020.png
Florida International University
Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg presented an action plan for dismantling racism at the school. This slide included a commitment to enhance the program in African and African Diaspora Studies.

Queeley's colleagues at universities around the country are seizing the potential of the moment, too.

The University of Miami has pledged to "offer more funding opportunities" for faculty researchers examining anti-Black racism and bias, as well as to create a new Center for Global Black Studies.

The University of Florida in Gainesville and Ohio State University in Columbus are inviting proposals this fall for seed funding to support yearlong research projects focused on race.

UF is accepting applications for grants ranging from $15,000 to $75,000, with plans to spend $400,000 total. The request for proposals, calls for “research and scholarship on Advancing Racial Justice through inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. Research and scholarship in the areas of the Black experience, including anti-Black racism, inequity, culture, joy, and resilience are especially encouraged.”

At OSU, the overall commitment is $1 million, with awards from $5,000 to $50,000 for “innovative, untested, and/or exploratory research approaches and creative ideas that will contribute to the elimination of racism and solve its underlying causes and consequences on our campuses, in our community, and across the nation.” There will be two rounds of funding.

Simone Drake, a Black professor in OSU’s Department of African American and African Studies, is submitting a proposal with a colleague who focuses on electrical and computer engineering. Their project would be to develop anti-racist technology for training police in cultural competency, with the hope of starting with the Columbus Police Department.

While there are virtual reality scenarios used in training law enforcement that attempt to correct officers’ implicit biases, Drake is hoping her research will yield a tool that digs deeper, “getting more into people's thinking and how their ideologies are formed.”

Cluster hiring is another strategy under way at several universities. It’s a more expensive and longer term commitment, but would address some of the most common complaints from students: that university faculties are too white. While candidate searches can’t be limited to people of a certain race, administrators can be sure when hiring in a field like African American studies that there will be a strong pool of Black applicants.

In late June, the University of California Los Angeles announced a series of steps it plans to take “to create a more inclusive environment for Black Bruins,” including adding 10 faculty members over the next five years “whose scholarly work — teaching, mentoring and/or research — addresses issues of Black experience.”

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wustl.edu
Washington University in St. Louis.

Hiring is frozen now at Washington University in St. Louis, but administrators there are making an exception for an open position in the Department of African and African-American Studies, which will be filled.

The university plans to hire a dozen additional faculty members who study race to start in the fall of 2021. It is an interdisciplinary hiring effort, and departments throughout the university are welcome to apply for the slots. The estimated institutional commitment to hire one faculty member is $5 million over the course of the person’s career, according to Davis, the administrator and law professor who is leading the university’s new center on race.

Davis said she would be “stunned” if some of the new faculty members weren’t hired in the African and African-American Studies department.

The idea, Davis said, is to “stand up a research bench force of the best scholars in the world working on race.”

The research center she will lead was planned as a response to Brown’s death six years ago in nearby Ferguson, but the project had been on hold and was elevated again in part because of the more recent calls for racial justice, she said.

Other universities that have faced pressure to improve faculty diversity in recent years have offered models for successful cluster hires. The University of Kentucky in Lexington hired six new professors in African American and Africana studies last year. And the University of Texas at Austin hired five faculty members this year, including in African and African Diaspora studies, as part of an effort to address racial retrenchment and “enhance interdisciplinary scholarship on racial issues in the post-Obama U.S.,” according to a university administrator.

A political necessity for universities

Princeton University African American history professor Joshua Guild characterized the sudden shift for Black studies programs — from threatened to prioritized — as a political necessity for universities.

“Current events have shown the vitality and importance and relevance of Black studies, broadly speaking, to understanding our moment, understanding how we got to this moment,” said Guild, who is Black. “To put those programs and departments under any sort of threat when the need is so evident … can be quite awkward or difficult.”

At some universities where administrators released statements denouncing racism and promising change but made no specific financial commitments, Black studies professors are pushing them to put their money where their mouths are.

Temple University’s chair of Africology and African American Studies wrote a letter to the school’s president asking for seven new faculty members, a new center for the study of race, funding to host conferences on racism and white supremacy and more. The university offered the first doctoral program in African American studies in the country.

Molefi Kete Asante, who is Black, wrote in the letter that his department has been undervalued and argued racism was the culprit.

“That is why we are not given resources to build and to grow,” he wrote. “The assumption is that a predominantly black faculty department does not need it.”

Temple spokesperson Raymond Betzner wrote in an email that the university’s administrators have a “special respect” for Asante and that they are “carefully reviewing” his proposals and will respond soon.

Black faculty members at Catholic universities wrote a joint letter to their administrations in June asking for more funding for African American studies programs. Professors wrote similar open letters and petitions to the leaders of the University of Southern California, Georgia State University, the University of Chicago and Dartmouth College.

Some scholars said they are encouraged by, but skeptical of, universities’ commitments and hope to see them follow through once the political winds have shifted again.

“Black studies departments throughout the country are, at some point or another, fighting for support from the administration,” said Danielle Clealand, a Black and Puerto Rican racial politics professor who recently left FIU and was among the new hires at UT Austin.

“This has to be something that lasts beyond the moment, and it has to be something that involves real institutional and monetary support.”