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Unique African Studies Master's At FIU Faces Two Threats: Stubbornly Low Enrollment — And COVID-19

Leslie Ovalle
Andrea Queeley teaches a course about societies and cultures of the Caribbean at Florida International University.

Seven students sit surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, the afternoon sunlight illuminating a darker discussion about a 1937 massacre that left thousands of Haitians dead along the country’s border with the Dominican Republic.

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In this Florida International University graduate elective examining the societies and cultures of the Caribbean, professor Andrea Queeley and her small group of students relate the hatred that motivated that long-ago violent episode to the prejudices that persist in the island region and here in South Florida today: Bias against people of African descent, people with darker skin, people who speak Creole.

“Even the word Haitian becomes a marker of lower-class status,” Queeley said.

“Regionally, throughout the Caribbean, that becomes almost like a slur,” agreed graduate student A’Keitha Carey, who is Bahamian and grew up in Miami. “To be called that means something very specific. It’s like associating Haitian-ness with blackness with less than.”

“So it’s blackness, but it’s also proximity to African-ness, right?” Queeley said.

The class discussion — held two weeks before the university was abruptly shut down by the coronavirus — was part of the public university’s African and African Diaspora Studies graduate program. It’s unique: the only master’s degree offered in Florida focusing on the African continent and black people around the world.

And it’s under threat.

Three times in the last decade, it’s been targeted for possible suspension or elimination because of its tiny enrollment: only three to six students a year.

That was all before COVID-19. FIU is already projecting a loss of tens of millions of dollars because of the pandemic. Two faculty members in the university's School of International and Public Affairs, which houses the African studies program, said they’ve been told to expect 3 to 5% budget cuts, a hiring “chill” and, as a last resort, program closures.

“If we’re the low-hanging fruit, then they may opt to eliminate the program,” Queeley said.

Even before coronavirus, with student numbers in relentless decline, public universities nationwide were purging themselves of majors and degrees with small enrollments — or that governors and legislators suggested wouldn't lead to jobs. These have included anthropology, philosophy, languages, art, theater, music and women’s and African-American studies.

Now, with the pandemic taking a multibillion-dollar toll on higher education, state budget allocations already being slashed and enrollment poised to plummet even further, more academic programs are expected to be on the chopping block.

“Everybody’s already talking about program reviews,” said Rudy Fichtenbaum, a professor of economics at Wright State University in Ohio and president of the American Association of University Professors.

Fichtenbaum said he’s heard from faculty alarmed “about what their administrations are looking at — including significant cuts in academic programs.”

The crisis begs the question: When there’s only so much money and only so many students, how should universities decide what to teach and not teach?

And is it just about numbers like enrollment, revenue, and job placement rates? Or is there a broader social value to consider?

Credit Leslie Ovalle / WLRN
Students at Florida International University, including some pursuing graduate degrees in African and African diaspora studies, discuss a book about a massacre of thousands of Haitians by the Dominican army in 1937.

How FIU’s African Studies Program Ended Up As A Perennial Target

As the U.S. battled the lingering effects of the Great Recession, political leaders in some states led a movement to defund academic programs at public universities that they argued didn’t lead to jobs.

In 2011, Florida Gov. Rick Scott had just taken office with higher ed spending in his sights. The Republican governor targeted faculty tenure. He pushed for a new system of allocating public university funding based on “performance” — including whether students graduate and get jobs. He promoted science, technology, engineering and math programs. He set up a task force that recommended universities charge more for “non-strategic majors” such as history and English.  

“Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” asked Scott, now a U.S. Senator, in an interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2011. “I don’t think so.”

That philosophy led to a review of all academic programs offered at Florida’s dozen public universities, with the goal of getting rid of those that state higher education officials deemed as “low productivity” — or not graduating enough students to be worth the investment of tax dollars.

During that first review in 2011 and a second one four years later, officials terminated 81 programs, suspended 111 and merged or consolidated 27.

Credit Logan Riely / Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Then Gov. Rick Scott during a visit to Miami in summer 2016.

In an attempt to escape that fate, FIU’s African and African Diaspora Studies program has moved from a satellite campus to the main campus. It has reduced the number of credits required for a master’s degree. It’s teamed up with other departments to offer joint PhDs. It’s added an online option. Still, the number of graduates has remained stubbornly low. (That's not unusual; similar programs around the country are also very small.)

The degree ended up on the “low productivity” list in both 2011 and 2015 — and it was spared both years, because it’s one of a kind. But each time a program ends up on the list, it draws more scrutiny from the State University System’s board and staff, who complete the review.

Last year, another review began, and the African studies program had 19 graduates over the previous five years — just one shy of getting off the list.

Also on the 2019 list are two bachelor’s degrees in African-American studies — one of which is at Florida A&M, the state’s only public historically black university. Another program at risk is a bachelor’s in Jewish/Judaic studies at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, an area home to a large population of Jewish people, including Holocaust survivors.

The process isn’t finished yet, so FIU hasn’t heard whether the African studies degree will survive the state’s third round of cuts.

“Since I have been here, we have been round and round and round and round with this — with how to get off of the low-performing programs list,” said Queeley, associate professor of anthropology and African and African Diaspora Studies.

She and some of her faculty colleagues argue FIU’s administration hasn’t done enough to save the program.

“The actions don't really match up with the rhetoric,” she said.

Credit Leslie Ovalle / WLRN
Florida International University professor Andrea Queeley and her colleagues are frustrated with what feels like a constant state of emergency for the African studies program.

Administrators at the university stress their consistent support for African and African Diaspora Studies, which they argue is a vital component of the School of International and Public Affairs.

“International is in our middle name,” said Jeff Gonzalez, the school’s associate dean, who, as an expert in African-derived religions, is himself an affiliate faculty member in the program. There’s no international without Africa, he said.

Elizabeth Bejar, FIU’s senior vice president of academic and student affairs, is on a task force that has overseen the periodic review of programs throughout the university system. She said the statewide group recognizes the uniqueness of the African studies master's degree.

“It’s not really detracting from anything else. There aren't seven of them in the state,” Bejar said. “If there were seven of these programs across the state, and ours was failing or wallowing or not meeting the standard, then maybe there is a flaw in how our program is designed or the quality. But that’s not the case."

“It’s just a very unique program,” she said. “And the students who complete the program are very satisfied.”

Also, Bejar said, the number of students graduating with master's degrees in African and African Diaspora Studies doesn't reflect the program's full value. For example, students in other majors, like international business, take the courses as electives because they want to focus on Africa in their careers.

“It’s an additive value to so many that it’s a little bit harder in these instances to pinpoint direct [return on investment],” she said, “but we recognize that value.”

Her argument is one explanation for why low enrollment doesn't necessarily equal expensive.

In small programs, the costs of faculty salaries are often spread around, because professors teach other courses or in other departments with more students. Further, low-enrolled programs can generate additional revenue for universities if they attract students who would not have otherwise enrolled, and who also take revenue-producing large lecture classes or pay for dorm rooms and dining plans.


Credit Provided
This scatterplot, provided by higher education finance consultant Bob Atkins, shows that most small programs at universities are money makers, not losers, despite low enrollment.

Bob Atkins, CEO of the national higher education finance consulting firm Gray Associates, has developed an analysis to help colleges and universities make difficult budgetary decisions. His calculation divides faculty salaries and other expenses by what students pay per credit hour to determine which programs, courses and instructors at an institution lose money and which bring in more than they cost to provide.

Atkins said 80 percent of programs with five or fewer students are money makers, not losers, for universities — meaning that thresholds like the one imposed by the Florida State University System for producing at least 20 master’s degrees in five years can be counterintuitive.

“These arbitrary cutoffs are not smart,” Atkins said. “They're very likely to cut programs that actually make money.”

Credit Leslie Ovalle / WLRN
Florida International University graduate students pair up for small group discussions about a 1937 massacre of thousands of Haitians along the border with the Dominican Republic.

The Great Recession’s Toll On Public Universities Could Signal What’s To Come

This culling of public university offerings isn't just a Florida story. Politicians across the country have worked to eliminate programs they argued weren’t worth taxpayer expense — especially after the last recession made money tight.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said his state’s public technical colleges should teach skills needed for available jobs, “not just the jobs that the universities want to give us.” Former North Carolina Gov. Patrick McCrory questioned whether taxpayers should underwrite programs created by what he called an “educational elite,” such as gender studies. “I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

“This has been on the agenda as part of the neo-liberal attack on higher education for decades now,” said Fichtenbaum, who leads the American Association of University Professors. “Any time they see an opportunity to attack particularly the humanities and the social sciences, that’s what they’ll go after.”

With its state allocation deeply cut and its enrollment plummeting, the University of Alaska Anchorage in February proposed eliminating 18 degree programs, including English, theater, creative writing, sociology and environment and society. Edinboro University, a public institution in Pennsylvania, cut 31 degree programs and concentrations, including music.

Western Illinois University eliminated undergraduate majors in African-American studies, women's studies, religious studies and philosophy. And universities collectively jettisoned 651 programs in languages between 2013 and 2016, the Modern Language Association reports, compared to only one in the four years before that.

Now, with the pandemic bearing down on public university budgets, these kinds of disciplines are in for even greater scrutiny.

Credit Jessica Bakeman / WLRN
Like other public universities nationwide, Florida International in Miami Dade County is expecting to lose millions of dollars because of the pandemic.

The immediate trigger is the huge financial hit that universities have taken as they were forced to shift instruction online this past semester and refund room and board costs to students who were sent home. Now they’re seeing even more revenue evaporate, including from sports and summer programs, and they're bracing for a steep drop in enrollment in the fall.

The University of Michigan has forecast losses of as much as $1 billion; the University of California system reports $558 million in unanticipated costs just through March. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education projects as much as a $100 million loss.

Meanwhile, with only a trickle of tax money coming in and coronavirus-related spending pouring out, states are already making cuts to public higher education. Missouri has pulled more than $70 million from its public colleges and universities. New Jersey has frozen spending on them. State agencies in Ohio have been ordered to slash their budgets by 20 percent. And that’s just for this year.

If the 2008 recession is a guide, public universities and colleges are in for even bigger blows than these. Their state allocations fell for four straight years after 2008.

And if that earlier recession holds another lesson, it’s that academic disciplines with small enrollments and those not seen as suitably vocational will be endangered by looming financial realities.

Unless we recognize the interdependence of these disciplines in a world where we are grappling with global problems, we're setting ourselves up for failure. - Lynn Pasquerella, president, Association of American Colleges and Universities

“So many of our members are grappling with this issue right now — either pressure from state legislatures who are de-funding or underfunding institutions or individual institutions that have fewer tuition dollars,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, whose members include both public and private universities.

She said programs being cut, which are often in the humanities, are precisely the ones that “prepare students who are grappling with unscripted problems of the future.”

Pasquerella recalled working on a project in Kenya to help engineer better water quality. But “it didn’t matter how ingenious the inventions were if the community members didn’t use it. We needed to convince people to trust people who they didn’t trust.” So the projects brought in teams from African studies programs who understood the culture.

“Unless we recognize the interdependence of these disciplines in a world where we are grappling with global problems, we’re setting ourselves up for failure,” she said.

Credit Leslie Ovalle / WLRN
Students at Florida International University, including some pursuing graduate degrees in African and African diaspora studies, watch a documentary about a massacre of thousands of Haitians by the Dominican army in 1937.

What Public Universities Stand To Lose, As Economic Realities Force Cuts

Advocates argue that numbers alone don’t reflect the value of teaching subjects like African studies.

If anything, they say, African studies will be even more important in the wake of a pandemic that has even more starkly exposed global racial inequality in health, socioeconomic status and other measures.

FIU's program was founded in the early 1990s in response to a state legislative mandate for education about the African continent and African Americans’ contributions to society. Now, it's the only one of its kind in a state whose population is 17% black and that has uniquely close economic and cultural ties to Caribbean nations. 

The broader and more important purpose of the program is “to have a more responsible and informed approach that is about creating justice and about righting the wrongs of the past,” said Andrea Queeley, the anthropology professor who teaches the course on Caribbean societies and cultures.

Some suggest that’s precisely the reason this program and others like it have been singled out.

“There is a general lack of or diminution of support for programs such as African studies in the United States,” said Percy Hintzen, the outgoing director of FIU's African and African Diaspora Studies program and the former director of the Center for African Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “These programs started because of political pressures, and the political pressures are no longer there.”  

Back in the classroom at FIU, the small group of students was hushed as it watched a documentary in which survivors told the story of that largely forgotten mass murder of thousands of Haitians by the Dominican army on the border between the two countries in 1937.

Knowledge such as this “ties into everything — not just history, but our current state of racial issues, our current state of social justice and, beyond that, economics,” said one, Cherline Chery, when the lights came up.

“It should absolutely not be about only numbers and revenue,” said another, Jocelyn Moylan. “That would undercut the entire educational mission that I believe universities should be about.”

Credit Leslie Ovalle / WLRN
Amedeo Hines is pursuing a graduate degree in African and African Diaspora Studies at Florida International University, a program that has been imperiled because of low enrollment.

Asking about the value of women’s studies or African studies “is sort of a silly question to me because if these studies don’t exist in universities, who’s going to be producing the knowledge or having the language to talk about the everyday oppression of people that have historically been silenced and continue to be silenced?” asked still another student, Amedeo Hines.

“This issue that we’re having of people not being interested or funding being lacking, of people not taking the programs seriously, is a testament to how much more seriously we need to be taking these programs.”

This story was a collaboration between WLRN and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

UPDATED: This story was updated at 7:15 p.m. Thursday, May 28, to reflect new information.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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