NU cultural programs often hard earned

Alexandra Finkel

May 3, 1968. 7:05 a.m. A student approaches Northwestern’s Bursar’s Office, tells the guard on duty he’s picking something up and is promptly admitted. After other students create a diversion, the guard leaves and in the next hour, almost 100 other students enter the office, secure the doors and windows and post signs that read, “This building has been occupied by AASU (Afro-American Student Union) and FMO (For Members Only).” The non-violent protest of the university’s treatment of the black student population begins.

More than 40 years later, students are still fighting for ethnic and cultural representation in NU’s academic curriculum. In the past year, the university has seen the development of a Latina/Latino studies program and proposals for two new programs – an Islamic studies program and a Native American program.

But not all subject areas are created equal.

While African-American studies boasts its own department, Asian American studies has remained a program.

A department can hire and tenure professors while programs cannot, said Mary Finn, Weinberg’s associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs. Departments used to hire the program faculty members, who held their full appointment there. Recently, however, programs can assist in hiring professors through joint-appointments but cannot directly offer professors tenure.

The Riot’s effect

Thirty-eight hours after graduate student James Turner, Weinberg ’69, led students in the Bursar’s Office sit-in, administrators ended the protest with the promise to address the students’ concerns: higher black enrollment and more African-American studies courses. The event set the stage for the development of the Department of African-American Studies four years later in 1972.

Campus memory generally positions the origins of the Department of African-American Studies as a response to the incident, said Martha Biondi, the department’s director for undergraduate studies.

“Students said, ‘I’m tired of sitting in courses and reading books by people who aren’t anything like me,'” said Weinberg Dean Sarah Mangelsdorf, who attended a conference in the fall commemorating the 40th anniversary of NU’s black student movement.

Turner, now a professor of African and African-American studies at Cornell University, said the protest shaped who he is, the history of black education in the United States and NU’s history.

“We were risking the future of our lives and our careers and if it had gone differently, it could have ended badly,” he said. “It was a risk we understood, though not as much as we do now, but a risk we were prepared to take.”

Faculty members originally pushed for the development of a program, but FMO, NU’s black student alliance, fought for an autonomous department, which took nearly a decade to take shape.

But it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the African-American studies major emerged.

In an atmosphere where African-American studies was not considered a serious academic endeavor, creating courses and finding qualified faculty members was difficult and a gradual process, Biondi said. Ten years ago there were three faculty members – now 13 professors hold appointments.

Biondi said the department, which is small by campus standards, must expand in order to progress and improve, but is at a standstill.

The department has filled its “lines,” or the specific number of tenure-track positions reserved for assistant, associate and full professors, Finn said. Weinberg is only able to dole out so many, and although Mangelsdorf has pledged the economic downturn will not affect new hires, creating additional faculty lines is uncomMonday, she said.

‘No Program, No Peace.’

Nearly 30 years after the Bursar takeover, in February 1995, the Asian American Advisory Board sent a proposal to University President Henry Bienen outlining the creation of an Asian American studies program.

“I am not against this program,” Bienen responded in a letter to the board. “I am against arbitrary deadlines to do this or that. I suspect that a gradual phasing in of courses and programmatic ideas might make sense as a start of a new venture. This is how we generally proceed in developing new programs.”

Two months later, on April 12, 1995, 150 students marched from the Rock to the Rebecca Crown Center chanting, “No Program, No Peace.” They challenged Bienen to face the crowd, but he did not emerge, and later claimed he was not in his office.

“It’s just not an appropriate mechanism for talking about curricular reform,” Bienen told The Daily in response to the students’ outcry. “I’m interested in talking to people, not listening to chants.”

The same day, 17 students pitched tents around the Rock and began a hunger strike that lasted nearly two weeks.

After a month, two additional rallies and several meetings with the administration, the students ended their protest. Citing budgetary concerns, members accepted the university’s commitment to allocate funds for the creation of four courses the following year.

Four years later, in 1999, the Asian American studies program was established with two core faculty members. The program currently offers a minor in Weinberg and has four core faculty members and 34 students enrolled in the minor, said Jinah Kim, the assistant director for the program.

The program does not have any current plans to work toward becoming a department, but is trying to strengthen its roles in hiring and tenuring faculty, she said.

“The program model seems to work, but I think one of the things that would help us is more autonomy,” Kim said. “Perhaps, if we were able to tenure our faculty.”

Persistence in Latina/o community

Students have already enrolled in the new Latina/Latino studies program, said Mónica Russel y Rodríguez, interim program director.

Established in March, the program was the result of nearly 10 years of student involvement. Their efforts began in 2000 with a protest at the Rock and continued with an 800-signature petition. The Associated Student Government passed a bill supporting the initiative in 2006.

“The persistence stretched out over years,” Russel y Rodríguez said. “There was a kind of continuity that really demonstrated the importance of this program.”

Mangelsdorf said the study of cultures like the Latina/Latino community is “increasing our understanding of humanity.”

“How would you not want to understand Latinos – their history, their language, their culture – when the population in this country is anticipated to be more people whose first language is Spanish than English,” she said. “Wouldn’t we want to understand the culture and its history?”

While Russel y Rodríguez said she hopes the program will expand in the future, she is content with its current state.

“We need to make sure we have a smoothly running major and minor for undergraduates before we move forward,” she said. “A program is a good first step because we realize that it takes several millions of dollars to start a department. Now is not the time to ask about that.”

Understanding Diversity

A more complete understanding of the country’s diversity would also include programs in Islamic studies and Native American studies, Russel y Rodríguez said.

In fall 2007, the ASG Academic Committee worked together with the Muslim Cultural-students Association to create a proposal for an Islamic studies program. Last spring, the two student organizations helped create the Islamic Studies Committee, which includes 10 students as well as ASG support and help from various student groups, faculty members and departments and programs at NU, said group President Dulce Acosta-Licea.

The new program would allow students to raise awareness of Islamic culture, Acosta-Licea said.

“It’s a way for a person with a non-Islam background to learn more about it,” the Weinbe
rg junior said. “We want to get rid of that ignorance and misconceptions that surround Islam.”

The program would be strictly academic and would include classes in interdisciplinary studies like history, religion and anthropology, said religion Prof. Ruediger Seesemann, the committee’s adviser.

Seesemann and the students involved said they are striving to differentiate such a program from the Middle Eastern studies minor, which exists in the Asian and Middle East studies program. The program would put Islam and the scope of the religion as the focus of inquiry rather than treating the subject as a geographic region like the Middle East, Seesemann said.

“It would be focused on the role Islam plays in the cultural history of the Middle East and beyond,” he said.

There has also been a desire to establish a Native American studies program, but the initiative lacks student support.

“I’m a pragmatist, I don’t just grow programs – I don’t believe in top-down building programs just for the sake of building programs,” Mangelsdorf said. “I have to know that there’s interest. Tell me if there’s interest.”

She added that for a program to be considered viable, it has to have “a critical mass of people who teach courses, who have substantive interests and we have to float some courses and see whether there are students who are interested.”

The lack of a program in Native American studies leaves “a gaping hole in our intellectual fabric,” Russel y Rodríguez said.

Psychology Prof. Doug Medin is working to formulate a proposal for a program in Native American studies. Medin, who has done research in native communities, said the issues the communities faces are relevant and important.

“Maybe having a program like this will attract native scholars,” he said. “But it’s also important for non-native students to learn about Native American culture.”

While the program has the support of other faculty members, going forward is difficult without student support, Medin noted.

With students as well as administrators who want to bring the lessons of the university’s Qatar expansion back to NU, an Islamic studies program has enough community support to have a proposal prepared for the dean by the end of the fall, Acosta-Licea said.

However, the creation of a Native American studies concentration is more uncertain. If faculty are able to find a shared interest and students “vote with their feet,” a program with that focus will be closer to reality, Mangelsdorf said.

“I think cultural understanding is one of the most important parts of an arts and sciences education,” she said. “It teaches you about how your cultural lens is not the only way to view the world.”

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Editor’s note: The original version of this article incorrectly referred to the Asian American studies program as the Asian-American studies program. Additionally, the article implied that 30 students were enrolled in the Asian American studies courses, while there are actually 34 students enrolled in the minor and many more enrolled in the courses. Furthermore, the article stated that the program was working to become a department when in fact, that is only the case for the far future.