American ethnic studies department looking for support

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Editor’s Note: This article was changed at 12:15 Nov. 8 to correct and clarify information.

One aspect of education that is most often overlooked is the lack of different narratives told. Students of color from all backgrounds, nationalities and ethnicities need their stories told. If they are unable to get those narratives in elementary and secondary education, people are sometimes given the option to learn about them through American ethnic studies departments, commonly known as ethnic studies, at a collegiate level.

“American ethnic studies is fundamentally important for the curriculum in any university or college because [in the] United States, race, gender and class issues defines what it means to ‘belong’ to the nation,” said Piya Chatterjee, Backstand Chair of feminist gender and women’s studies at Scripps College in the Claremont Consortium. “A department that focuses on these issues compels a systematic study of these forces in our society, instead of its study being presumed and diffused within mainstream disciplines. To deny such a space is to deny a full, just education.”

Currently, the American ethnic studies department at K-State has a department head, two full-time professors and one instructor. There are 29 associated faculty members. Only 2 of the core faculty, Dr. Cheryl Ragar and Dr. Dwanna Robertson, and department head Broyles-Gonzalez are currently on a tenure track, meaning none of them are guaranteed their positions year to year.

“There is no question in my mind that race and ethnic studies programs and departments in U.S. colleges and universities have a key role to play in the education of an increasingly multi-racial national student body politic,” Chandra Talpade Mohanty, professor of women’s and gender studies at Syracuse University, said.

A recent grassroots movement has been pushed to save the American ethnic studies department at K-State. The movement originated as a change.org petition titled, “Fight Against Racism for Self-Determination. Demand Resources for American Ethnic Studies Now. We are tired of being told that students of color need to wait for change. We demand justice now.” As of 12:30 this morning, the petition had a little less than 417 e-signatures. The online petition would like to receive at least 5,000. Of the 417 signatures, Talapade Mohanty and Chatterjee are two of them.

“I think it’s important to have university support for the American ethnic studies department not just because we’re begging for changes,” said Melissa Prescott, research and creative development at the Center for Intercultural and Multilingual Advocacy. “The petition illustrates the need the department has, but those needs have not been dully address by the university’s administration. In order for the American ethnic studies department to grow, tenure track positions need to be established and filled by qualified scholars. It is important that folks of color be considered for these positions. Students of color need to see themselves reflected in those who teach.”

The petition asks for seven demands. Those demands include granting the department three full-time tenure track positions to be filled by national searches and the current full-time professors be granted full-time assistant professorships immediately. It also asks the administration stop ghettoizing the department and provide central, accessible, respectable and safe space for all the core faculty and staff, as well as that the College of Arts and Sciences “diversity committee” stop existing in name only. The petition asks the university to refine its appointment policies, process and procedures to overcome institutional barriers. Finally, that Holtz Hall become the home of K-State’s Multicultural Student Center and no disciplinary action be administered, in any way, to any students, workers, teachers or administrators who participate in the movement.

This department is an interdisciplinary one, which offers education and support for students from all majors and minors. Students can and do pursue a double major or minor in this field to increase their knowledge of ethnic studies, as well as make them more well-rounded students.

“This is something that is about every single student,” Torry Dickinson, K-State professor of women’s studies, said. “It’s critical if we [as people] were to address the limitations of the world views presented in traditional education. We need to see [ethnic studies] as an essential basic level of every discipline and every college. These are basic issues that effect all of us. We need to act on these things to help everyone and recognize it as a collective challenge.”

According to an article from ColorLines by Bob Wing from May 15, 1999, only about 700 universities and colleges nationwide have some type of ethnic studies program. It is significantly less common for a university to have some type of ethnic studies department than to actually have one. K-State is a unique university that offers unique perspectives through this department.

“We are poised to build one of the major ethnic studies departments in our nation,” said Yolanda Broyles-Gonzalez, distinguished professor and department head of the American ethnic studies department. “It’s the only one of its kind in the state of Kansas. The administration has made a major investment in the American ethnic studies department. However, the unit needs to grow sustainability. It is currently the smallest academic unit on campus and cannot do what academic units are supposed to. We need a critical mass of faculty, and it is my hope that we can recruit soon.”

Time and time again, ethnic studies departments are shown to increase the success of the students who are a part of the program. In a research review by Christine Sleeter from the National Education Association from 2011, it showed both students of color and white students have been found to benefit academically, as well as socially from ethnic studies. It also found that ethnic studies programs are often academically rigorous and aid students to bridge differences that already exist in experiences and perspectives. Ethnic studies programs play an important role in building a truly inclusive multicultural democracy and system of education.

K-State community members should be aware of the benefits this department offers students both inside and outside of the classroom. People should realize the benefits of the department and how critical it is to student success.

“How can we worry about people on the other side of the world when we can’t help each other here?” Dickinson said.

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