A Major Problem

Metro State's African American Studies major will end after less than six years.

Colorado will lose one of only two black-studies majors next spring when the African American Studies (AAS) degree at Denver's Metropolitan State College is eliminated. The move is a blow to the school, which prides itself on its commitment to diversity, as well as to the faculty and students involved in the major.

But the decision wasn't made by Metro State administrators; it was mandated by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, the policy board for the state's 29 public colleges and universities. CCHE's low-demand rule is designed to remove programs that aren't popular with students or teachers as a way to save money and to make room for new majors that garner more interest. The rule requires that every major must graduate ten students per year or a total of twenty in the previous three years. Each institution is allowed to exempt five degree programs that fall below the threshold, but to be eligible, a program must have graduated at least three students over the three previous academic years. Only two students have graduated with AAS degrees over the academic years ending in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

At a meeting two weeks ago of Metro's faculty senate, students and teachers expressed their anger about the decision. "We couldn't claim to be a multicultural campus if we eliminate this program," one student complained. Others argued that the CCHE's cutoff numbers are random and that the major, which became a separate program in 1995 after years as part of another department, hasn't had enough time to grow. They also said that some courses of study are worth offering simply for their social, academic and educational value.

The AAS degree first fell below the exemption standard at the end of the 1998/99 school year because, at that time, the commission required that a program must have graduated at least one student in each of the previous three academic years, as opposed to just three altogether. Although the school had graduated three students in the previous three years, in one of those years it had failed to graduate anyone.

The commission ordered Metro to discontinue the program, but school president Sheila Kaplan and provost Cheryl Norton sought help from the State Trustees for the State Colleges in Colorado, the board that oversees Metro and three other state colleges. Eliminating the major "would not necessarily free up resources that could be moved to other areas of the college, primarily because of how the program was organized," Norton told the trustees, because 76 percent of the AAS courses are cross-listed with other departments, including history, music, anthropology, sociology and English. "Elimination of the major would not eliminate the coursework; the coursework would continue," she said.

The trustees allowed Norton to take the matter directly to the CCHE, and she convinced the commission to change its policy. Programs can now be exempted if they graduated just three students in the last three years -- even if one or two of those years yielded no graduates. Under this new guideline, approved in April, the AAS program was exempted.

"No one on the board was looking to kill the program," says trustee Ann Rice.

But the exemption didn't last long. When the 2000-01 year began, the AAS program was reviewed again; this time, it fell below the new standards as well. Metro administrators made a last-minute overture to the University of Northern Colorado, which also has a struggling black-studies program, to combine the programs, but UNC declined.

That means the AAS major at Metro will officially end on March 31, 2002, although the thirteen current AAS majors will be allowed four years to complete their degrees.

Most of the rest of the department will remain intact, though, because it is still possible to receive a minor in African American Studies and to create a black-studies major through the college's Individualized Degree Program. No classes will be cut, no faculty eliminated and no money saved.

Which begs the question, according to faculty senate president Monys Hagen: "If everything is going to be there, and it's not going to cost money, why take it out? I'm concerned anytime you begin to dismantle something. You take away the major, it's a very short step to getting rid of the whole [program]." She says the CCHE's low-demand policy is arbitrary. "Looking at raw numbers is not the right way to look at it. It doesn't understand the relationship of a major to the rest of a program, how it impacts the reputation of an institution. It doesn't reflect the mandate of Metro."

Joan Ringel, spokeswoman for the CCHE, acknowledges that eliminating the major won't save any money, but she defends the policy. "Should it be a degree program if student interest hasn't grown to the place where it has met CCHE's requirements?" she asks. "The point is, you can have classes, excellent faculty, but that doesn't mean it rises to a degree program."

"The standard itself addresses the best shot the commission has come up with to address the needs of different constituents," adds trustee Rice. What is still unclear is which constituents will benefit from the decision to eliminate the major. "My judgment is that it's premature and somewhat biased [to say] that there are no other constituencies that could benefit," Rice says, though she couldn't name any.

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