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A Major Problem

Paul Matthews is an African American Studies major at Metro.
Anthony Camera

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.

Metro's AAS program was introduced in the late 1960s as an independent department, says professor Akbarali Thobani, and it stayed independent until the mid-'80s when Metro, and schools nationwide, "experienced a phenomenon where students were drifting away from social issues, moving more toward career-oriented programs." Liberal arts programs fell into disfavor, and enrollment numbers for AAS majors and courses plummeted. In 1985, AAS and Chicano Studies were merged into a newly created Institute for Intercultural Studies; the school also began offering courses in Asian and Native American Studies. By the mid-'90s, though, enrollment had rebounded: Not only were kids returning to the humanities, but Metro began requiring its students to complete one course in a multicultural discipline. So in 1995, AAS and Chicano Studies were restored as independent departments.

Luis Torres, the chair of the Chicano Studies Department, says neither department has been given enough time to grow since then. "I don't mind being held to the same standard as anybody else," he says. "But imagine if this standard had been held four years after Metro started? What would have happened to the many departments that have since grown and become stable?" In addition, he points out that because it takes Metro students -- many of whom are nontraditional, meaning they aren't of typical college age and may have full-time jobs and families -- an average of six years to graduate, it's too early to judge the success rates of the two degrees.

The other four programs at Metro that are currently exempted are Physics, which graduated only seven students in the last three academic years; Chicano Studies, which graduated fifteen; Modern Languages, which graduated thirteen; and Surveying and Mapping, which graduated six. AAS will join Urban Studies, and two departments focused on technical and industrial studies, on the degree scrap heap. But those programs were entirely eliminated because of low demand for their classes, as well as a low number of graduates, and their ouster was uncontested.

Black-studies programs emerged in the late 1960s on the heels of the first great wave of black students entering college. They began as a collection of courses in history and literature but matured into more intellectual programs that covered many disciplines. Today there are around 250 programs in the U.S., including those at Stanford, Yale, Princeton and Harvard -- whose "all-star" faculty, which includes Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates, has done much to elevate the status of the field. According to James Stewart, the president of the National Council for Black Studies, the programs are only gaining in prominence, and while they were never expected to produce large numbers of graduates, it was hoped that they would serve their communities, train enough future professors to keep the field strong and provide, says Stewart, "a new consciousness" for those students entering traditional occupations.

Paul Matthews, president of Metro's Black Student Alliance, says he became an AAS major because he liked the interdisciplinary focus. "Having these classes allows people to see the history of Africans in America and abroad," he says, which leads to greater cultural understanding. Matthews, who expects to graduate in 2003, says the loss of the major cripples the department. "How are you gonna have a department of African-American Studies but not the major?"

Students and faculty at Metro are now trying to decide what to do next. The senate will likely pass a resolution condemning the loss of the major, and a protest in front of the CCHE is also being discussed.

Metro spokeswoman Debbie Thomas says the school needs to focus on making the individualized degree program work. As for trying to persuade CCHE to revisit its policies again, she doesn't hold out much hope. "We made the argument that the program had significance beyond the numbers," she says. "As far as we can tell, what [the commission] decided was that wasn't going to be the argument to save the day."


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