Uncertain Funding, Low Enrollment Pose Threat to African-American Studies Programs at Illinois Universities

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Student Nature Lawrence, 29, left, listens to a lecture by Dr. Kelly Harris, a professor of African-American studies at Chicago State University on Friday, Sept.2, 2016. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)
Student Nature Lawrence, 29, left, listens to a lecture by Dr. Kelly Harris, a professor of African-American studies at Chicago State University on Friday, Sept.2, 2016. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)

The future looks bleak for Black studies programs offered at 12 Illinois public colleges and universities.

Uncertain state funding and low enrollment numbers have led many institutions to restructure the culturally unique programs; others have cut them altogether.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Western Illinois University suspended its African-American studies major this summer after just 13 students chose the program as their field of study for the 2015-16 school year. The graduation numbers were even more dismal. University data showed a mere three students graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in the major this year.

State education data also showed that few students graduate with degrees in Black studies anyway, so the numbers aren’t all that alarming. For instance, of the tens of thousands of degrees earned by Illinois public university students each year, barely two dozen are in African-American studies, the paper reports.

Some professors fear that low enrollment and graduation numbers could prove detrimental to a major that’s already widely criticized and underfunded.

“Since African-American studies has been formed, there’s always been a battle to remain alive,” said Kelly Harris, associate professor and coordinator of African-American studies at Chicago State University. “It’s not just an African-American studies fight. The humanities and social sciences all feel like we’re under attack in this environment where universities tend to have a business mentality in the ways they look at higher education now.”

The Chicago Tribune reports that in 2015, the Illinois Board of Higher Education mandated that the state’s 12 public universities submit outlines on any changes made to its academic degree programs, along with a plan to boost enrollment in programs that consistently draw low numbers.

Per the education board’s standards, an academic degree program is performing “adequately” if it grants at least 12 degrees per school for an associate’s program, six for a bachelor’s, at least five for a master’s program, and at least one for a doctoral program over a five-year span, according to the paper. Under the new criteria, five schools were forced to list their four-year Africana studies major as “low producing.”

“One indicator that a program needs attention is the number of students choosing that major,” said IBHE spokeswoman Candace Mueller. “If that number is low, it is useful to explore why. Sometimes, the university is best in the long run eliminating that program. Sometimes it needs reconfiguring to bring it up to date.”

However, Mueller asserted that enrollment figures and graduation rates aren’t the only methods used to  determine whether an academic program should be cut, streamlined or restructured.

Public institutions like Chicago State University have already taken steps to improve its African-American studies programs and boost enrollment. According to the Chicago Tribune, Western Illinois University got rid of its bachelor of arts degree in African-American studies, but will continue offering general education Black studies classes and a minor degree program.

Black studies programs in Illinois aren’t the only ones struggling to stay afloat, however. Historically Black colleges and universities across the nation are also fighting to keep their African-American studies programs alive. The issue boils down to underfunding.

“A program in African-American studies is very difficult to sustain in good times, and it’s near impossible in tough economic times,” Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, told The Root. “However, some of the majority institutions have been able to get someone to underwrite less popular programs.”

While most HBCUs offer courses in Black studies, many lack academic departments dedicated to the field of study. For example, The Root reports that Howard and Clark Atlanta universities are the only historically Black universities that offer master’s programs for African-American studies. Howard is also the sole university to offer a doctorate program in the field.

Per the Chicago Tribune, several professors feel that the discipline is suffering because it’s not integrated into students’ core curriculum like other subjects. The fact that offering Black studies courses on the collegiate level was born out of 1960’s civil rights activism is another reason some may not see the value and importance of these programs.

“Black studies (departments) across this country were not put on college campuses because faculty saw the inherent validity of the discipline,” said Joseph A. Brown, Africana studies professor at Southern Illinois University. “They were put there because of community agitation and student unrest. So they’ve always been under a political scrutiny that history and sociology haven’t been under. These programs, in the minds of many people, don’t belong on college campuses anyway.”

As Black studies programs thrive at private universities, a number of Illinois public institutions are still working to hold onto theirs.

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