USF may consolidate some departments

04/03/08 Seán Kinane
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Because of severe budget cuts at the University of South Florida, the Women’s Studies, Africana Studies and the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC) departments may be consolidated into a single school.

But some faculty members from those programs think politics are playing as much of a role in the decision as finances. The consolidation could mean a loss of independence and resources for those programs.

Harry E. Vanden is a professor of Government and International Affairs at USF. Vanden said that the university is under significant financial strain, but to take these freestanding programs and consolidate them tells the community that they are not important and could result in insufficient funding and independence.

Vanden said a university committee recommended cutting the Women’s Studies department altogether, but that committee was not representative of faculty or students. Vanden was disappointed that the USF administration seems to be considering restructuring those programs without enough input from the people who would be affected.

“Well the process has been a bit particular. They had this committee to decide how they were going to engage in the process of budget cutting or responding to the financial crisis. Interestingly enough though, although it’s a faculty committee, it was appointed, and it wasn’t elected. And the person who was in charge of overseeing the subcommittee for the social sciences, which includes all three of these programs, was a professor of Accounting, who evidently had minimal knowledge of any of these areas and it seems to have been someone who had worked with the Board of Governors before.”

But USF spokesperson Ken Gullette cautions that no decisions have been made about where specific cuts will be made. He said that consolidation could occur, but that USF will still offer majors in those programs next year.

Jorge Nef is the director of ISLAC at USF. Nef said he’s been told verbally, but not officially in writing by the university, that his Institute may be folded into a new school.

“I’ve been told that they’re not making ‘decisions,’ that they’re ‘having conversations.’ Of course, we have been not quite involved in the conversations or invited to the conversations. I’ve had some kind of semi-official rumors that have been telling us that we are to move from where we are – we’ve been in the same location, the same connection with the university since 1996 -- so that we are not going to remain in International Affairs, that we will be restructured, that we will not be an Institute, that we will be maybe a program.”

Nef said ISLAC underwent a budget priorities assessment in which it received the top grade. ISLAC has consistently been ranked as one of the most essential and viable units on campus, according to Nef, who said he thinks “very little” of the current process.

Gullette told WMNF that between this year and next, USF expects a 15 percent decrease in state funding, which before factoring in revenue increases due to a 15 percent higher tuition, would mean $52-million in budget cuts.

ISLAC would be “stigmatized” and “diminished,” according to Nef, if instead of being an independent Institute it becomes a program consolidated within a school. Nef questioned the motivation of why ISLAC, Women’s Studies, and Africana Studies might be targeted.

“We’re sort of hurting programs that are very central, that are very vital to the university, to a very diverse university, intellectually and so on. These are programs that add a necessary critical perspective, maybe that’s where that problem lies.”

Government and International Affairs Professor Harry Vanden was the founding director of the predecessor of ISLAC, the Caribbean and Latin American Studies Center. Vanden suggested that there are political motivations behind which departments could be diminished.

“There are certainly very conservative forces within the country that want to diminish funding for education generally, particularly funding for higher education. And there are certainly very conservative and indeed reactionary forces that want to diminish Women’s Studies and Africana Studies as indeed they want to diminish the power and importance of women and people of color. So there are a few universities that are succumbing to these trends, but many of the better universities are doing the obverse.”

One of those better universities, according to Vanden, is fellow Big East school Syracuse University. Syracuse has taken the opposite tact from USF and has recently formed a Women’s Studies department, which Vanden said sent a strong letter of support to its sister program at USF.

USF spokesman Gullette said that no matter where the cuts occur, some people will be disappointed.

According to their websites, “The Department Africana Studies is the only graduate department in the Florida State University System dedicated to the study of the Black/Diaspora experience,” and “The Women's Studies Department … is one of the oldest [in] the nation.” Vanden said that in today’s culture, those are exactly the types of programs needed at a university.

"When we have a woman and person of color, an Afro-American, running for president, at this critical juncture, we’ve decided to close down the departments of Africana and Women’s studies. … We’re … This would seem terribly ill considered and one wonders if there are not other criteria being applied rather than financial,” Vanden said.

Learn more:

ISLAC - Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean

Women’s Studies Department

Africana Studies Department

University of South Florida

Department of Government and International Affairs

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