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Departments fight loss of independence

In USF’s ongoing battle with a looming $55 million budget cut, certain departments and institutes face potential administrative restructuring.

The women’s studies and Africana studies departments, as well as the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC), were administratively recommended as areas that could absorb part of the financial blow to the University by losing their autonomy as stand-alone programs. As part of the restructuring, the units would either be folded into pre-existing departments or combined into one interdisciplinary department with separate tracks. Faculty and staff in those departments, however, fear the loss of autonomy could compromise academic quality.

“Being a free-standing department gives us budgetary and intellectual autonomy,” said Carolyn Eichner, associate professor of women’s studies. “It gives us the ability to make hiring decisions, decide on the allocation of resources, decide on a mission for the department – the kind of things we want to emphasize for scholarship, for teaching, for everything.

“If we don’t have autonomy – if we’re folded in with another department – it undermines our ability to do the kind of work that we do.”

The restructuring recommendation was made in conjunction with the release of the Budget Priorities Advisory Task Force report earlier this semester. Students, staff and, primarily, professors served as members of the task force, charged with detecting areas in which USF could save money. Members were only allowed to review colleges to which they did not belong.

Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith said the task force identified programs that would probably not further the University’s larger goals of becoming a top-tier research university and member of the Association of American Universities, as laid out in USF’s five-year plan.

“The status quo for a number of departments here is that they’re quite small,” Smith said. “The task force seemed to think that we could take a number of these departments – especially if their topics were related to one another in some academic or pedagogical sense – and combine them into one operation that would probably have separate tracks.”

The task force suggested that the degree programs for both women’s studies and Africana studies could be eliminated completely, but Smith said Provost Ralph Wilcox has made it clear that no pre-existing degree programs will be discontinued.

“A number of departments mounted what I think was a very spirited defense, and it was of their major and of their discipline, (but) the focus here is really on the structural composition of these units,” Smith said.

High rankings don’t guarantee a program’s immunityISLAC differs from women’s studies and Africana studies because it is an institute, not a department. ISLAC director Jorge Nef said it is similar to a department in its autonomy, but students from all colleges and major tracks work with the institute, which does not belong to a college.

Although the institute received positive outside reviews and a high review by the task force – an average of 4.875 out of 5 points – it still faces dismantling. Nef compared ISLAC’s situation to that of a student who gets all A’s but then finds out he or she is failing a class.

Eichner said if these units were to lose their autonomous status, they would have to compete for resources within a department from a different field and intellectual tradition with its own priorities.

“We would lose the ability to make decisions about the ways we want to teach and manage our resources,” she said.

Eichner said the loss of independence also means the loss of a departmental home for students.

“I think that has a psychological as well as a material kind of effect,” she said. “Students have been really panicked … and it’s sort of undercutting the confidence of our students.”

Cyrana Wyker, a graduate student in women’s studies, said that as an undergraduate history major she did not receive the analytical skills that have been provided to her in the department of women’s studies.

“I believe we need autonomy,” she said. “How will the administration ensure with the dismantling of the department that we are still getting the tools we need?”

Tunisia Riley, another graduate student in women studies, said she thought the possible restructuring was “ridiculous.”

“It’s kind of disheartening to come here and hear all this about the departments that attracted me here being restructured,” she said. “I changed my entire life, uprooted myself to come here, and now to see all this chaos – it does affect me as a student and I can see it affects my professors.”

Fighting for their independenceDepartments that may lose their independence have mounted significant resistance.

One graduate student in the Department of Africana Studies started a Facebook group titled “Save Africana Studies and Women’s Studies” to promote awareness and track activities regarding the departments’ possible restructuring.

Women’s studies students have organized a petition drive to get signatures of other students opposed to the proposed changes, and the women’s studies faculty has been circulating both e-mail and hard copy versions of its own petition.

The faculty petition has received more than 1,000 signatures and testimonials from supporters of the department’s autonomy from more than 20 countries, including USF faculty members, USF alumni and students, scholars from prestigious national and international universities and activists. The first signature on the petition belongs to well-known feminist activist Gloria Steinem.

Petition may not sway administrationSmith said the administration is looking at the task force’s recommendations as only one of a set of valuable ideas for coping with budget cuts. He said that while departmental responses and outside reviews contribute to the set, petitioning and protests will probably not be factors.

“I think that we have to make some really rational database decisions. It’s helpful to know, because it really shows there’s a real passion for the discipline, and I think it’s a strong statement for the retention of the major and for that disciplinary focus,” he said.

Smith said the administration’s assertion that it does not intend to eliminate degree programs is an indication that it truly recognizes the value and significance of a number of these programs.

“In a way, it’s a bit of preaching to the choir to tell us that they should exist, because we very much agree with that,” he said. “I think the other matter, though, is that what they’re looking for is this complete sort of autonomy, and I’m not so sure we can maintain that, because the times simply won’t allow for it.”

Eichner said Wilcox’s and others’ assertions that retaining programs and removing departmental independence would not have an impact are simply not accurate.

“(That) is glossing over a reality of the effect that a loss of autonomy and departmental status would have here, not only on the faculty but on students and students’ desire to come here and become women’s studies majors, general awareness on campus of what women’s studies is and what we stand for,” she said. “To say that it’s not going to be damaged, that this is part of (USF’s) vision, is just not completely straightforward.”

Individual faculty members are also looking for solutions. Assistant professor of women’s studies Sara Crawley said retaining the autonomy of important academic units and improving USF overall will only come with increased interdisciplinary cooperation.

“I think the problem we’re running into is in the structure of the University and of disciplines … as silos,” she said. “The response to the budget crisis isn’t how to make the silos smaller, or put more programs into one silo, but how to turn those silos into networks.”

She said departments should not simply be encouraged to heighten interdisciplinary cooperation and study, but that these things should be criteria when departments are reviewed.

“We’re going to do what we’re measured on, and we’re not getting measured on interdisciplinarity as silos,” Crawley said.

She said units like women’s studies, Africana studies and ISLAC can only pale in comparison to the larger programs on campus and will continue to under the current system.

Crawley said some factors upon which units could be evaluated are how many courses they cross-list and how many faculty members assist graduate students from other departments. She said these programs do offer cross-listed courses and graduate assistants but that they aren’t rewarded or evaluated.

“When programs’ interdisciplinarity is not rewarded or evaluated, it is basically service and therefore relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy (under research and teaching),” she said.