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Built-in bias?

As the departments of women’s studies and Africana studies and the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC) face the potential loss of their independence, many charge that the units were targeted for cuts long before budget woes struck USF.

Opponents to the restructuring of these units said that they’re underfunded and are facing a loss of autonomy because of systemic bias – the programs perform well amid thinning resources, causing some faculty to question the reasoning behind administrative recommendations.

“It’s a bizarre, cyclical thing: We’re penalized for being underfunded, and then we’re further underfunded,” said Carolyn Eichner, associate professor in the department of women’s studies. “The question is: why do we have to bear such a serious burden in the economic crisis?”

Women’s studies chair Kim Vaz thought the other disciplines treated women’s studies and Africana studies with bias because they are not long-established subjects.

“Any time a new discipline comes up, it is not welcomed by other disciplines, and we’re in that stage,” Vaz said.

Africana studies chair Deborah Plant said the threat of restructuring has loomed over Africana studies and other units for years.

“The budget cuts seem to be simply an opportunity to justify the desire of some administrators to undermine the growth and development of an important discipline and to undermine the ability of ‘non-traditional’ units to be equal players at the academic table,” she said.

“There is the belief by some that the resources at USF are not to be shared equally among all departments and all faculty and staff,” Plant said. “Consequently, if resources are not shared equally among departments, they are not shared equally among the students that we serve.”

She said even as faculty numbers and resources declined for Africana studies – which also happened to women’s studies and ISLAC – the department maintained high productivity. The possible loss of independence, however, remains.

“We have been starved of resources and institutional support, and then we have been told that we are vulnerable because we are small, as though we have withheld resources and faculty lines from ourselves,” Plant said.

Director of ISLAC Jorge Nef said the institute has also fared well despite waning resources. ISLAC has received top internal and external reviews but still faces a grim fate, he said.

“If we had a lot of money and we’re small, go for the money. But we don’t have the money,” he said. “We’ve done phenomenally well with very little … but we’re still waiting for our execution (so to speak).”

He said although ISLAC has not been told explicitly that it may lose autonomy as the departments of women’s studies and Africana studies have, the possibility is implicit.

“We have not been told in so many words, but the writing is all over the walls,” he said. “We are treated as being in the same boat: an ‘anomaly,’ albeit seemingly an efficient one.”

Eichner said she thought the budget task force’s recommendation stemmed from a lack of care on the part of the administration.

“We are trying very hard to defend what we have … (but) we’re already marginalized, and they don’t value us,” she said. “The logic really, for what is effectively a very small savings, is based on the fact that we are small, underfunded, marginalized departments studying topics that are historically marginalized within the University and the University is trying to further marginalize us.”

Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith said the assumption that losing independence means an ultimate loss of control over a program is not necessarily true.

“Hypothetically, why wouldn’t you want these people talking with one another? Why wouldn’t you want them sort of co-located so they could draw from one another’s strengths and one another’s perspectives?” he said. “The idea among some is that some combinations would actually make these programs stronger.”

While women’s studies, Africana studies and Latin American and Caribbean studies are interdisciplinary, they are still discrete disciplines, Eicher said.

“Certainly there is a significant overlap, but there’s also a significant overlap with history, with philosophy, and I could go on from there,” she said. “There is no direct and clear intellectual link … except that they are the studies of groups that are marginalized.”

The department of women’s studies hosted an open meeting March 27 for faculty, students and community members to discuss the possible restructuring in the Grace Allen Room of the Library.

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, John Skvoretz, was at the meeting and called programs such as women’s studies, Africana studies and ISLAC “real pearls in the crown” of academia.

Skvoretz said the pearl metaphor was intentional, because pearls are only attractive after being coated by an irritant, which then creates the beautiful pearl in the form used in jewelry. The programs have their starts as irritants because they question existing studies and methodologies and challenge institutions, he said, “but it is necessary to have these things.”

“Outsiders force other people to perform and think – pardon the trite phrase – outside the box,” he said.

Vaz said it’s the academic units that have been irritated.

“We don’t really want to look at the pearl,” she said. “We want to look at the irritant, and right now, the irritant is telling us we don’t deserve our autonomous status.”

“I want you to understand what it feels like when your head is being cut coming through that glass ceiling. It’s not okay just to be a pearl, we have to get rid of the irritant, and the irritant is inequity,” she said. “We have suffered disproportionately.”

Ansev Demirhan, a senior majoring in women’s studies, said she resented the pearl comparison, because “as we learn in classes like the ones in women’s studies and Africana studies,” the use of words with negative connotations affect how something is regarded.

Demirhan said there is a systematic choice in who is being targeted for the cuts and said changing the autonomous units to mere programs “is demoting my education” and reveals a hierarchy within the institution.

“Now, what I’ve elected to study has been regurgitated to me as not viable. My degree is going to be less valuable than someone who gets a degree from a (freestanding) department,” she said.

Nef said part of the systemic bias results from units like ISLAC, women’s studies and Africana studies being viewed as the “others,” or outsiders – foreigners, feminists and minorities – and therefore not as important. He said treating these studies as exceptions or abnormalities is unproductive because “they are realities.”

“Ethnicity, gender and culture are all normal. These are not extraterrestrials,” Nef said. “These programs have been our attempts to reach out.”