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Rallying for answers

Chanting “Where’s Judy? Where’s Judy?,” students outside the Administration Building called for President Judy Genshaft and other administrators to answer questions about proposed changes to Africana studies and women’s studies Tuesday.

The students, part of a rally called “Rise Up,” had gathered at the MLK Plaza and marched from Cooper Hall to the administrative offices to protest a discussed merger of women’s studies, Africana studies and the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Students, faculty and staff in the departments and institute have protested such changes, though Wilcox said the programs are safe and no merger is definite.

“I am committed to continuing these programs. At no time have we spoken about or contemplated eliminating these programs,” he said.

Wilcox said the programs are very important to the University.

“The intersection of gender, race and class is at the heart of the social sciences,” he said. “This is important.”

Several students and faculty demanded that Wilcox explain why the University continues to marginalize minorities if it deems them vital to the school’s existence.

“I stepped out quickly and assured the chairs of women’s and Africana studies these programs are the centerpiece of University. As long as I am provost, I will continue this to be true,” he said.

Vice President of Communication Michael Hoad said Genshaft did not attend the rally because she was not the right person to answer student concerns.

“Judy is not the person who makes decisions about academic programs. She reviews them,” he said. “The idea was to provide the person who can answer questions the best. (Wilcox is) the right person.”

Although Wilcox said he had a conversation with the chairs of the departments to allay their concerns toward the end of February, Deborah Plant, Africana studies professor, said there wasn’t a conversation about protecting or merging the programs until recently.

“There was no conversation until three weeks ago, when we were told the departments would be merging,” she said. “We were then told to have a proposal ready by April 21. I would never agree to the merging of these programs. We’ve been in crisis ever since we have been in existence.”

Wilcox said the report by the Budget Priorities Task Force, which outlined recommendations on how the University could cut its budget, identified programs that seemed less productive than others in degrees rewarded. Women’s studies and Africana studies were some of these programs.

The report, however, did not recognize the significance of either program or the breadth of education they offer, Wilcox said. He said he has never considered abolishing the women’s studies and Africana studies programs – only possibly merging the two, together with ISLAC, under one department to share resources. That decision, however, has not been made.

Jorge Nef, director of ISLAC, said the program does well, has a significant number of students and uses few resources while still producing books. He doesn’t understand why it may be sacrificed.

“We are small, as most programs related to minorities are. This is like getting all A’s in a class and failing – it doesn’t make sense. I think there is a level of prejudice there,” Nef said.

Kim Vaz, chair of the women’s studies department, said a merger would pose many changes to the departments.

“(It’s) asking for minorities to give up titles as department heads, giving up three months of salary, giving up being able to meet with deans, being able to have peer status – that’s why it’s a big deal,” Vaz said.

Some students said Wilcox did not understand the passion of the departments.

“If you only knew the morale in our departments,” said Alex Southard, a senior majoring in women’s studies and history. “If you only knew the struggle.”

Wilcox said he is “altogether understanding and appreciative of how important this is” to students, but cannot make a decision until he receives the University’s budget from the state Legislature.

“To do anything other than that would be fiscally irresponsible,” he said.

Marie Thomas, a senior majoring in international studies and Africana studies, said that if the University were clearer about the severity of the budget cuts, a rally wouldn’t be needed.

“If you can clarify what you’re saying to us, you don’t need to be here,” she said.

Wilcox said students need to hold him responsible for the decisions that will be made.

“I challenge faculty (and students) to hold me and the whole academic affairs divisions accountable,” he said.

Some students said they felt their questions weren’t answered and that Wilcox was very repetitive.

“He’s spoken a lot of words, but he hasn’t said anything,” said Peter Baker, a senior majoring in religious studies and a senator in Student Government.

“I don’t want to trust you. All you have to do is record yourself and press play,” one student told Wilcox.

Wilcox is not unfamiliar with distrust.

“There’s not a great amount of trust in the administrative office,” he said.

Wilcox said that he didn’t know what else the students expected him to say, and that many of their questions originated from a misunderstanding of the situation.

“I don’t know what they expect me to say other than to tell the truth,” he said. “It’s indicative of broad misunderstanding of the commitments made by the University.”

Wilcox said that if he made guarantees not to cut programs, classes or tenured staff and could not deliver, then he should be fired.

“I (would) deserve to be eliminated,” he said.

Reginald Eldridge, coordinator of the rally, said it’s goal was to get the administration to face the people who would be affected by the proposed changes.

“It was also to show the administration that we are more serious than they thought we are,” he said.

He also said the rally was not the end of the dialogue with the administration.

“I don’t feel like it’s finished. The goal today was to get them to hear us,” he said. “This is not the last discussion we’re having about this.”

Wilcox said he is more than willing to continue conversations with students about these issues.

“I’m always happy to continue conversation and seek input,” he said.

While a final decision has yet to be made regarding these programs, Eldridge said the rally gave students the chance to voice their frustrations to the administration and be heard.

“We love our departments and professors and we have the opportunity to show how much we love them. If we don’t raise our voices now, who will complain for students in the future?” Eldridge said.

Wilcox said he anticipated a clash of opinions.

“Sometimes there are differences of opinion, but isn’t that what education is all about?” he said. “(If it isn’t), the future of our University is threatened.”

Wilcox said it was his role to address students.

“As the chief academic officer at the University, it’s a responsibility I have to accept,” he said.

Jennifer Meningall, vice president of the Division of Student Affairs, said she believes every student has the right to voice his or her concerns.

“Our goal is to help students get a whole, integrated education, so we just have to do the best in the midst of budget cuts and preserve those values.”

Undercover University Police officers were at the rally to ensure the safety of everyone, said Operations Commander Captain Bob Staehle.

“Anytime there is going to be any public protest, we have to ensure that everyone is safe (and that) their freedom of expression is protected,” he said.

He said there were no problems or injuries at the rally.

Wilcox posted an “open letter to the USF community” on Tuesday night. The letter addressed some concerns expressed by students and outlined the budget cuts USF faces, as well as the possibility of more budget cuts in July 2008. He also wrote that the University will stay committed to keeping all degree programs and retaining all tenured and tenure-qualifying faculty.

“It would be na’ve for any of us to think that we will be able to balance our budget without transformative shifts in the way we look, deliver our core academic and research programs, and conduct our business activities at USF,” he wrote. “Change is inevitable and necessary.”

Additional reporting by Victoria Bekiempis and Morgan Rotberg