Hundreds of concerned, passionate students and faculty members marched up to the doorstep of USF’s administration Tuesday afternoon expecting answers as to why the departments of women’s and Africana studies and the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean are facing a loss of operational autonomy.
All they received were conflicting, tired excuses and belittling treatment.
The protest was at once one of the most inspiring and disappointing experiences of my undergraduate career. I participated in and witnessed a scene of student activism quite antithetical to the supposed unabashed apathy that defines this generation.
The questions raised by scores of passionate USF members were invigorating, but the responses from the administration were utterly disingenuous.
Provost Ralph Wilcox talked down to the audience, telling protestors to “listen carefully” and repeatedly crediting misinformation as the root of their passion and concern.
While some statements and questions toward the end of the event were based on misinformation – even combative – they did not represent the entire protest.
I was at the protest from start to finish, and a majority of those involved were quite informed and had been following the status of these departments since the possibility of their loss of autonomy surfaced earlier this semester. They knew what the Budget Advisory Task Force Committee was and whom it comprised. They read the committee reviews and the department chairs’ subsequent responses.
I, too, know all these things, and I was there for the provost’s responses to urgent and concerned students and faculty about the future of departments so dear to them. I have spoken personally to members of the administration about the proposal, and I know something else: Any misinformation being spread across campus is being perpetuated – if not created – by the administration itself.
Members of the administration have ardently assured students and faculty of their “deep commitment” to such programs, calling them “central to the mission” of USF.
However, if these departments were really so central, they wouldn’t be so small.
If there were truly a commitment to maintaining the departments’ academic integrity, the departments would not have diminished year after year as other departments expanded, and they would not be punished for being systematically underfunded.
Acting as a sacrificial lamb for the entire USF administration, Wilcox addressed the same vague – yet impressively contradictory – messages about the status of these units.
He maintained that, in light of looming budget cuts, the University needed to make strategic, as opposed to broad, cuts to “realign” all areas onto the trajectory mapped out in the 5-year plan – namely, becoming a prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) school.
However, stripping small departments that have been systematically marginalized by the University for years to save the paltry amount of money that constitutes their measly operational expenses is not an acceptable option.
The administration continues to falsely correlate the removal of these units’ autonomy as a remedy to budget cuts, as if there were no alternative. There are many departments much larger in size and larger in budget than those facing dismantling, but the USF administration seems determined to dismantle the tiny departments.
In no way do these strategic cuts correspond to the administrative decrees of preservation and commitment. Removing operational autonomy – economic, academic, scholarly, hiring and advisory control – cripples the small units and irrevocably compromises the quality of education they are able to provide.
Although a slow execution, it is an execution nonetheless.
If this is how “commitment” at USF is characterized, then this school is going down fast. Administrators have incessantly – or, to quote Provost Wilcox, “consistently” – vowed to “retain autonomy,” but it is an empty promise that proves more hollow with each false reiteration and semantic side step.
Insisting that, because “programs” will be retained and their “academic autonomy” preserved, the administration deeply believes in their value and relevance is simply a diversionary tactic to avoid addressing the real issue: If you strip an autonomous department or institute of its operational autonomy, you inherently demean its value and disenfranchise the students and faculty within it.
Such an action is – no matter how many times administrators claim otherwise – a clear demonstration of how unimportant such departments are in comparison to others (you know, the ones not on the chopping block).
To deny the obvious repercussions and continually mask the problem with redundant, bad-PR-quality rhetoric is not only a disservice to students and faculty but an insult to their intelligence.
Students and faculty deserve answers as to why certain departments are being diminished, and the administration is responsible for providing thoughtful and genuine explanations. Do not say it is because they are small, because it is the administration that made them small. Do not say it is because students don’t choose USF for these programs; that’s because they haven’t been supported like the same programs at other universities. If the answer needs to be “I don’t know,” or “We don’t think they will help us get into the AAU,” or “We don’t care,” then so be it, but do not continue to provide explanations equivalent to administrative group-speak and call them legitimate.
Perhaps the USF administration should postpone its grand, doomed dream of becoming an AAU institution within the next five, 10 or even 15 years, and instead focus on preserving what it already has.
Ultimately, students, faculty and the University will benefit from having a reputation for diversity and responsibility, not regression and marginalization.
Renee Sessions is majoring in creative writing.