Debate at Tennessee State

What you may have heard coming out of Nashville recently is not the twang of country music but the shrill trill of academic controversy provoked by the decision of historically black Tennessee State University to eliminate two programs from opposite ends of the curriculum, physics and Africana studies.

According to Inside Higher Ed,

Administrators said the reorganization comes after six months of consultation with faculty, students, and other interest groups, and will save the university $700,000 annually. That will be reallocated to other programs such as nursing, which did not have enough faculty members to meet student demand. Discontinuing the programs will not eliminate courses, no faculty jobs will be eliminated, and both physics and Africana studies will continue to be offered as minors. The only change, administrators say, will be consolidation of administrative units and elimination of the major programs.

“Right now, we’ve got a physics class being taught to one student,” said TSU provost Dennis Gordon, “How many resources do you allocate to courses like that?

Apparently whatever is necessary, according to the commentator in Wired magazine who called the decision “really dumb.”

Is the university a physics industrial plant that churns out majors ready to be sold? No. The university isn’t even a business…. What is university? It is supposed to be a community of learners. A place where people can learn for the sake of learning. A place where people can work on the things that humans do. It is not a prep-school for the workforce.

Despite the fact that the TSU physics department “had only graduated 23 majors in the last 10 years” and had only “one rising senior for next year,” there were predictable cries of alarm over damming up the stream producing black scientists. It would seem to be a pretty thin stream, but, perhaps surprisingly as Inside Higher Ed reports, TSU’s physics department

is actually one of the largest producers of African-American physics majors. Despite an average graduating class of fewer than three majors, the university still ranks high on the list, said Theodore W. Hodapp, director of education and diversity for the American Physical Society. Historically black colleges and universities produce about half of all African-American physics majors.

That, of course, raises the unaddressed question (which has, however, been raised here and here), of exactly why it’s important to have more black physicists — and who should pay how much to produce them.

The argument to preserve the Africana studies major also reflects a view of TSU that may not fit either its resources or its mission. “You don’t put a cost on freeing someone’s mind and promoting intellectuals,” wrote William T. Robinson Jr. in a letter in the Nashville Pride quoted by Inside Higher Ed.

As most administrators — and virtually all taxpayers who pay their salaries — recognize, however, you actually do have to put a cost on things, even the freeing of young minds. Still, most would agree that essential programs should not be cut, inevitably raising the question of whether Africana studies is essential to the mission of TSU, especially since it graduated only 46 majors in the past decade.

Some think it is. “We want to be a first-class university, not a second-rate trade school,” said Nashville civil rights leader Kwame Lillard, a moving force behind the new Save TSU Community Coalition. According to Save TSU, the small degree programs have great value, “particularly Africana studies, a program they see as an intrinsic part of this historically black university.”

Well, if it is intrinsic, it has been so only since 1994, which is when the department was created. In addition, the department’s web site reveals, the emphasis of the program seems to be much more didactic than scholastic, since it “was created out of a need to recognize and value the contributions of Africa and her descendants to world civilization.” Also casting doubt on how “intrinsic” the department could be to TSU is the department web site’s boast that

[a]s a free-standing department, the Africana Studies Department is the only one of its kind in the Southeastern U.S., and one among three other departments at historically African-American colleges and universities. Most Africana Studies units are interdisciplinary programs or cultural centers.

A glance at the department’s course offerings casts further doubt on the central importance of Africana studies to most TSU students (the 79% who are black as well as the 17% who are white). In addition to Beginning Arabic, Beginning Kiswahili, and Beginning Yoruba, there are a number of courses with what appears to be a heavily slanted political content.

AFAS 400, Political Economy of African Nations, examines “the constraints of the world political economy on education, housing, transportation, medical and health care, food production, and industrial and technological development of African nations.”

AFAS 420, Media, Social Change, and Mass Empowerment, “how the mass media are used as agents of oppression in world African communities. This analysis is followed by an exploration of the media’s potential to serve as an instrument of humane social change and mass empowerment.”

AFAS 432, Spiritual Empowerment and Transformation, an “introduction to the spiritual core of African cosmology and civilization” that explores  “selected classical and contemporary African spiritual paradigms and their potential to empower and transform.”

All of the courses listed are three hours except AFAS 451, Africana Studies Internship, which can be repeated for a total of 6 hours. It is described as

A practicum experience in which students are given the opportunity to apply the knowledge gained from course work in Africana Studies. Students are placed in agencies that are addressing concerns, issues, and problems in the African community.

According to a fact sheet released by TSU, “the highly enrolled course offerings in Africana Studies were retained, and Africana Studies was re-designated as a minor.” If those courses are really regarded as essential to TSU’s mission, perhaps that mission should be re-evaluated.

Courses such as those described above remind me, as I wrote here, of a powerful scene in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Manin which the narrator, observing a statue on the campus of Tuskegee Institute depicting Booker T. Washington ostensibly lifting the veil of ignorance from the brow of a former slave, wonders whether instead he might unintentionally be securing it firmly in place.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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