Ethnic studies programs still have room to grow

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Like many other significant events at the height of the civil rights and antiwar movement, a student push to get CSUN administrators committed to a culturally diverse curriculum was ushered in only after a state of emergency had been declared on campus.

Back in 1968, after a white football coach kicked a black student-athlete during a game, CSUN students of color became convinced they were not getting a culturally sensitive education. Starting with the Pan-African Studies Department in 1968 and the Chicano/a Studies Department a year later, the founding of the campus’ first ethnic studies programs was a response by the administration to mass student demonstrations and rallies.

Pan-African Studies Department Chair Tom Spencer-Walters said conflict today is not so overt.

“There are still portions of resistance that departments like ours are dealing with,” Spencer-Walters said. “This is the nuanced, subtle racism that makes itself known by certain decisions that resist the expansion of ethnic studies.”

Now a full-fledged department that also offers a minor in African Studies, the Pan-African Studies Department produced 47 graduates last year, which was one of the highest in the nation for that major, Spencer-Walters said.

Along with CSUN’s mutual interest in development and growth, Spencer-Walters said that part of the department’s mission is to provide exposure to African-American historians, activists, and icons such as poet Maya Angelou or rapper Funk Master Gee of the Sugar Hill Gang.

“The department envisions a world where people are physically, spiritually and psychologically liberated,” Spencer-Walters said.

Spencer-Walters said the Pan-African Studies Department, which has an operational budget of approximately $20,000 per semester, has slightly more behavioral and social science courses, but at one time had art and dance classes like the Chicano/a Studies Department. He said the department just added an experimental course called “The Politics of Hip-Hop,” where Funk Master Gee recently gave a presentation.

Since its inception, Spencer-Walters said the department has worked closely with other ethnic studies departments in fashioning a response to issues of concern on campus where decisions might affect all ethnic studies departments.

Mary Pardo, chair of the Chicano/a Studies Department, said her department has grown significantly since the late 1960s and early 1970s because of its popularity and the demand for the Chicano perspective.

“The students really pressured the administration,” Pardo said. “They felt their history was not being addressed, and they wanted to see it explored.”

Pardo said that since 1969, when a dozen professors were brought in to establish the department, numerous portfolios and curriculum had to be written, submitted and approved by curriculum committees.

The department now has 27 full-time faculty members that offer nearly 150 classes in 10 different sections, Pardo said. It is the second largest department in the College of Humanities and has an operational budget of $300,000 available to just its part-time faculty, with significantly more available for the full-time staff, she said.

However, Pardo said there is room for improvements.

“I don’t think we have enough administrative support,” Pardo said. “We’re always negotiating for more space and better facilities. We’d like a dance floor for the dance classes and soundproof rooms for the music courses.”

In preparation for an anti-Columbus Day display, Karren Baird-Olson, coordinator of the American Indian Studies Program, could be found in her cramped office on a Saturday afternoon, along with a member of the American Indian Student Association, a volunteer and a dog named “Red.”

“I had to fight to get this computer and fax machine,” Baird-Olson said. “I take money out of my own pocket to run this program.”

Baird-Olson said the American Indian Studies program, which only offers a minor, has existed on campus since 1974, but has not received any meaningful administrative support in the last decade. Last spring semester, five AIS minors graduated. This fall five students are enrolled as AIS minors and 37 students of different disciplines and backgrounds are enrolled in the introductory course, Baird-Olson said.

Since her arrival in 2000 as the program coordinator, Baird-Olson said that she was asked to create three courses for the minor program without receiving any pay increase, release time or decrease in class load. She said the program’s operational budget was cut from $6,800 three years ago to $2,500 this year.

“We have been told we’ll get no support until we build our numbers. But how do you build numbers without support?” she said.

Baird-Olson, who spends about half of her time teaching sociology, said the AIS program does not have any other full-time administrative faculty or staff except for her.

Baird-Olson said she has been trying to get an official list of American Indian faculty, but the administration has not been able to produce the list for her. She said she was dismayed when she met two American Indian staff members that knew nothing about their history.

“That is the precise reason American Indian programs have to be formed, because the truth has to be told,” Baird-Olson said. “There are still many people who do not know the reality of the American Indian. There is still an ignorance in the United States as well as here at CSUN.”

“For instance, why do we celebrate Christopher Columbus as a hero?”

In response to the body of case law, treaties and agreements the federal government has enacted in regards to American Indian nations, Baird-Olson created an American Indian Law and Policy course. This semester, 17 students have enrolled in the course.

Baird-Olson said what keeps her from getting discouraged is the knowledge that many other people of color are fighting to preserve their identity.

Gordon Nakagawa, associate dean of the College of Humanities and former interim chair of the Asian American Studies Department, said assimilation has been an issue for ethnic people since the founding of the United States.

“Assimilation should be examined closely and criticized and not promoted blindly,” Nakagawa said.

Nakagawa said the department has recently began to offer a Korean American Experience experimental course that deals with contemporary and historical issues such as immigration, politics and xenophobia.

Nakagawa said the class does not emphasize the retention of identity so much as what happens to that identity during the transformational process that occurs as one moves into a brand new family, political and community structure.

Nakagawa said the Asian American Studies Department had only one faculty member and one staff member when it was created in 1990.

“I would say the administration has been very supportive,” Nakagawa said. “Every year they have provided resources for full and part-time faculty. And the university and faculty government has approved new curriculum. It takes time to build an efficient major.”

Julio Morales can be reached at julio.morales.605@csun.edu.