Major in African-American studies proposed for fall semester

For years, students wanting to major in African-American studies pursued their goals at institutions other than VCU. Now, VCU once again seeks to offer a major in that area by fall semester.

Recently, VCU’s Board of Visitors approved the revised proposal for a major in African-American studies – a proposal that is not new but one that the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia could approve.

“Some changes have been made since last time just in terms of modifying, editorializing, things like that,” said Njeri Jackson, director of the African-American Studies Program. “But additionally, we are trying to develop what’s called a life and policy sciences track” designed for those interested later in the relationship of social policy and health care.

Roderick J. McDavis, VCU’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, said he expects the proposal to reach SCHEV by the end of the week and remains optimistic for a decision by the end of spring semester.

In November 1997, SCHEV rejected a proposal for an African-American studies major by a 5-3 vote. The board argued that the 60-student enrollment would be too low to be productive, according to a 1997 Commonwealth Times article.

Stephen D. Gottfredson, dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, said he, too, remains confident that SCHEV this year will approve VCU’s request to offer a major in African-American studies, partly because the board’s membership has changed since 1997.

“I think there was an individual who had a political agenda, and that person and that agenda are no longer there,” he said.

Jackson called the African-American Studies Program the most interdisciplinary unit on the campus.

“We do a lot of collaborating from the medical campus to the local museums, the Black History Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts to the School of Arts,” she said. “We are pretty connected.”

Core courses and requirements for the major will remain the same, but Jackson looks to develop some relationships that will increase course offerings.

Devrae Stokes, a finance major and president of the Black Caucus, completed three African-American studies classes, which, she said, gave her the chance to study areas of humanities and sciences with an African-American perspective.

“It is important to me because of the connection between people in classrooms,” Stokes said. “This university is so diverse, and I think it is important to cover those types of classes. I think that everybody can get something out of them, no matter what race they are.”

Jackson said the program allows students to develop a keen insight about the history of race and racial discrimination and about conflict and conflict resolution.

“Those are the kind of skills they won’t get anywhere else in their curriculum,” she said.

Gottfredson said he helps other departments by supporting the African-American Studies Program.

“One of the great things about the African-American Studies Program is that when I strengthen it, I simultaneously strengthen some other unit of the college,” he said, “because faculty are jointly appointed between the African-America Studies Program and some other unit like the English department, the history department, political science or sociology.”

Mark Wood, an associate professor of African-American studies and religious studies, said earning a degree in African-American studies gives students a very global perspective on life and helps them develop sensitivities to other people.

There has been widespread support for the program among other faculty, Wood said, including the administrators, the president and students in that group. Nonetheless, he said, it still is not clear what will happen to the program the next couple of years because the university could restructure the humanities and sciences college in a response to the budgetary cuts.

“The bottom line is that the university can use a lot more money for teachers in order to strengthen the good programs that it already has,” he said.

While discussing funds, Jackson said the program received one spinal-cord-injury grant that involves updating the spinal-cord-injury database for the state.

Once specific populations for that database are identified, she said, the goal is to learn about the needs for African-Americans, women, Hispanics or Latinos, and children. The information then becomes available to health-care agencies in the state that are confronted with the challenges minorities face.

“The situation is compounded by the fact that they (the groups) are racially identified, and they also have a physical disability,” she said.

This year, Jackson said 26 students enrolled in African-American studies as a minor at VCU. Twelve of 24 peer senior-level institutions nationwide offer a bachelor of arts degree in African-American studies, three offer a master’s degree and three offer a doctorate, she said.

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