Students join faculty retreat

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Faculty members discussed the reform of the Cultural Studies Program (CSP) and the creation of a Black studies program at a full-day retreat Jan. 19, the day previously scheduled as the first day of classes. Although intended solely for the faculty, student activists led by Oxy United for Black Liberation and the Coalition at Oxy for Diversity and Equity entered midway through the retreat to inform faculty members that the administration removed an Oxy United banner from the flagpoles in front of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center (AGC) Jan. 18.

The banner first hung in front of the AGC in November when student activists occupied the building to pressure the administration to meet Oxy United’s 14 demands. Students rehung the banner the night of Jan. 17. In an email to student organizers Jan. 18, Acting Dean of Students Erica O’Neal Howard asked them to remove the banner by 11 a.m. that day or to come pick it up from her office after the administration removed it, because it violated Occidental’s posting and publicity policy. Numerous student Facebook posts criticized the move, in particular because it occurred on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Students entered Lower Herrick, where the retreat was being held, around 2 p.m. to explain the incident with the banner to the faculty. The faculty voted to allow students to join their small discussion groups on the creation of a Black studies program. According to Chelsea Blair (sophomore), one of the student activists, the goal was not to prevent the meeting from continuing but to inform the faculty about the recent incident.

“It was kind of a moment both to be a part of the conversations about the Black studies major and also to make sure the faculty knew that that had happened on MLK Day,” Blair said.

In an email, Anthony Chase, faculty council president, said that although faculty members were not aware the students would attend, they were happy to have the opportunity to engage with students about the Black studies program.

“I really hope we can develop more mechanisms for students and faculty to interact outside the classroom,” Chase said via email.

The creation of a Black studies program and restructuring of the CSP are two topics included on the list of 14 demands Oxy United presented during the AGC occupation. Demand No. 5 calls for the “creation of a fully funded and staffed Black studies program”; demand No. 12 calls for CSP courses focused on identity to replace the First Year Residential Education program. Both the CSP and Black studies program are addressed in the Draft Faculty Plan of Action, which was developed last semester to respond to the Oxy United demands that fall under the purview of the faculty.

Although a January faculty retreat was planned prior to the November protests, the Faculty Council, associate deans and Dean of the College Jorge Gonzalez decided at the end of the fall semester to focus on diversity in the discussion topics and to postpone the first day of classes, in order to take into account the Oxy United demands. While attendance was not mandatory, Chase said that over 100 faculty members attended the retreat.

Faculty discussed both main topics in small groups, beginning with discussion of CSP reform in the morning and continuing with the Black studies program in the afternoon. Nick Mitchell, professor of feminist studies and critical ethnic studies at University of California, Santa Cruz, spoke during lunch about the history of Black studies and common mistakes colleges and universities can make when developing a Black studies program. He emphasized that colleges should examine past attempts at creating Black studies programs to see where they succeeded and failed and invest in the program by hiring tenure-track faculty.

“I took my presence at the faculty retreat as evidence of the faculty’s good faith in at least acknowledging that, ‘Ok, this is something that’s been done before, we’re not beginning from scratch,’” Mitchell said.

Faculty discussed two CSP proposals that are currently under review by the Academic Planning Committee. According to John Swift, associate dean for core curriculum and student issues, the first was introduced almost a year ago and would split the CSP courses between students’ first and second years. Fall semester of their first year, students would take a seminar that introduces them to college-level writing and critical thinking. Fall semester of their sophomore year, students would take a course on research methods within their field of interest. The second proposal, which Swift introduced after the fall protests, maintains the same structure as the first proposal but specifies that the first-year fall seminar would focus on identity and the college’s mission of diversity and equity.

“I think that we might be able to raise the level of passion among the instructors by focusing, and inviting people to come and teach in it, who have a specific interest in the diversity and equity mission of the college,” Swift said.

Multiple discussion groups expressed concerns about how the science faculty would be incorporated into a new CSP that is focused on identity and about how the faculty as a whole would be trained for the new curriculum, notes from the retreat show.

Faculty members also questioned what exactly identity means and whether it is a good lens for introducing students to academia. Multiple discussion groups also thought a restructured CSP could provide a stronger, more meaningful base for a student’s academic career by exposing them to discipline-specific methodologies earlier.

During the discussions about the creation of a Black studies program, questions revolved around what shape the program would take and where it would be situated. Numerous groups emphasized that the program should be made up of intentionally sequenced courses, rather than taking an interdisciplinary approach and simply offering courses in a variety of departments that count toward the major. Although an interdisciplinary major could allow for students to explore the way various fields intersect with Black studies, according to the notes, an interdisciplinary major would also lack a clear line of funding.

To ensure the development and sustainability of a Black studies program, faculty members noted that the administration must financially commit to hiring for future positions. The American studies department is in the process of hiring a new tenure-track professor in African American studies who will be tasked with creating the Black studies program. Four finalists for the position visited Occidental over the past two weeks.

This new professor, along with whoever replaces Gonzalez as dean of the college, will have a lot of control over how the Black studies department might be structured, American Studies Department Chair Xiao-huang Yin said. The new professor will be able to decide whether they want to remain under the American studies department, or create an entirely separate Black studies department.

“I think the first new hire will have a lot of decisions to make,” Yin said. “Secondly, and more importantly, I think the new dean will, because of the structure of the college … play a critical role in the future situation of Black studies, and not only Black studies, but overall core and curriculum development.”