Community members discuss future of black studies program, American studies department and Professor Baker’s resignation

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Peter Boyd (sophomore) discusses his experience as a black studies major at Occidental College. Thursday, April 11, 2019. Matthew VanBronkhorst/The Occidental

Professor Courtney Baker, an associate professor of American studies and the co-founder and chair of black studies, wrote an open letter April 1 announcing her resignation. Baker also informed the Occidental community of the challenges faced by the black studies program and American studies department and proposed possible solutions. In her letter, Baker calls for the departmentalization of the black studies program, the hiring of new faculty and a revised curriculum.

Several students said they sympathized with Baker’s position and said the administration is not providing enough support for these programs. Allen Chen (senior), an American studies major, said Baker’s dual role in both the American studies and black studies programs means there will be significant effects when she leaves.

“With her leaving, it’s a huge loss for both departments. It affects who’s going to teach what courses, it affects the strength of our departments,” Chen said. “But I support her leaving because I think it does signal that there needs to be stronger institutional support for these disciplines.”

According to Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg, timing issues and a lack of resources contribute to the current situation of the black studies program. Sternberg said Baker will take a position in the English department at the University of California, Riverside following her resignation.

“I was disappointed to hear that she was leaving, but of course, people make decisions for all kinds of reasons, and I appreciate that she needs to do what’s right for her,” Sternberg said.

In her letter, Baker said Sternberg discouraged faculty from proposing a black studies department and a new faculty line.

“Subsequently, the dean discouraged us from putting forward a proposal for a faculty line in Black Studies even though the proposal indicated that we would,” Baker’s letter reads. “The dean also later informed me that it was “highly unlikely” that Black Studies would ever become a department.”

According to Sternberg, because the black studies program has recently been established and the deadline to propose a faculty line had already passed, it would be premature to hire faculty for a small program.

Wendy Sternberg, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Occidental College, discusses the creation of the Black Studies major and the recent departure of Professor Courtney Baker in the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center, Occidental College. Thursday, April 11, 2019. Matthew VanBronkhorst/The Occidental

“The deadline for requesting new tenure lines had already passed before the [black studies] program was approved,” Sternberg said. “When the proposal was brought to the faculty, there was no department of black studies. All that the faculty approved was the major. And I thought it was premature to hire a new faculty member if we didn’t know what the structure was.”

Peter Boyd (sophomore), a black studies major, said there are faculty voids that should be filled. However, Boyd said the administration also has to manage competing interests, which may result in an allocation of funds that does not satisfy some at Occidental.

“I felt like the administration is bogged down with the money aspect. They’re stuck having to appeal to donors so regardless of where their heart may lie, with the wallets, there’s not much they can do in spirit for the black studies program,” Boyd said. “So, students are making these demands … and the Oxy administration is like, ‘Well, got to keep the school as a whole running.’”

Mark Anella (sophomore), an American studies major, said the lack of resources allocated to the American studies and black studies programs means related faculty have to do more while being paid the same. Anella said this resonates with Baker’s letter, in which she suggests there should be compensation for interdisciplinary labor.

“The professors that I’ve had have talked about how they have to constantly email people and [are] kind of struggling to get the right amount of recognition from the administration,” Anella said. “A lot of these professors had been active with student organizing, too, so that’s already extra work that they’re not paid for. And then they also have to then, in the wake of that, fight to keep their own positions.”

Sternberg said she recognizes the extra work American studies professors are doing, but also said the general lack of resources affects many academic departments on campus.

“I think one of the challenges we have here at Oxy is that a lot of departments are under-resourced,” Sternberg said. “So when a department is under-resourced, it’s very difficult for the people in that department to have demands placed on them by multiple programs.”

Sternberg said under-resourcing is largely due to a lack of tenure-track faculty, and that an inadequate budget limits how many tenure-track faculty can be hired.

Anella said he hopes that, in the future, there can be expansion in terms of faculty and scale in both programs. He also said he hopes the administration will recognize the comparative lack of resources between black studies and American studies and the other programs on campus. Boyd said students should be active in the conversation about how these programs will develop.

Sternberg said she contacted the Black Studies Advisory Committee, which consists of professors from different programs, to discuss hiring a new chair and whether black studies will become a department in the future.

“The will of the faculty, the recommendations of the APC [Academic Planning Committee], the student demands, all of these things will play a role in determining the future structure of black studies,” Sternberg said. “What is not in question is whether we will have an opportunity for students to major in black studies.”

Professor Courtney Baker declined to comment and referred to her April 1 letter as her final comment.