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Sunday, October 17, 2021

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Africana studies to be offered, student organizers feel lack of credit in Crutcher's announcement

<p>Books on African studies in the stacks of Boatwright Memorial Library.</p>

Books on African studies in the stacks of Boatwright Memorial Library.

Editor's Note: Shira Greer is a Collegian editor.

The University of Richmond will introduce an Africana studies academic program beginning in 2022, after a call to bring Africana studies to UR was initiated last year by five students: seniors Kayla Corbin and TJ Tann and juniors Akeya Fortson-Brown, Shira Greer and Miquell Shaw.

UR president Ronald Crutcher announced that students will be able to begin majoring and minoring in Africana studies in the fall of 2022 in a February email sent to the UR community.  

In February 2020, the five students formed the Africana Studies Student Committee and released a proposal to establish an Africana studies department at UR. In December 2020, School of Arts and Sciences faculty voted in support of a faculty proposal, inspired by the student committee's work, that advocated for the creation of an Africana studies academic program.

That proposal was submitted by an 11-member faculty learning community on Africana studies, led by rhetoric and communication studies professor Armond Towns and sociology professor Atiya Husain.

An academic program, which is what will be available in fall 2022, is a collection of courses that lead to a major or minor. But a program may serve as a step toward the creation of a department, which is what the student committee's proposal called for, including a collection of faculty in addition to a specific curriculum of study.

Corbin said the student committee had worked hard to initiate conversations with UR administration about the creation of a department, and that she was surprised by the phrasing of Crutcher's Feb. 17 announcement.

"As a committee we are a little taken back by the university's response, especially the most recent statement published by the university that didn't even mention us by name," Corbin said. "The way [the announcement] was phrased in their email was as if this was something that the university had planned on doing without the activism of students."

Crutcher noted "five undergraduate students" had submitted a proposal for an Africana studies department in his Feb. 17 email. 

Crutcher also discussed other Making Excellence Inclusive initiatives in the email. Corbin said she had been frustrated that the names of the students who first proposed the Africana studies department had not been included, while the names of others who started other campus initiatives had been included. She said, for example, the email named a current student and recent alumna who led the 2020 Equity Summit

"I wish there was more emphasis on student activism and the role the [student] committee played," Corbin said. 

Cynthia Price, associate vice president of media and public relations, responded to The Collegian's request for comment from Crutcher about the student committee members' response to not being named in the email statement.

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"In lieu of naming the five undergraduates, the letter instead linked to the full Africana Studies proposal in the message so the community could see the proposal that was developed, which includes both the names of the undergraduates who led the effort, as well as the faculty learning community that contributed to advancing the initiative," Price wrote in an email to The Collegian.

Corbin said committee members had been discouraged by dismissive comments about the creation of an Africana studies department during some conversations with UR administration.

Shaw recalled a one-on-one conversation he had with Crutcher in summer 2020 at Crutcher’s on-campus home. 

“He told me that Africana studies would never be here," Shaw said, "and if I wanted to major in it I should’ve went somewhere else in terms of undergrad university."

Price also responded to The Collegian's request for comment from Crutcher about the conversation with Shaw.

"President Crutcher has no recollection of any such statement in a private meeting with a student," Price wrote. "In fact, President Crutcher has been very supportive of an Africana studies program at UR."

Shaw, like Corbin, was surprised by Crutcher's Feb. 17 message, he said.

“The tone that he had in the email was really accepting," Shaw said. "It seemed like he was embracing the idea and initiative and endorsing it like that was the sentimentality from the beginning. 

"But as I recall, he felt radically different [in our conversation last summer] than how he made his emotions about the department seem in the email."

Shaw acknowledged that almost a year had passed since his recollection of a summer conversation with Crutcher, and Crutcher's opinion may have changed during that time.

Husain wrote in an email to The Collegian that students' work had been important in the creation of the FLC's proposal to create an Africana studies program. 

"The work of the FLC is best understood as a product of student demands and not as a university-driven effort," Husain wrote. "Like many demands for Black Studies decades ago at other institutions, student activism at UR generated much of the widespread support that Africana Studies now enjoys. 

"This support could not be assumed from the start of the effort. Rather, students have been the primary agents in securing institutional approval for the new program."

Husain wrote that the announcement of a start date for the Africana studies program is a victory for the students, who can see the fruits of their labor materialize.

The student committee plans to continue its student-led education efforts in the coming semesters, Corbin said. One of the student committee's initiatives is to inform the UR community about what Africana studies is, Shaw said.

“Africana studies has … just a different epistemological point of view of its interpretation of the world," Shaw said. "Every other discourse that is available on campus now is still attached to the idea that everything legible and everything worth learning comes from Europe and European thought.

"All the thought that exists on the ‘margins,’ like Black thought, Indigenous thought and Indigenous theory, doesn’t matter."

Shaw said the introduction of Africana studies at UR would be a vital step for UR to provide students with a holistic education. Africana studies shifts the focus of study to discourses previously overlooked by the centrality of Europe and European thought, such as Black and Indigenous thought, he said. 

"It is important that our campus gets the discourse now because we have been talking about how we radically want to change race relations on campus," Shaw said. "The first step before we should be talking about [diversity and equity initiatives] is about how we can center the very thought that puts those initiatives primary in the first place. 

"How can you call for those things but you don’t prioritize the thought where those things come from?”

Contact investigative editor Morgan Howland at morgan.howland@richmond.edu.

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