The UCLA Academic Senate is reviewing a proposal to build on the strength and increasing popularity of the Interdepartmental Program in Afro-American Studies by converting it to a full academic department.
Since its founding in 1974, the program has built a reputation for outstanding scholarship and innovative courses that attract students from a wide range of backgrounds and draw on top faculty from sociology, history, communications and many other disciplines.
Departmentalization would help provide the resources needed to continue that trajectory by aiding faculty recruitment, expanding partnerships with professional schools and potentially developing a doctoral degree program, said Mark Sawyer, chair of the program and professor of African-American studies and political science in the College of Letters and Science.
"The diversity of the African-American experience in the U.S. is a vehicle not just for understanding African-Americans but for understanding all cultures and the social world, literature, the arts, history and other areas of intellectual inquiry," said Sawyer, who also directs the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics.
The proposal to create a department of African-American studies has the support of Chancellor Gene Block and other campus administrative leaders.
"The Interdepartmental Program in Afro-American Studies is a model of collaboration and innovative curriculum that reflects UCLA's commitment to robust scholarship and teaching," Block said. "Elevating the program to a full academic department would facilitate its growth in further service to both our students and to society."
Creating an African-American studies department would "immediately position UCLA as a major player among the top departments in the U.S. with a similar interdisciplinary focus," said Alessandro Duranti, dean of the Division of Social Sciences in the College of Letters and Science.
The College's Faculty Executive Committee unanimously approved the proposal for departmentalization last year.
In the Academic Senate, which must approve any departmentalization, the proposal has already been reviewed by the Council on Planning and Budget and the Committee on Rules and Jurisdiction. It is expected to be reviewed during winter quarter by both the Senate's Undergraduate Council and Graduate Council before heading to the Executive Board and then the Legislative Assembly for a final vote in spring quarter. The Legislative Assembly includes 124 elected faculty members representing academic units across campus.
Jan Reiff, chair of the Academic Senate and a professor in the history department, said the thorough review process undertaken for all academic department proposals is intended to ensure the best interests of students, faculty and the university as a whole.
Over the years, the scope of courses offered by the interdepartmental program in African-American studies has expanded to include the study of the African diaspora – the dispersion of people of African descent across the globe, Sawyer said. "The discipline has become much more diverse, as diverse as the African-American experience."
To offer this broadened curriculum, the program IDP has tapped the expertise of 10 core faculty, including leading scholars in a range of fields.
"If you look at the students who take our classes, our numbers have been going up because we are attracting African-American students as well as students from other ethnic, racial and other backgrounds both at the undergraduate and graduate levels," Sawyer said. "We also have a successful master's program that many graduate students enroll in for their terminal degree. But many others also go on to Harvard or UCLA Law and top-level Ph.D. programs."
The number of undergraduates majoring in Afro-American studies increased from 23 in 2000 to 93 in 2012. Interest in courses remains high, with more than 1,400 undergraduate course enrollments.
The interdepartmental program and the UCLA School of Law offer a joint four-year, concurrent degree program leading to both an M.A. in African-American studies and a J.D – the first of its kind in the country. Graduates are trained to practice law with a fuller understanding of its intersection with the historical, social and cultural dimensions of the African-American experience, and to provide community leadership.
"We hope to create other partnerships of this kind and to continue strengthening our interdisciplinary focus in the social sciences to deal with questions and issues of the day," Sawyer said."
If approved, the new department would work hand in hand with UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, Sawyer said. Faculty in the Bunche center, directed by sociology professor Darnell Hunt, would continue to teach and otherwise contribute. Sawyer said converting the interdepartmental program to an academic department would not have a significant financial impact because faculty and a small administrative staff are already in place.
Creating a department, Sawyer said in the proposal, "would send a clear signal to the African-American community in California and the nation that UCLA values and supports African-American scholarship and that we want to create the best possible conditions for educating our citizens — and not only those of African-American descent — on the history and culture of the African-American community in the United States and beyond."