State budget cuts are hitting home at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Rumors about the possible merger of USF's Women's Studies and Africana Studies departments drew more than 200 protesters to a rally on campus last week.
The current recession and recent tax reforms have caused the Florida Legislature to demand budget cuts from state universities. USF is facing approximately $13 million in cuts this year, one year after it was forced to carve $19 million out of its spending plan. The university is struggling to find places to make those cuts.
The students and faculty of the Women's Studies and Africana Studies departments say they won't go down without a fight. Merging the two programs, they insist, would erase their autonomy and marginalize groups that have historically faced discrimination.
"We are not ripe for elimination," said Dr. Deborah Plant, chair of the Africana Studies department. "We are ripe for expansion."
The two departments are not without distinction. The USF Women's Studies department publicizes itself as the second-oldest program of its kind in the country, and, like the Africana Studies department, has a small but accomplished faculty. Each department believes that despite the need to cut the budget, academic and operational autonomy is essential to the integrity of the programs.
The protest illustrates the strain between administration and academic departments at a university where budget mismanagement has been a serious issue in the past. Critics of USF's spending priorities point to a proposed new Lakeland campus that would cost up to $200 million.
After a rally on April 22, protesters from both departments and their supporters marched to the administration building, chanting "progress," many bearing signs urging onlookers to "rise up, the system is broken."
The crowd was greeted by USF's Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Ralph Wilcox, who assured them that the university had no intention of eliminating either department.
"If we can realign to retain the degree programs, to retain the tenured faculty, and thirdly, to allow them to retain their identities as departments, while showing greater efficiencies by providing shared operational support," Wilcox said, "then I think we've all accomplished our goals."
He said some on campus have suggested that the two programs are "ripe for elimination," but he insisted that he has "made a commitment to retaining these programs and the tenured faculty in those departments as critically important to this university."
Many in the crowd weren't buying it.
"You say you want to figure out how we can run more efficiently?" Plant said. "We run efficiently. We are bare bones; there are few of us, but our productivity is high. We publish books. We go to major conferences. We have faculty who are world class." She got loud applause that echoed through the breezeway of the administration building.
Throughout Wilcox's question-and-answer session with the crowd of students, faculty and alumni, common themes emerged: marginalization of minorities and women, the lack of transparency in the administrative decision-making process and the administration's apparent lack of concern for students and faculty.
"We turned in a self-study that I was told by someone in your office was completely irrelevant, was stupid and that they would not use it," Plant said. "So what you also don't get is the history of this department. You keep talking about the budget crisis, but we've been in crisis ever since we got here."
Dr. Kim Vaz, chairwoman of the Women's Studies department, refuted Wilcox's claim that the departments would maintain their academic (if not operational) autonomy, saying that a merger would only contribute to the "dearth and deficit" of diversity in the academic affairs departments. It would also, she said, affect funding, tenure and grants available to these departments, making it more difficult for them to aid students and faculty members who have historically faced discrimination.
Perhaps the protest's most poignant moment was when a young white man reached the front of the long line of protesters waiting to ask questions. Dressed in a white button-down shirt and black slacks, he held a crumpled Publix receipt on which his question was written. His voice was steady but his hands were trembling.
"I'm not a member of the Africana Studies or Women's Studies departments," the unidentified student said. "But as a result of what's happening to them, I have relinquished any desire of completing a graduate degree in my own department.
"We are just continuing to force the marginalization of women and African-Americans in America which has been going on for the past 400 years," he continued. "Part of the reason we need these departments is to make up for all patriarchal male domination. This would be the result of not allowing them to maintain their full, operational autonomy."
The crowd, which initially seemed wary about what he might have to say, erupted in cheers.
"Third, I think it would be great if you could publish the documented administrative pay cuts that you say have happened," he said. "And if you could just say a simple yes or no to this because, essentially, you've talked, but you haven't really said anything."
After his speech, the young man's nerves seemed to give out, and he bolted from the line. The protesters, however, were not prepared to let his question go unanswered, and they urged Wilcox to respond.
"Perhaps I didn't hear the question," was his unsatisfying reply. Perhaps — many in the crowd undoubtedly thought — the problem was that Wilcox, USF's administration and the Legislature just aren't listening.