Faculty question UB’s commitment to diversity

Transnational studies shrink while STEM grows

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Over the last several weeks, UB has outfitted North Campus with banners emblazoned with the phrase “Diversity Sparks Discovery.”

The words reflect the goals of the university’s mission statement, which advertises a diverse environment for faculty and disciplines at UB.

But UB is not living up to its promise of inclusion and diversity on campus, says Cecil Foster, the chair of transnational studies, who came to UB in 2010 to lead the department.He said the university is more interested in funding and growing STEM programs, and the engineering school than in bolstering humanities. His department, he insists, is particularly overlooked.

“We in transnational studies feel that we are in a position where we don’t know where the commitment is really to the department,” Foster said. “For the last two years or so, we feel that we have been treading water – there is a lot of restlessness among the faculty.”

In the past three years, transnational studies has lost five faculty members to other universities. Jose Buscaglia-Salgado left UB and moved to Northeastern University where he is the chair of the cultures, societies and global studies department.

LaKisha Simmons also left UB, and is now an assistant professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Michigan.

Foster said most who left were people of color, and he also sees a lack of women as a danger to the future of the department.

“There are gaps that we need to fill,” Foster said. “One of the things that is of concern to us is a gender issue –– the new [transnational studies] is going to have faculty that is primarily going to be male-based, because all of the females have left TNS and gone elsewhere.”

Attempts by The Spectrum to reach the departedfaculty members for comment were unsuccessful.

Other transnational studies faculty members also question UB’s commitment to diversity, as have other humanities professors in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Y.G. Lulat, an associate professor in transnational studies, is among them.

“On paper, the school is very committed to these things,” Lulat said. “In practice, of course, it’s a different matter.”

As a research university, UB places significant focus on STEM fields. Even during times when the number of overall faculty is shrinking, schools like engineering remain consistently staffed.

From 2004 to 2017, all tenure-track faculty fell 7 percent, a loss of 94 people, 32 of whom were people of color, according to the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs. The CAS saw a faculty decrease of 13 percent. Engineering, management and social work, however, each saw increases in faculty, at 42 percent, 33 percent and 60 percent, respectively. Underrepresented minority tenure-track faculty increased 5.8 percent, despite the university’s goal of 7.7 percent.

Lulat said the university’s commitment to diversity should be wide ranging, applying to students, staff and curriculum.

“The overall mission of the school of course includes the desire to have a diverse student population, but it is also reflected in the curriculum,” Lulat said. “The school wants to ensure that the subject matter it offers in the university reflects a range of different fields, and that includes fields in the liberal arts, which deal with issues of diversity.”

African-American studies used to be independent and began as the black studies program in 1969. It evolved into its own department in 1973. But in 2010, CAS consolidated it, along with Caribbean studies, global gender and American studies, to create transnational studies.

James Pappas, an associate professor in the transnational studies department, served as the chair of African-American studies in its earliest days at UB, and advocated for the department to remain independent.

“The idea was to pit departments against each other, American studies for example, trying to get us to absorb into larger frameworks such as transnational studies,” Pappas said. “I always fought against that because I felt that the department needed its own autonomy. Without that autonomy, there would be no real recognition of our mandate – our mission if you will – to educate African-Americans and the full university component about [our] heritage.”

Pappas saw the absorption as problematic, affecting both the department and the faculty. He said faculty members of color leaving African-American studies took away the essence of African-American studies as an authentic discourse.

“It doesn’t work, and it isolates or marginalizes those faculty because [people of color] never come here to see what we’re doing,” Pappas said. “It sort of [puts them] on a separate landscape.”

Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence Teresa Miller recently left UB after 23 years. During her tenure, Miller created the first diversity and inclusion plan at UB and created the Inclusive Excellence Leadership Council. Despina Stratigakos is currently the interim vice provost. Provost Charles Zukoski said he plans to have a permanent replacement by July 1.

African-American studies and global gender studies have only one dedicated faculty member, even as enrollment rose steadily since fall 2012, according to UB’s Office of Institutional Analysis.

“We are way understaffed, [and] in jeopardy of having support staff being removed or split in their duties, and that’s bad,” Pappas said. “That’s not very so-called supportive of being a part of gaining strength in our department and the university itself.”

Henry Louis Taylor, Jr., a professor in the urban and regional planning department and the founding director of the Center for Urban Studies, stressed the importance of maintaining consistent numbers of people of color among UB faculty in order to build an authentic and welcoming environment. He said there is no “authentic quest for diversity” without adequate minority faculty –– specifically African-American, Latinx and Native men and women.

“When I first came here in 1987, the university had a great deal of interest and a great deal of concern about developments on Buffalo’s East Side, and a great deal of interest and concern about what they call special population groups,” Taylor said. “That concern is no longer there –– we’re not thinking about it in those terms.”

Taylor said UB needs to focus on building an extensive network for people of color.

“You find yourself in a situation where people come and then go because there is nothing unique about holding them here,” Taylor said. “You have to create that thing that’s unique about holding them here. You’ve got to invest those dollars in ways that you would not normally invest them if you are authentically serious about strengthening faculty and students –– you can’t play games with it.”

Taylor envisions a broader image for UB’s transnational studies department –– one that can compete with other colleges and universities across the country.

“Transnational studies becomes the bedrock of this university by [looking toward] Princeton and Harvard,” Taylor said. “Putting in investments and really trying to bring in here some of the best scholars in the country to occupy those positions.”

Foster presented a plan last week he called “new TNS” to the CAS as a way to diversify faculty and to work with all departments and schools across the university. Foster said he wants to make UB “the place for diversity” in the SUNY system.

James Holstun, an English professor, said prioritizing STEM at the expense of humanities programs is not a new trend.

“It has always been the case that the money [at universities] has gone to STEM fields. Fifty years ago, one knew that an engineering major would bring you more money than an English major. It isn’t a mystery,” Holstun said.

Holstun said he feels UB maintains a different mindset toward the arts and sciences.

“What’s happened at UB is something different. It's been a sustained attack on the humanities, social sciences and the arts to the extent that departments are being destroyed,” Holstun said. “At the same time, there has been an overall decrease in faculty numbers, while there has been an increase in the students admitted.”

The department of the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs shows a total increase in students of 12.4 percent from 2004 to 2017.

The Spectrum reached out to CAS Dean Robin Schulze multiple times, but Schulze did not respond in time for print. Schulze held several “town hall” meetings with faculty last week and fielded numerous questions about funding for CAS.

Foster said he hopes to recruit and maintain a welcoming home for all faculty. He stresses the need to receive adequate aid and resources from CAS to do so.

“We look and we see that there are things that are happening on other areas, for example, to the plans that are there for the new [global gender studies],” Foster said. “We are wondering – where are the plans for the new TNS? We are not hearing equally of what is going to happen with TNS.”

Brian Evans is the asst. arts editor and can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com and @BrianEvansSpec.