Letter to the editor

I write as a faculty member of the Department of Transnational Studies who has taught at the University at Buffalo for over seven years. Ours is a department that houses several majors – among them African American Studies, American Studies, and Global Gender Studies – that focus on histories of social inequality.

Several of my colleagues have submitted a letter to The Spectrum addressing the controversy over the “White Only” art project. I was not a signatory to the letter but not necessarily because I disagreed with it. Rather, I believe we must redirect our attention from the trees to the forest. The recent campus discussion on public art may give the impression that we are debating an isolated issue. However, it can’t be separated from the broader fact that Transnational Studies – the only department consisting entirely of faculty trained to teach and conduct research on social inequality – is woefully understaffed.

During the past few years, a significant number of Transnational Studies faculty – three last year alone – have taken positions elsewhere or retired. The university administration has not prioritized replacing them. As students nationwide call for 1) a curriculum with more accountability to people of color and 2) recruitment and retention of faculty of color, the University at Buffalo is stalling. I can only conclude from this inaction that the university believes our department’s mission is unimportant. Are we surprised when black students are not comfortable here? Are we to think this wasn’t the case before any art project was installed?

Whose calls for action do and do not have legitimacy? Whose claims to injury are and are not heard? Who can and cannot walk across this campus with full assurance that they belong here? The need for us to hold these difficult discussions will continue. By instilling guidelines for public art as is President Tripathi’s plan, our teaching won’t suddenly become irrelevant. The need for coursework on racism, genocide, and colonialism won’t disappear. Social justice is always a process, never a done deal.

So let’s talk … about public art and other things. Let’s keep on talking. The Department of Transnational Studies can help. However, we can’t do that without adequate staffing.

Cynthia Wu is Associate Professor of Transnational Studies. She is a past recipient of the Milton Plesur Excellence in Teaching Award.