By Michelle Chatman
As summer draws to a close, the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) Sociology Program will not be among the programs to welcome new students this Fall semester. The program, along with several others, was terminated by Board Resolution effective March 2014. Thus, I along with several other faculty, will not be returning as full-time faculty this academic year. Some faculty transitioned into other programs or positions. Others did not.
I offer these reflective thoughts as homage to the academic program that is almost singularly responsible for my scholarly development, and to offer my thoughts on the current state of higher education that would allow a core liberal arts course of study at the city’s only public university to close.
When I was a student at UDC in the 1990s, the Sociology/Anthropology Program (as it was then called) was thriving. We had an active student club whose members were engaged in social science research. The department was nurturing.
As an undergraduate student at UDC I was challenged, intrigued, and prepared for the world beyond my campus. My teachers taught me how to engage with the work of Carol Stack, Elliot Liebow, William Julius Wilson, Melville Herskovits, Johnetta Cole, Niara Sudarkasa, and Zora Neale Hurston. I fell in love with the big questions and the intellectual journey inherent in the discovery of their answers. One of my most memorable experiences as an undergraduate is when our department received funding from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) to allow undergraduate students to conduct social science research.
After I graduated, I sojourned to The Gambia, West Africa for six months initially and again for a year. This real classroom gave me an opportunity to practice what I learned in class and through my student activism. My annual sojourns to The Gambia ran parallel with my graduate studies, and when I completed my Master’s degree, Dr. Walter Redmond asked if I would consider teaching a summer course. I tried it and another love affair had begun. I worked as an adjunct professor for several years until I realized that a career in academia was calling. Dr. Audrey Brown urged me to pursue a doctorate.
Much later, it was Dr. Leslie Richards who welcomed me as a visiting professor in 2011. By then, Anthropology had been dropped from the program’s focus and Dr. Richards was the only full time faculty member in the program. Still, our students were deeply engaged with questions of identity, diversity, inequality and justice, and how the world worked.
The majority of our students were from Washington, DC and other regions of the country, others hailed from regions farther away such as South Korea, Bangladesh, Nepal, St. Thomas, and Ghana. For some of our majors, Sociology was not their first choice.
Yet, as one of my Trinidadian elders says, “What the devil send, God bless,” meaning that a questionable beginning can still have a good outcome. Our program had a good outcome for many students who could only dream of earning an undergraduate degree but who later went on to pursue careers, graduate or professional studies and on the way, obtained salient understanding of society and our world. I ran into my students at a shopping center, the post office, or grocery store and these everyday encounters are metaphoric reminders that education must be attainable for everyone who desires it.
With an emphasis on assessment, student learning outcomes, and return on investment, liberal arts education is under ideological assault. Black and publicly funded schools are even more vulnerable , as we have to argue for our relevance in the 21st Century. We face an era where many are questioning whether the social sciences and humanities are still relevant. This, while numerous studies remind us that employers value the skills that the social science and humanities foster: oral and written communication skills, creativity and critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to work effectively across cultural differences. The dissolution of the Sociology program is evidence of a short-sighted view that is trending in higher education. This view gives more weight to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields versus the social sciences, rather than seeing how they work in tandem to expand our capacity for humanity, justice, and quality of life.
In a city where the income and employment gap continues to widen, alongside stark inequities in housing, education, health, and quality of life, it’s nearly unconscionable that academic programs that promote real social inquiry at the only public four year institution have been lost.
What does this say about our commitment to free thinking within and beyond our diamond? There have been times when our existence was threatened by some of our City Council members; an instability further fueled by an odd and competitive tension between the flagship Campus and the Community College. Although Washington, DC is home to several prestigious, exemplary institutions of higher education, their mission is not the same as ours. They do not share the moral and social justice imperative that is germane to our founding and our mission of providing quality, affordable, comprehensive higher education to the residentsof the District of Columbia.
Introductory Sociology courses are still being offered at the UDC Community College. The Sociology program is currently in Teach-Out status, and currently enrolled students are able to complete their required courses until 2018. I’ve heard that efforts to create an Interdisciplinary Social Sciences program have begun, though I’ve seen no concrete evidence of this.
As for me, I will work as an adjunct professor as my availability permits. Thankfully, several Sociology courses have been incorporated into the Social Work and Human Development degree programs. It was at UDC that I became an activist, an inquirer, a scholar. Regardless of where the next leg of my journey takes me, UDC will always be home.