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 Tuesday, February 27, 2007 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


Ethnic studies celebrates 10 years
By Melanie O. Massengale, communications manager, Mailing Services

Professor Albert Ramirez remembers when a degree in ethnic studies was a distant dream. "Students interested in Native American, African American, or Mexican American cultures had to select courses from different disciplines and had to search throughout the schedule of classes," he said.

The first class of 15 ethnic studies majors graduated in 1996. Today, there are 150 ethnic studies students majoring or minoring in the program, with 50 set to graduate in 2007. "All of our classes are filled to capacity this semester," says Susan Armstrong, program assistant in the department. "These courses also fulfill CU's core requirements for diversity."

At the request of the faculty, Professor Ramirez came out of retirement in 2005 to assume the position of department chair. A faculty member at CU since 1971, Ramirez was rostered in psychology. "At that time, interest was growing among the students for interdisciplinary studies, but there were only two programs, Mexican American (Chicano) studies and Black studies," he said. CSERA, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race in the Americas, evolved in 1987 from the merger of these programs, but only Black studies had a major. In addition, American Indian studies and Asian American studies became part of the CSERA umbrella. American studies was added later. 

"Our problem was that CSERA was not its own department and our faculty were rostered in other departments, so in effect all of us were 'serving two masters,'" Ramirez explained. "Mission and goals could be in conflict between departments." An equally pressing issue was establishing academic credibility in a new field of study. "Emerging disciplines develop their own journals and outlets for publication. How do traditionalists view these sources? Often, they will question the legitimacy of these new outlets." Related to both problems was a third challenge: tenure of faculty. "Our professors needed to establish credentials, but were being judged by faculty in the other, traditional disciplines." With tenure a question mark, recruitment of qualified faculty was difficult in the early stages.

In the end, student activism and faculty support helped greatly to make the quest for an ethnic studies degree a reality. "We had three faculty members up for tenure in the mid 1990s from traditional departments. Students were aware that tenure for them was in question, and there was an outcry from them for a department of ethnic studies that would recognize these professors." Demonstrations, student protests, and a hunger strike drew attention to the proposal for the establishment of a single ethnic studies major under CSERA. Faculty encouragement was also strong, according to Ramirez. Black studies, the only such program with its own major, lent key support. In 1996, the University of Colorado Board of Regents approved the requests for a department of ethnic studies and an undergraduate degree.

What accomplishments does Professor Ramirez celebrate in the 10th year of the program? "I celebrate mainly the establishment of the single undergraduate degree, as well as the quality of the faculty we've brought to the program," he said. "Our faculty is among the strongest nationally in the field." Currently, ethnic studies has nine tenure track faculty, and is conducting national searches for two additional faculty positions. "To be truly successful," Ramirez continued, "We need the master's and Ph.D. programs." He does not expect it to take another 10 years to accomplish this goal, though. "Look for a graduate program in ethnic studies within the next three years."

For more information, visit the ethnic studies website.

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