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Ethnic studies merges with American studies dept

The ethnic studies program has merged with the Department of American Studies this semester in what administrators and faculty members called an effort to provide more structured support to the ethnic studies concentration.

Ethnic studies will remain a separate concentration, but faculty members and concentration advisers are now based out of the American studies department, program administrators said.

The concentration was previously managed by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, which moved this fall from its former space at 150 Power St. to its new headquarters at Brown RISD Hillel.

Ethnic studies faculty members remain based at the Power Street location, which is now run by the American studies department.

Faculty members began discussing the possibility of integrating ethnic studies with the American studies department four to five years ago, but plans became more concrete during a retreat for the American studies department in August 2012, said Matthew Guterl, chair of the American studies department and professor of Africana studies.

Those who attended last year’s retreat highlighted ethnic studies concentrators’ concerns over inadequate program resources, Guterl said. Following the retreat, the department sent a memo last fall to University administrators and ethnic studies faculty members about placing ethnic studies within the American studies department, Guterl said.

Ethnic studies faculty members met last fall to discuss the proposed merger, Guterl wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald.

Discussion of the proposal continued throughout the academic year, and Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron emailed ethnic studies concentrators in April notifying them of the impending concentration change, Bergeron wrote in an email to The Herald.

Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12 addressed American studies and ethnic studies faculty members last spring about the planning process the merger, Guterl said.

The ethnic studies concentration had no departmental “home” 12 years ago, when the program was initially placed within the CSREA, said Evelyn Hu-Dehart, professor of American studies and history and director of the ethnic studies concentration.

The CSREA faced a difficult balancing act in running the ethnic studies concentration while conducting research, Hu-Dehart said, a tension that partially motivated the decision to house the concentration in the American studies department.

“We wanted to take the (CSREA), and invest in it as a research center, a public space for public discussion about race and ethnicity, and take the concentration that was underneath it and put it into American studies,” McLaughlin said.

Most ethnic studies faculty members were already working out of the American studies department, McLaughlin said.

“We thought that by moving the concentration into the department, it would be better supported by more faculty and by more staff,” while the CSREA would be freed up to pursue its research programs, McLaughlin said.

Though administrators and faculty members said the integration has proceeded smoothly, some students voiced concerns.

Guterl said several ethnic studies concentrators met with him and McLaughlin last spring to express their “candid and frank” concerns about the concentration being “absorbed” by the American studies department. Students also voiced their desire to be included in discussions over the merger, Guterl said, adding that administrators revised the memo detailing the transition in response to student input.

“When we first heard about this merger … we didn’t like the changes that were happening because they were being done without our input,” said Mariela Martinez ’14, an ethnic studies concentrator who attended the meeting last spring with Guterl and McLaughlin.

Martinez expressed hope that the concentration eventually becomes based in its own department to ensure the program receives sufficient support from the University.

But some faculty members said placing the concentration within the American studies department could benefit both ethnic studies and the American studies concentrations.

“Mostly what I’ve been struck by is the commitment on the part of American studies to ethnic studies,” said Leticia Alvarado, assistant professor of American studies and an ethnic studies concentration adviser.

The American studies department has hired five new ethnic studies scholars, including Alvarado, who said the new hires are part of the department’s engagement with the ethnic studies concentration.

“To me, that’s an incredible commitment on the part of American studies to transform the department to make the questions of ethnic studies central to the study of the Americas,” Alvarado said.