Amid a national debate over academic freedom, inclusion and whether conservative voices are unwelcome on college campuses, the Women’s and Ethnic Studies degree program at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs has been spared from being diminished.
“People are seeing the need for women’s and ethnic studies,” said Stephany Rose Spaulding, director of UCCS’ WEST Department. “The program is definitely safe.”
The status of the undergraduate degree and certificate program, which develops “skills to shape our collective future in ways that foster diversity and equity,” was in a downward spiral last year after a tenured professor resigned.
Peter Braza, the former dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, removed funding for the position last semester and reallocated the money to other departments, Spaulding said.
Doing so “put instability into our program” in terms of growing and developing, she said.
After six years as head of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the campus’ largest school representing about half of all UCCS graduates each year, Braza resigned on Dec. 31, 2018, and returned to teaching.
Interim Dean Robert “Rex” Welshon “did an immediate and thorough review of the process and came to the conclusion that we deserved to get our senior track line back,” Spaulding said.
Rumors that the degree would slide to a minor status and no longer be classified as a major began circulating, but Spaulding said there is now no danger of that happening.
“The fact that the new dean found the department favorable and reinstated that line means we are still in a very good place as a major,” she said.
The department will hire a senior track assistant professor who specializes in Latinx studies, according to Spaulding.
Student Ophelia Blue, who graduated Friday from UCCS with a Women’s and Ethnic Studies degree, said while there has been a lot of pushback from students and faculty to keep the degree intact, she thinks the department needs an overhaul.
“One of my main arguments is that we’re not prepared after we leave because the theoretical knowledge we know is very limited — we don’t read any of the big philosophy or sociology theorists,” she said. “There’s not much I can do with my WEST degree at all.”
Blue also said when students raise dissenting opinions of theoretical works that contradict what’s being discussed in class, “the teachers usually shut them down so aggressively to the point they quit and don’t come back.”
Classes that started with 15 or 20 students at the beginning of the semester often dwindle to half that or less by the end, Blue said.
“When we talk about patriarchy or white supremacy — if anyone brings up anything countering the argument, it’s almost always shut down, pointing a finger at the student,” she said. “It does almost feel like indoctrination.”
Studies cover the gamut of race, gender and sex theories and specifics such as feminism, patriarchy, capitalism and Marxism.
Spaulding says the university community rallied in support of the department because they “understand the benefit that Women’s and Ethnic Studies provides for the campus as well as the community at large, so they came out in favor of us.”
But Blue said conservative groups at UCCS have criticized the department, saying they want it gone.
“It’s been happening since I came to this campus, and it’s only gotten worse,” she said. “Society today is very divided. This situation is very telling of the aggressive fight that’s going on that doesn’t need to be a fight.
“If you talk to conservative people on campus, we usually agree on some points. It’s the vitriolic language that’s harmful.”
Spaulding, a Democrat who has twice run for Congress and is preparing to run again in 2020, said while there’s “heightened political conversations outside of the university,” that’s not occurring in her department.
With the Board of Regents’ recent selection of a new conservative CU-system president, Spaulding said her department is even more important, given “that the CU system is dealing with some concerns around diversity and inclusion with the incoming president.”
Mark Kennedy, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, has said he will focus on enhancing diversity and inclusion on campuses, after his nomination for CU-system president drew criticism from LGBTQ groups, pro-choice activists, immigrants and others.
Among the conditions of his contract is that he must promote diversity, protect freedom of expression and academic freedom, create financial accountability, and ensure access and equality.