Potential Major Merger Causes Concern

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UC Berkeley students and alumni are vocalizing discontent after hearing that three of the campus's majors - Asian American studies, Chicano/Latino studies and Native American studies - may be reorganized into a single ethnic studies major under a recommendation by an external review committee, while faculty have asserted that the concerns are misguided.

The committee, composed of faculty from other universities with experience in ethnic studies, reviewed the department for the first time since 1992, releasing a report of their findings at the end of September 2009. Among other provisions in the report, the committee recommended that the department incorporate the three majors into individual programs under a comparative ethnic studies major in order to make the department more cohesive.

According to the report, the interaction between the multiple majors in the department has fueled "tensions" relating to shared governance. But responses from alumni groups, students and faculty have been mixed.

In an Oct. 11 statement by the Berkeley Asian American Pacific Islander Alumni Association, the chapter called the pressure to consolidate an "assault" against the department.

"We've seen these kinds of attacks before, disguised through the years," said Steve Woo, an Asian American studies graduate from UC Berkeley and a member of the chapter. "And we're alumni donors. I mean, if you get rid of my major, where does that leave me?"

According to a study responding to the recommendations for the Chicano/Latino studies program, the tensions between departments can be handled without significant reorganization.

Additionally, department officials have stressed that the recommendations are still only a consideration as they deliberate on the future of the department's structure.

"We haven't had a chance to talk with faculty yet," said Thomas Biolsi, chair of the ethnic studies department and professor of Native American studies. "Even if we did go with (the recommendation), the majors would become programs within comparative ethnic studies."

Despite assurances from faculty that no action has yet been taken, various student groups have also protested against the possibility of eliminating the three separate majors. The UC Berkeley Raza community, in an Oct. 6 letter to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, stated one of its demands was for Birgeneau to preserve the three contested majors. Similar concerns were raised during the Oct. 7 day of action in support of public education.

Some faculty have said the reactions have been too quick to judge the situation accurately. According to Biolsi, the ethnic studies faculty will continue to work towards excellence no matter what happens.

"We hear the student concern very clearly," he said. "Students want to make sure that if they come here with interest in majoring in those three areas, they have that option."

Carla Hesse, dean of the social sciences division of letters and sciences, said other recommendations in the report that are being supported by the campus, such as increasing the size of the faculty and making graduate studies programs more competitive, are proof that the campus is dedicated to ethnic studies.

"I don't like the word consolidation because that implies downsizing," she said. "And there is no recommendation in that report that implies cuts. It is a budget neutral, academically driven report."

She added that she wants to ensure the student voice is heard regarding any changes to the department. Hesse said she has agreed to meet on a monthly basis with any parties interested in the on-going process.

"It is a sign of health in academic culture that we have different views," she said. "We're never going to agree about all the decisions, but the important thing is that we agree about the rules."

Katie Nelson of The Daily Californian contributed to this report.


James Zhao covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected]

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