The Future of Ethnic Studies at UW-Madison
Surviving in a Rolling Financial
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 1 of 2
It all began some 45 years ago with the protests in the late 1960s — and the Black student strike — that led first to the creation of the Afro-
American Studies Department at UW-Madison. It was an era of low-cost tuition and a strong U.S. and Wisconsin economy with rural
Wisconsin farms and industrial Milwaukee powering the state’s economy. Over the intervening 20 years or so, the Chicano and Latino
Studies, Asian American Studies and American Indian Studies programs would be created, primarily through the advocacy of their
respective communities of color.
Things have changed in the intervening years. Family farms have slowly given way to large commercial farms. Milwaukee lost most of its
industrial base to Southern States and other countries that offered cheaper labor and no unions. Tuition increased well above the rate of
inflation due, in part, to continuously declining financial support for public colleges and universities by state government. The sectors of the
university that seemed to thrive the most were those funded by private and public research dollars, traditional fields of study and those that
had wealthy private benefactors, most often UW alumni who had graduated from those colleges and schools.
Other departments and programs, most notably those in the ethnic studies areas, have experienced declining revenues — and faculty
positions — precisely because their areas of instruction and inquiry deal with ethnic populations that have experienced a historic
disadvantage in attending the university and have been historically impoverished. For instance, the Afro-American Studies Department had
10.75 FTE faculty positions in 2003-2004 and only had 6.75 FTE in 2013-2014.
While in the conventional sense, when an employee leaves a company, their position is almost always immediately filled by the department
involved, when a faculty position in a department becomes open due to retirement or someone leaving for another institution, he position
goes back to the College of Letters & Science, which then must decide after considering budgetary and other matters whether or not to
allow the department to fill the faculty position. It may remain vacant indefinitely. All of the ethnic studies units have been experiencing
declining faculty FTEs.
And while the four ethnic studies units had informally talked for years about how they could collaborate and cooperate, the discussion took
a decisively different turn when in response to the Afro-American Studies Department’s 10-year self-study, it was told by the College of
Letters & Science that it would not be allowed to add faculty positions and was strongly encouraged to explore the merger of the ethnic
studies units into one ethnic studies department, reportedly in response to a desire by the UW Board of Regents to see fewer overall units
in the College of Letters & Science.
The thought of merging the ethnic studies units into an ethnic studies department has ignited an intense discussion on the UW-Madison
campus, a hailstorm of debate, charges and countercharges.
“I think the entire issue has been badly handled,” said Ben Marquez, chair of Chicano and Latino Studies who is a tenured professor in
Political Science. “It could have been done in a more open and overt manner. All of the stakeholders should have been contacted and
negotiated with. We are different from other departments and programs on campus. People have a deep emotional attachment to what it is
that we do. And they see those functions as being threatened at this time. And I think correctly so. One of the most difficult things that I’ve
had to contend with in my academic life is sort of balancing the many faceted aspects of what it means to be affiliated with the Chicano and
Latino Studies Program. I’m an academic. I love my academic research. I love to teach. But at the same time, I think what I do has some
social goals attached to it. And this is why I work for the program even though if the program were to disappear tomorrow, I would still
have my job. And I’m trying to save the program. I’m trying to preserve its functions. And I think everyone affiliated with it wants to see it
While on the surface it may seem that the four ethnic studies units have similarities such as they are each connected with a community of
color that interfaces with the majority Euro-American community, their histories, cultures and issues make any talk of a merger a very deep
and complex discussion.
“It’s the deep complexity of the issue that people need to keep in mind,” Marquez said. “We have many students and community members
who value what we do in this program. But it’s hard to comprehend the larger picture, where does this entity fit into the larger picture of the
university and how it functions and how it is funded? There are a number of models that could be followed. I think the one that brought me
to campus many years ago was a good one. Chicano and Latino studies faculty were brought here on joint appointments. They would have
their tenure appointment in established departments. And at this university, that is where you get your status. That’s where you get your
legitimacy. That’s where your career is invested. And when we came in on joint appointments, we would teach in this area at least half
time or have our courses cross-listed as a way of supporting an intellectual and social agenda outside of our department. That was the idea
that I was brought in under and I actually think that is a pretty good idea. That’s not the only one. Hence, it’s a very complex issue. But it
requires political and fiscal support on the part of the university to support that.”
One of those complexities is how each community of color views itself in relation to the majority culture.
“One of our faculty members in affiliate, Richard Monette who is an attorney and was the tribal chair of his community for many years, very
vigorously asserted and pointed out that for American Indian people, as opposed to many of the other groups that fall under this rubric of
ethnic in the United States, the issue is not inclusion,” said Rand Valentine, chair of the American Indian Studies Program and is tenured in
the Department of Linguistics. “It is sovereignty. And so there is this primary difference of fundamental orientation. And that is at the heart of
the American Indian Studies Program. From that perspective, it is very challenging for people to see how this could work out in a way that
is really best for American Indian Studies.”
One difficulty is finding the right faculty who can basically serve two sometimes divergent goals, the ethnic studies unit’s and their faculty
home department’s. In the case of the programs, they are, in essence, borrowing the services of a faculty member who is tenured with a
specialty in another department. And it is that department that does the hiring of new faculty.
“Many of our faculty is of relatively advanced age,” Valentine said about his program. “I’m the second youngest member. Many of us will be
retiring soon. And the likelihood that our positions will be replaced is very low. These budget crunches have really hurt to the extent that
we simply can’t hire the way that we have in the past. In the case of American Indian Studies, because our tenure homes are elsewhere,
basically some other department has to recognize our scholarship as tenureable within their discipline. The fact that I study Ojibwe is
almost incidental to their interests. They want a linguist, someone who studies language more generally. It’s often not easy to hire people
because there are many, many applicants and maybe 2-3 percent of those would specialize in American Indian languages.”
And it is this complexity of relationships that makes Brenda Plummer, a former chair of Afro-American Studies who is tenured in the History
Department, skeptical that an ethnic studies department would even be feasible.
“Consolidation would produce certain burdens on the faculty,” Plummer said. “People are expected to do research and publish as well as
go to meetings and do administrative work. In a department where you have people in different disciplines, different physical locations on
campus, different tenure homes, and different colleges within the university, constituting a workable and agreeable executive committee
would be a major effort in terms of faculty time and input of effort, which will be drawing away from teaching and research. There are
people in the sciences and public health. It mixes a lot of different types of people who in a conventional department would be in a better
position to communicate with one another and to get departmental business done. It would seem to me that one of the things that you would
have to have in a department that would be as complex as this one that is being proposed, you would have to have some kind of
legislation. Not all departments have constitutions. The history department, for example, does. Smaller departments generally have not
needed to because your people are at hand and you get your business done in a less formal manner. But the drafting of the legislation to get
this behemoth moving, again, is another time suck for the people who would be involved in it. We would have to set policies. How do you
deal with grad students? How do you deal with promotion and tenure? How do you set up criteria for certificates and what you expect of
majors? There are many things that would have to be agreed to.”
It has been basically signaled by the College of Letters & Science that a consolidation of the ethnic studies units would not result in a cut in
resources. But how those resources would be allocated in a new ethnic studies department would be a different matter to decide and could
put the at odds against each other.
“I have heard it unofficially that basically the resources that Afro-Am has been promised such as more staff would basically be the people
who are now classified staff in the ethnic studies programs,” Plummer said. “There would be no loss of staff in terms of loss of jobs. And
those people would simply be transferred into this super department. And supposedly because they are available to Afro-American Studies,
they represent an augmentation of staff. But again, this isn’t new staff. These are people who are already here. I didn’t hear that from anyone
in the administration. I heard that from someone in one of the programs who was told that those staff people would essentially be rerouted
into this new department, if it takes place. If the idea is to just bring those people over into this department and make their services
available to Afro-American Studies, it could be perceived as an increase in staff for Afro-American Studies, as an incentive for Afro-
American Studies to accept and go along with this model.”
And if the new department were to request a faculty hire, in which field of study would they focus on?
“Because Afro-Am has more FTEs, certainly more than Chicano Studies, any hiring that would be done in this super department would not
be hires of people whose primary interest is Afro-American Studies because it’s a wait in line situation,” Plummer said. “If we have X
number of FTEs and another unit has much less, then they will get priority in terms of who they want to hire.”
Resources to Afro-American Studies — or the three ethnic studies programs — could continue to dwindle, but it would be in the obscurity of
the generic ethnic studies department.
Next issue: Discussion of the merits