Dean Ritter and Dean Pendakur respond to demands of the College of Arts and Sciences voiced by concerned students (Omar Abdul-Rahim/Sun Staff Photographer)

August 23, 2017

Understaffed and Underfunded: Identity-Based Programs Struggle to Keep Up

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“It challenged a lot of the assumptions that I had of the way that gender operates, the way that sexuality operates,” said Hadiyah Chowdhury ’18.

Chowdhury was an undeclared sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences when she decided to enroll in a Feminine, Gender & Sexuality Studies course.

“It was just a totally different way of thinking about gender, thinking about race, honestly,” she said. “We talked a lot about race in that class, because it was about sex and sexuality in a cross-cultural context.”

Following this course, Chowdhury pursued other courses in the discipline and declared a FGSS major, along with anthropology.

Identity studies programs like FGSS and ethnic studies programs like Asian-American Studies have battled numerous problems in recent years, leaving them struggling to match the demand of growing enrollments.

This past spring, students demanded resolutions to these concerns from members of the administration, including Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Gretchen Ritter ’83 and Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur.

In May, more students organized at a meeting with Ritter and Pendakur to address the state of ethnic and identity based programs. Dissatisfied with the meeting, more than half the attendees walked out of the meeting early.

With low numbers of faculty in these programs and one program — LGBT studies — having no appointed faculty, the inevitable result is some students are left unable to pursue classes in identity-related programs and the programs themselves cannot expand.

Shortage of Faculty

Despite what Prof. Durba Ghosh, director of FGSS, refers to as a “high demand” for classes within FGSS, the program is understaffed.

“Our courses fill up very quickly, which is really great,” Ghosh said. “We’ve increased the capacity, so the courses are bigger than they used to be. The challenges that we have are staffing those courses.

FGSS enrollments have almost doubled in the last three years — from around 700 in 2014 to around 1,200 in 2017, according to Samara Selden, FGSS program assistant. Ghosh said juniors and seniors fill up the introductory FGSS courses, preventing underclassman from taking them.

“Now we’re reserving 10 spots in the intro FGSS courses for the first-year students, but that’s still not enough,” she said. “What we’re getting are juniors and seniors who take the intro courses, but they’re not here long enough to take the more advanced courses or take on majors or minors.”

Five faculty members are jointly appointed in FGSS and other departments, according to Ghosh. So far, the program has been able to hire three tenure-track faculty members since 2010.

“While the faculty in the program feel stretched in our ability to staff all the courses we would like to offer, we have not been restricted as much as other departments and programs,” she said.

Ghosh said the college has “done very little hiring” in recent years. She did note that this is soon to change.

“I learned on Friday that the Arts college has increased the number of positions it will fill in 2017- 2018, due, in part, to some new hiring initiatives,” Ghosh wrote in an email in late July.

The College of Arts and Sciences is planning to hire a new faculty member in FGSS and Africana Studies, according to Ghosh.

However, Chowdhury believes there is more work to be done.

“My number one thing would be to hire more people,” she said. “But if they’re doing that, I’m happy to hear that. My only concern is that the administration would hire someone and then be like, ‘we’ve done our job, that’s enough.’”

Another such program, Asian American Studies, has also faced a shortage of faculty, according to Prof. Derek Chang, former director of Asian American Studies. ­

Despite significant student demand — 101 students enrolled in courses cross-listed with AAS last fall semester, and 198 students enrolled last spring semester, according to Chang — the program has a total of 3 professors.

Chang said three professors are appointed to the program and an additional professor offers courses in the College of Human Ecology that are cross-listed with Asian American studies.

He said additional faculty members would allow the program to “teach classes more regularly,” allowing for student demand to become “fairly steady” rather than “fluctuating widely.” In doing so Chang said that Cornell “might be able to grow the program.”

Cornell’s AAS program has kept the same number of faculty, while other universities’ programs have grown, according to Chang. This lack of growth has left Cornell trailing behind.

“I could come up with arguments for having faculty of seven,” Chang said. “There was a time when Cornell was the most important, and in some ways, the most vibrant Asian American studies program outside of the West Coast. Right now, it’s the University of Illinois.”

Latino/a Studies is also in need of more faculty, but in a particular discipline: the social sciences.

Prof. Debra Castillo, director of Latino/a Studies, said the Latino/a studies classes with the largest enrollment numbers are social science courses, in fields like sociology and health. However, a majority of LSP professors are in the humanities.

“We are very aware … that there’s a lot of interest on the part of our students in some of the social studies areas where we don’t have enough faculty,” Castillo said. “We are actively engaged in conversations about new faculty hires particularly in the social science areas.”

“With the student interest moving increasingly towards social sciences, we are planning ahead for a good balance between student needs and faculty expertise,” she continued.

LGBT Studies confronts its unique problem: there are no faculty members appointed to the program.

Instead, the program relies on faculty in other departments volunteering to make their course be a LGBT Studies course.

In fact, the LGBT Studies program was created because of faculty demands in the 1990s, according to Prof. Judith Peraino, director of LGBT Studies.

“LGBT Studies exists because of a negotiation that occurred to retain a faculty member,” Peraino said.

The negotiating faculty member was Prof. Biddy Martin, now president of Amherst College. As a result, the administration started to provide funds for a LGBT lecture series and agreed to hire an English professor who specializes in queer theory, according to Peraino and Prof. Ellis Hanson, English, who was the hired faculty member.

Peraino said that in 1996, faculty created the LGBT Studies program to differentiate it from Women’s Studies. However, little has changed since then.

“No further commitments or funding to the LGBT Studies program has been made by the administration since the 1990s,” she added.

In such situations, Peraino said searching for faculty to teach courses depends on her “work[ing] with the good graces of other departments.”

“When I am trying to staff the Introduction to LGBT Studies, which is a healthy course, I can’t always find someone to staff it because I have to try to work with the good graces of other departments and ask if they will allow their faculty member to get a course release in order to teach the intro course,” she said.

Lack of Administrative Support

In addition to difficulties with student to faculty ratios, many identity-based programs and departments have struggled to serve their students due to minimal administrative assistance.

Without sufficient administrative support, student enrollment, program planning and keeping track of the majors and minors with the programs become greater challenges.

Fiscal cuts in 2010 caused FGSS to reduce its administrative assistant’s position from three-quarter-time to half-time.

“That’s a kind of substantial cut, especially at a time when our enrollments are going up, so we’re dealing with more students,” Ghosh said.

The LGBT Studies program only has one part-time administrative assistant, which it shares with FGSS.

“We’re grossly understaffed in terms of office staff,” Peraino said. “It’s not easy to grow a program when you only have a part-time program manager and only volunteer faculty.”

Program directors may also personally feel the effect of low funding. Peraino’s position itself is minimally compensated.

“The position that I’m in is hardly compensated, so it’s almost completely volunteer,” she said. “A little bit of money. And it goes into my research account.”

Peraino said that directors of departments are exempt from teaching the full course load, as they have administrative work to carry out. But program directors like Peraino still have to teach two courses during the semester.

“If something called the ‘Director of LGBT Studies’ doesn’t get a course release, that severely limits the time that they can put into growing that program,” she said.

Budget Cuts

According to the administration, these problems plaguing ethnic studies and identity programs are partially a result of the University’s fiscal landscape over the past decade.

Ritter told The Sun that Cornell had “significant budget shortfalls” both in 2008 to 2010 and in 2014 to 2015, leading to budget cuts in identity based programs.

“In each case, when the university allocated a reduced budget to the College of Arts and Sciences, we distributed these cuts across the college evenly (with only a few exceptions),” Ritter said in a statement to The Sun.

In 2016, all departments and programs in the College of Arts and Sciences — including ethnic studies programs — received a 0.5 percent cut. Ritter said the college made “additional cuts or pull backs” on departments or programs that could afford them. The chemistry department for example lost $490,000 in 2016, the history department $140,000 and the physics department $25,000.

Ghosh said the budget for FGSS has increased since 2008, partly because the program has hired three faculty members since then. To be able to afford these new faculty members, other parts of the FGSS budget have been stretched. The programming budget for FGSS, for example, is 30 percent less than what it was in 2010, according to Ghosh.

“We’d like to be able to have a really robust group of speakers and high profile people come to visit, particularly because our classes are so popular,” she said.

Other departments and programs were affected by the 2008 fiscal crisis, but their endowments offered them more security.

Prof. Kurt Jordan, director of the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, said the College of Arts and Sciences reduced the archaeology program’s operating budget by 50 percent, from $1000 to $500, after the fiscal crisis of 2008. The budget has not changed since then.

However, much of CIAMS’ funding comes from endowments. These endowments pay for archaeology’s programming and for their postdoc.

“The endowments are good for a program because the program decides how they’re going to be spent,” Jordan said. “The more endowments you have, the less you’re reliant on the college. So that the college stuff can go up and down quite a bit, as the 2008 financial crisis showed, but if you have your own endowment, it’s a lot more stable.”

The English department also has endowed funds that go towards lectures and reading series, according to Prof. Roger Gilbert, chair of English.

However, not all programs can compensate for budget cuts with endowment funding.

As a relatively new program, FGSS does not receive as much alumni-fundings.

“English is different and history is different because they are departments,” Ghosh said. “They are departments that have a pretty big alumni base, that have some independent funding of their own. Programs like FGSS, LGBT, programs like Latino studies or Asian American studies have some of the same issues. These aren’t very old programs. They’re not super well established, so we’re dependent in terms of our funding on the college.”

Students Left as “Quasi-Administrators”

Students of ethnic studies have experienced the effects of low funding firsthand. Rebecca Lee ’18, an Asian American Studies minor, noted that there is there is a “limited” amount of AAS faculty.

“Right now the teaching capacity of the staff is limited because there just isn’t enough,” Lee said. “The limited number just means that there are limited classes available.”

Luckily for Lee and other AAS students, the program submitted a hiring proposal to the dean of Arts & Sciences which was approved this summer, according to Chang.

FGSS is also lacking in certain opportunities. Chowdhury stressed the importance of programming, of which FGSS has little.

“I remember one time actually FGSS brought two spoken word poets to Biotech for an evening of spoken word poetry, and it was incredible,” she said. “It was so good. I would love to see that kind of stuff happening more.”

Students are the ones who ensure that these ethnic studies programs survive, according to Mayra Valadez ’18, a Latino/a studies minor.

“Obviously, the reason why these programs were created oftentimes [was] because the students demanded that they be created,” Valadez said. “So the sustainability of these programs rests on the students themselves, while students should be at Cornell as students and not as quasi-administrators.”

In fact, the onus fell on students this past spring, as they helped the Latino Studies program raise $20,000 to support the program, according to Valadez. Members of the Student Assembly have even proposed that the S.A. give its surplus to ethnic studies programs.

“[It] shouldn’t be an expectation of the students to keep reminding the administrators that they have this commitment to make sure that students of color, who have been continually disenfranchised, can learn from professors who look like them, about their own culture, in what courses they are able to take, in the Ivory Tower,” Valadez said.