At the end of a rarely-traveled Kresge hallway, across from a creaky elevator and plagued by “a hissing noise that goes on all hours of the day” is the small, sunny home of Asian American Studies and the newly-created Latino Studies program.
As an intern for Asian American Studies and former chair of the Latino Studies Program in Alianza, Northwestern’s Hispanic/Latino student organization, Medill junior Arianna Hermosillo spends much of her time in the office. It’s a close community, she says: “Everyone’s super friendly. Talk turns into long conversations in this office.”
But it took nine years for Hermosillo and the Latino Studies department to get that office. The initiative to create a Latino Studies program began nine years ago, in April 2000, when members held a protest at the Rock. More than 800 students signed a petition for Hispanic studies. Six years later, Alianza created the Latino Studies Program ¡Ahora! initiative, and the ASG Senate passed a bill of support.
Three years passed until the Northwestern Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences faculty senate approved the program in an unanimous vote on March 11 of this year.
“That’s not cool. It shouldn’t take nine years,” says Muhammad Safdari, ASG academic director, who is working on installing measures in ASG that would shorten the wait for student groups hoping to start their own programs.
Alianza isn’t the only student group that grappled with the administration over the creation of a new program of studies. Since For Members Only took over the bursar’s office in 1968, tough sells and long waits are indicative of the grueling process to bring the concept for a new program into the classroom. While the administration argues that financial problems prevent them from implementing new programs, student group leaders say the university shouldn’t push the student body’s needs aside for financial reasons.
Taking a stand
In the Rebecca Crown Center on April 12, 1995, 60 students rallied. They stood outside President Henry Bienen’s office and waited, shouting for the president to come out and face the mob. At the least, they wanted him to acknowledge their presence.
Bienen didn’t emerge. At the same time, 17 students began to fast. They set up fort, camping in tents around the Rock. Bienen called the hunger strike “coercion and intimidation,” but it lasted for 23 days before he agreed to look into their demand — a proposal to create an Asian American Studies program.
Only a few months beforehand, Bienen had rejected the Asian American Advisory Board’s (AAAB) proposal, citing budgetary worries. Plans were put in motion to expand Northwestern’s Asian American course offerings, but that wasn’t enough for the AAAB, which wanted its own department — just like Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford or any number of other peer institutions. So they fought.
In May of 1998, before the program logistics had yet been finalized, Bienen told The Daily Northwestern, “It’s gone more slowly than I would have liked. It may be there were good reasons, it may be there weren’t such good reasons.”
“Slowly” was a bit of an exaggeration: The university didn’t hire Ji-Yeon Yuh to be the director of the Asian-American Studies Program until 1999, four years after the hunger strike.
In 1968, For Member’s Only took over the bursar’s office. Students sat outside the office doors holding signs: “Black students occupy this building because the administration has turned a deaf ear.” After 38 hours, the university agreed to settle most of their demands: They committed to enrolling more black students and agreed to provide courses.
However, as with Latino Studies and Asian American Studies, it took several years before President J. Roscoe Miller established the Department of African American Studies. The first classes opened to students in 1972.
The longer it takes to approve a program, the more frustrated students become. “What do we have to do? Do we have to take over the bursar’s office? Do we have to go on a hunger strike?” says Usman Mian, Weinberg senior and creator of the Islamic Studies initiative.
Creating an alliance
Safdari is working with the ASG Academic Committee to set up guidelines and advisers that will make it easier for students to push through academic initiatives. However, even that looks to be a lengthy process: “I’m going to try not to have preconceptions,” Safdari says. As a Weinberg junior, he hopes to set up up a committee to work with student groups that can function after he graduates. The committee will help students create proposals, talk to interested faculty members and work with the administration to speed up the department-creation process.
Until ASG figures out how to help groups appeal to the administration, students are left on their own to plan logistics. The process can be lengthy, but the university doesn’t take a proactive approach in the development, instead appearing to sit back and wait for students and professors to arrange the details.
“As students, there’s only so much that we can do,” Hermosillo says. “I definitely feel that there’s a break in the relationship between administration and students.”
For Latino Studies, the need to connect with the administration meant bringing on anthropology lecturer Monica Russel y Rodriguez as interim director. In order to do the meticulous planning the university requires — finding professors, drafting a budget, planning potential classes — students need a faculty member to mediate the process.
Rüdiger Seesemann, an assistant professor in the religion department, has been helping Mian and Weinberg junior Dulce Acosta-Licea, current head of the initiative, organize and plan a potential Islamic Studies program. But having a faculty member on your side isn’t a guarantee the administration will fast-track your proposal. “I’m really not in a position to take the lead because I’m a non-tenured senior faculty,” Seesemann says.
Keeping up with the economy
The university is not being “antagonistic” with its approach to students’ proposals, says Safdari. “I don’t think they’re making it hard,” he says. The essential problem is a budgetary one — if students were able to find funding for new departments, the process would be shorter.
The costs certainly are high: Safdari estimates it takes about $3 million to start one new program. The university has to bring in new professors and department heads, provide office space and spend significant time planning a new program’s details.
Right now, the university is “being realistic,” Safdari says, citing the shrinking economy and the high cost of starting a new program.
Still, Hermosillo feels the university is being “a little stingy with money.”
Even in a struggling economy, the arguments for allocating funds to support a new, vital program are strong: Northwestern students and faculty consider the school a top-tier research institution, ranked number 12 in the U.S. News & World Report. If it aspires to be a leader in its field, why hasn’t it implemented Islamic Studies, which eight of the top 12 universities already have, and why did it only recently approve Latino Studies, which exists at nine?
“As Northwestern students, we want to see our university be on top. Whether it’s Islamic Studies, science, chemistry, whatever the subject may be — when you go to Northwestern and you pay $50,000 a year, you expect it to have any subject that you want to study,” Mian says.
Mian and Acosta-Licea think the university should keep up with the programs that are offered at comparable institutions and implement them immediately. The university hasn’t stopped the creation of all new programs because of financial problems, and when faculty does establish a new department, it is done quickly. Seesemann notes that though the new Catholic Studies minor took several years to be implemented, it still moved from conceptualization to actualization much quicker than any student-initiated program.
Creating Islamic Studies
Mian is working hand-in-hand with faculty such as Seesemann to create the Islamic Studies program. “The administration does take the students very seriously. It’s not us against the administration, it’s us working with the administration,” says Mian.
One struggle has been the administration’s hesitance to recognize the need for the program. It’s not that the university thinks the program is a bad idea — rather, they don’t necessarily feel it needs to exist outside of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Acosta-Licea has been working to refute that assumption. “[Asian and Middle Eastern Studies] doesn’t give you a complete understanding, so to do that is to very much undermine not only your understanding of Islam but to perpetuate the ignorance that’s in our society,” she says.
The program also suffered a setback after The Daily Northwestern published an editorial that Acosta-Licea, Mian and Seesemann claim implied the program would exist to aid Muslim students’ spiritual growth.
“That is really ridiculous. The idea of this program is to increase the knowledge of all Northwestern students, regardless of their background and whether they’re religious or not,” Acosta-Licea says.
She plans to focus on raising student awareness next year, but Safdari says he’s been impressed with the level of student support that already exists. The creation of an Islamic Studies program was a central tenet of Safdari’s campaign. “There are a lot of open ears… I’m surprised at how receptive other groups are,” he says.
An Islamic Studies program should have been established “yesterday,” Mian says, but he will wait as long as it takes for the university to recognize the need and give Islamic Studies an office. “I think it’s time for the university to definitely step up and endorse this program.”
“I’m pretty sure that Islamic studies program will get established. It’s just a matter of time. Obviously, we’d rather have it sooner than later,” says Mian.