LSU students table for their African and African American studies program. The program received a promotion to department status on Jan. 15. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Finley)
More than 50 years after the country’s first Black studies department was established and more than 26 years after the establishment of Louisiana State University’s African and African American Studies Program, a Jan. 15 decision by LSU’s Board of Supervisors to upgrade that program into a department is a result of decades of continuous activism, Thomas Durant Jr., the original director of that program said during a phone interview with The Illuminator.
The push began in the late 1960s, Durant said, soon after Black students were first admitted to LSU and their population began to rise. “There were protests,” Durant said. “Students marched into the administration’s building to the Chancellor’s office and made demands.”
But the university claimed it had “insufficient funds and resources” to give students the courses on African and African American culture and history they were demanding, said Durant, who remains a professor at LSU.
LSU didn’t establish its African and African American Studies Program until 1994 and Durant said the university was pushed to do so then after internal pressure from students and external pressure from social justice movements. There was also, he said, a growing and successful Black student-athlete population (of which NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal was the most famous) that made significant money for LSU.
For the first three years, the program was run by a steering committee. Durant was named director in 1997 and remained director until 2001, but he was personally never satisfied with program status and pushed for its promotion into a department, which would bring more autonomy, more credibility, more faculty and more resources.
Durant enlisted the aid of an outside evaluator from Ohio State University who had already established an African American studies department there.
“His recommendation was that we expand the program into a full fledged department,” Durant said. “That was in the year 2000.” Durant said the push to get department status felt hopeless at times, and that the university “wasn’t giving us a high enough priority. It’s like banging your head against the wall and not getting any results.”
A department is a subsection of a college or school faculty curated around a field of study. “A program is much smaller and, in many cases, don’t have the resources and it’s harder to get the same level of respect,” Stephen Finley, the current director of the African and African American studies program, said. “Everybody knows when something is a department, the university is committed to that field or discipline”
“So it makes a big difference,” he said.
“Every report that I turned in to the college from 2016 to 2020 emphasized explicitly the need for more resources and faculty,” Finleysaid. “And that we need to be a department.”
“But what put it over the top was all the responses to the police killing of George Floyd,” he said. “That was a major turning point.”
It’s not unlike what happened in the 1960s, Finley said. San Francisco State created its program in 1968, in the middle of a turbulent decade that included the murders of civil rights workers, the assassinations of civil rights leaders and the formation of the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area. This time around it’s the Black Lives Matter movement, he said.
“This is a move across the country,” Finley said. “And I’d much rather be ahead of that move or a part of it than behind it.”
Justin Martin, a senior political science and African and African American studies major at LSU and a member of LSU’s student council and Alaysia Johnson — the president of the LSU Black Caucus — are two of the most recent students who’ve fought for department status.
Martin, who’s White, said it was important that he show interest in a potential the African and African American studies program promotion to department status “to show a wide array of people are interested.” As a member of the student council, he drafted a resolution calling on the university to make it happen. He and Johnson met with the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences to lobby for the change, but, Martin said, “we were getting the impression this is a lengthy process, it could be a couple semesters, it could be a year.”
The LSU board approved the change five months later. The change still requires approval from the Board of Regents, but that’s “pretty much pro forma,” Finley said.
The change would mean a student can major in African and African American studies and receive a degree from the department with that name rather than receive a liberal arts degree with concentrations in African & African American studies.
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