A look at troubling declines in Black students, faculty and the crisis in our Black Studies Program
By: Breona Couloote, Ibtasam Elmaliki, Robin Johnson, Aby Sanchez, Israel Santana
Fifty years ago, City College, situated in the middle of Harlem — the crown jewel of black America — was nearly all white. But in 1969, a group of black and brown student protesters revolted and took charge of the college. The protesters had a list of five demands, including making the racial composition of the college match the diversity of the Harlem community. The students also stipulated that the college create a school of Black and Puerto Rican Studies. Embedded in those two demands was hiring faculty members to teach those students and lead Black Studies. Thanks to that uprising, by 1975, CCNY’s freshman class shifted radically, from 78 percent white to 30 percent.
However, more recently, something insidious has been happening at the institution heralded as one of the most diverse in the country. Ironically, as the 50th anniversary of the student uprising approaches, the number of black students at CCNY is declining, the black faculty is scarce, and the hard-fought Black Studies program is in crisis.
For a number of years, CCNY has been struggling to both enroll and keep black students. Students of color as a whole are increasing but compared to other ethnic groups, the black student population has been in a consistent downtrend, whereas, Asians and Hispanics have grown. According to City Facts, in fall 2000 black students comprised about 40 percent of CCNY’s undergraduate population, but by 2009 that percentage had dropped to 24.8 percent. Fast forward to 2017 (the last available year for statistics): black students made up only 15.4 percent of undergraduates at City College.
To many on campus, it’s clear that the complexion of CCNY has shifted. “When you have a decrease of a certain race, you have a lack of representation,” says senior Dena Habib about the drop in black students. “It’s alarming, so that raises questions on why?”
She wonders if the college is doing enough to support black students – especially those coming from some of New York City’s most troubled high schools. “What resources or opportunities are not being given to them,” Habib says. “Is it something prior to getting into college?”
In the midst of a decline in black students, the numbers of black faculty do not match the diversity of the college. Though our student body is comprised of 82 percent of people of color, 63.9 percent of full-time professors are white, and only 9 percent are black. Though we have some high profile professors, including Gilda Barabino, dean of engineering, other talented and popular black professors have left and not been replaced: Adrienne Petty left two years ago to teach at William and Mary, L’Hereux Lewis-Mccoy is headed to NYU, Cheryl Sterling left over the summer to go to Penn State University, and Venus Green retired and was not replaced. Because of this situation, some students are questioning the credibility of the school, especially given that our institution is situated in Harlem. “You’re having a school not representing the community it’s in,” says Habib. “Reflecting back to my years here I only had two black professors.”
Many black students wish their professors looked more like they do. “When there’s a lack of representation of the people above you, reflecting who you are, you think ‘damn can I do this?’ says finance major Anthony Amaoko. “When all of your professors are white you think there’s no room for you up there. There’s no room for people like me in any institution.”
At the same time, black students and faculty have become scarce, the Black Studies program at CCNY has recently been thrown into crisis. In late August, after serving as director of the program for five years, Dr. Cheryl Sterling resigned. According to Sterling’s resignation email, during her time at CCNY, she was able to increase the number of Black Studies major by over 900 percent and doubled the number of students enrolled in Black Studies courses by adding almost 500 students across the campus. But CCNY has not been able to secure a replacement since the semester began, the budget has been cut, programming has ground to a halt and the future of the program has become clouded with uncertainty.
Over the years, the Black Studies Program has had its share of controversies. As a result of the 1969 uprising on the CCNY campus, the Black Studies Department was first created in the early 1970s. Dr. Leonard Jeffries became the first chairman of the new department and served for 20 years. But he became a center of public controversy with his claims that Jews financed the slave trade and that whites were “ice people,” and Africans “sun people.” When the college tried to fire him, he took his battle to court. (He won, but the federal appeals court reversed the decision in 1995.) Eventually, in 1996, CCNY announced that the black studies department would be downgraded to a program due to financial concerns.
Though Sterling revived the program, without her, it lacks full-time faculty to match the numbers of majors and minors. Adjuncts and professors affiliated with other programs teach the vast majority of Black Studies courses. (Two full-time MCA professors, Michael Gillespie, and Boukary Sawadogo, each devote half of their time to Black Studies.) This uncertain teaching environment affects students since they run the risk every semester of losing a professor in the middle of it and without consistent coordination, the program is generally unable to host lectures and other events.
After the news broke about Sterling’s departure, the executive committee of the Black Studies program released a statement on October 10th attempting to calm the waters. The statement detailed the 50 percent drop in the program’s yearly budget as well as the loss of faculty. “In the last three years, the program has lost seven full-time faculty members to retirement or positions elsewhere and experienced budget cuts.”
What’s happening at City – CUNY’s largest Black Studies program — mirrors university-wide efforts to keep Black Studies departments and programs strong and to increase black faculty. In late September at a hearing of the New York City Council’s Higher Education Committee lawmakers chided interim Chancellor Vita Rabinowitz about the lack of full-time black faculty at the university. Black faculty make up 12.3 percent of CUNY’s workforce. (Click here to watch the hearing.)
As CCNY’s program flounders, some students complain that they now have fewer Black Studies classes to choose from. “My first and second semester I feel like there were a number of options for classes. I couldn’t choose — everything was interesting,” says Black Studies major Briah Foster. “But this semester I feel like the options have definitely decreased. There’s not a range in classes to pick from and the times aren’t accommodating either.”
Andrea Rondon, a senior at CCNY worries about this lack of Black Studies faculty. “Not having enough faculty members to teach, it becomes an issue of how can this program thrive,” she says. “How can we engage this program, it’s supposed to be a cultural program for a specific community to learn of this history. How can we do this without the funds to do so.”
A school as diverse as CCNY with a colorful history of protest, should not be going backwards as far as black students, faculty and its Black Studies program. “Every year I think only about half of 1 percent of people with PhDs are black men,” says Norval Soleyn, the program director for the Urban Mentoring and Achievement Network at CCNY.
Soleyn suggests that to create a more diverse body of students and faculty, the university advocates for better college preparation in grade school. “They [black professors] won’t exist unless we start getting more students to graduate college,” he says. “And you can’t have that if you don’t have more students getting into college.”
There will be a meeting on Thursday October 6 from 12 to 2 PM in NAC 0/201 to discuss the Black Studies program crisis.