Urban Removal

Wayne State professors attack plan to break up college focused on disadvantaged and minority students.
May 10, 2005

Professors charge that a planned reorganization at Wayne State University will undermine its connections to Detroit, especially to the working and disadvantaged in the city.

Provost Nancy Barrett assured the faculty that no jobs would be lost or courses dropped with her proposal to dissolve the College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs. Rather, departments in CULMA, as the college is known, would be redistributed within the university.

The move is expected to save between $300,000 and $600,000 for the university, which, like many public universities has considered cutting or reorganizing departments in the face of decreased state funding. Barrett told professors she foresees a $20 million shortfall next year in the university’s total budget.

But faculty members say the change would be like raising a white flag to a city that has lost half its population in the last 50 years. "The people in the community see CULMA as a beacon of light. It’s like removing that beacon of light," said Jorge Chinea, director of the college's Center for Chicano-Boricua Studies. "People notice that. I think symbolically it will send a signal that urban affairs are not central to the university."

CULMA was created in 1985 to bring together departments and to attract professors and students focused on addressing the problems facing Detroit. Many of the faculty members agree that the level of cohesion they hoped for materialized only sporadically. But they generally favor a restructuring within the college rather than its dissolution.

One concern that Barrett cited in her proposal was the failure of two Wayne State divisions that serve  non-traditional students, generally working adults, to benefit from being in CULMA.

She added that inclusion in CULMA of the Center for Chicano-Boricua Studies, which serves Latino students, and the Interdisciplinary Studies Department, which generally serves working adults, may even hurt their focus.  Both are divisions that combine features of academic departments (offering courses and conducting research) with student support services. Barrett said both entities would benefit from a broader faculty base and become less fragmented if moved into the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Faculty members disagree. 

“[Barrett] said CULMA lacks focus,” said David Bowen, associate professor in Interdisciplinary Studies.  “But we did not get an answer on how disbanding will improve the program’s focus, rather than fragment it more.”  

Wayne State's Board of Governors will have a final vote on Barrett’s proposal on June 8.  Until then, Barrett has told faculty members that details of the transition, if it is approved as expected, will not be worked out.  Thus, many professors are left to worry about worst-case scenarios.

Chinea is worried that disbanding CULMA will compromise the most innovative parts of his center's efforts for Latino students.  He said that many of his students are first-generation college students who may not have the confidence or the financial savvy to succeed in college. The center has constructed a network of counselors that makes sure Latino students enroll, and helps them succeed and graduate. "If we are taken into the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, I think some of the responsibilities of our counselors would move to the advisors who are there," Chinea said. "But they don’t have the specific experience that we have dealing with these issues."

As a historian who has developed courses within CULMA, Chinea is also concerned about what a move to the more conventional History Department could mean for him.  "Right now I teach interdisciplinary history, with literature, anthropology, education," he said. "If I were in the History Department, I think I would feel obligated to stick to a more traditional program.”

Some faculty and administrators from other departments in CULMA, particularly the Center for Labor Studies, are not particularly worried about the change. Hal Stack, director of that center, said he is sad to see CULMA go, but that, in difficult economic circumstances, he certainly understands.   

"We’ve had years now and millions of dollars and the promise was never achieved," Stack said. "The collaborative efforts never materialized in any major way. Years of poor leadership early on came back to haunt us."

Chinea pointed to some excellent collaboration, such as a study of Hispanic children in Michigan organized by three departments in CULMA, but he agreed that such projects were too rare.  And now he worries that collaborations will become an endangered species. "In Arts and Sciences, departments are much more territorial. They might compete, rather than collaborate."

Stack also said he is not worried, as some professors are that disbanding CULMA will look particularly bad with the University of Michigan opening a new facility to consolidate its programs in the city.  “Michigan has been in the city for years, and they do superb work,” he said.  “We’re still going to do our work, and they’re still going to do theirs.”

Ronald Aronson, a professor in Interdisciplinary Studies, thinks the provost is jumping the gun.  After weak leadership in the early years of CULMA, Dean Alma Young offered some hope.  But she died unexpectedly last year, and a leadership vacuum followed. "We needed stronger administrative leadership, and that was beginning to happen for a while," said Aronson. "But if CULMA goes, we won’t even have the chance.”

Unlike Stack, Aronson thinks the University of Michigan's growth in Detroit will have an impact. "If I were starting my program today, I would call University of Michigan and say, ‘How would you like an urban studies program in Detroit?’"

Some students said they may not have come to Wayne State if not for CULMA. "Going back to school as an adult with younger kids is intimidating," said Doris Pailen, 58, a recent graduate in Interdisciplinary Studies. "You want to feel part of a separate college more tailored to you."

Most faculty expect the Board of Governors to pass the provost’s proposal. "But we’re giving them a fight,” Aronson said. Others, like Stack, are just getting ready to move. "The issue for me is to look beyond what I consider a done deal and make sure my department keeps functioning."


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