Consideration of a new bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Denver inspired debate at Wednesday’s meeting of the University of Colorado Board of Regents, which ultimately voted to approve the program 6-2.
Regents James Geddes and Sue Sharkey cast the only no votes; Regent Steve Bosley was not in attendance and did not vote.
Before the vote, speaking in support of the proposal, CU Denver Chancellor Don Elliman said ethnic studies is not fundamentally different from other humanities subjects such as philosophy and art history.
“I could argue, given demographic shifts in this country, that it may even be more relevant than some of the traditional subjects we have in humanities,” Elliman said. He acknowledged the question of whether an ethnic studies major serves graduates in seeking jobs; again, he said it doesn’t greatly differ from other humanities degrees.
“I am biased, because I am a product of a liberal arts education,” Elliman said. “I think it’s a wonderful way to learn lifelong learning.”
CU Denver already has in place the courses and faculty necessary to launch the major, Elliman said.
“Every other research campus in Colorado has an ethnic studies major,” said Elliman, who mentioned CU-Boulder, UCCS and Colorado State University. “We are the only research campus without it, which is an anomaly: Here we are, the most diverse campus of any research university in the state. For us to not have (a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies) is a bit of an eyesore.”
Before the vote, Sharkey said the university does a disservice by offering degree programs that don’t lead to specific jobs. “How does a major in ethnic studies prepare a student for a career in business, law or health?”
Replied Elliman, “We have a basic disagreement. I believe in the liberal arts. It teaches how to think critically, how to write and communicate… These are basic skills you’re going to need for the rest of your life.”
CU President Bruce D. Benson said he often talks about the need for college graduates to pursue education in fields with workforce demands, but that studies support the notion that holders of bachelor’s degrees in ethnic studies are successful in the workforce.
“A lot of these people go on to be lawyers,” Benson said. “The pay (of ethnic studies graduates) is commensurate with graduates of other programs in humanities.”
Geddes said he supports the concept of ethnic studies, but has concerns “about how it’s been carried out.”
He said faculty in ethnic studies and other departments don’t do a good enough job of presenting both sides of the political spectrum. “I’ve been on that soapbox since I became a regent.”
Elliman called himself a proponent of the center.
“Politically, I’m as centrist as you can be,” Elliman said. “I take issue with the fact that anyone characterizes Denver faculty (as biased). I can promise you our student body’s diversity almost guarantees there’ll be a diversity of thought on that campus, that there’s a very broad range of political thought and ideological thought in those classrooms.”
Regent Irene Griego said ethnic studies is a subject critical in today’s world.
“We all know the demographics are changing in Colorado and the United States. The critical skill that every employee is going to need is understanding of all cultures,” she said. “It’s important that we have studies that help us promote and understand what inclusiveness means.”
Regent Stephen Ludwig said that, because the board recently approved an ethnic studies program at UCCS, it would be odd to exclude CU Denver.
Regent Kyle Hybl said the board must continue to demand intellectual diversity in classrooms, “and I also believe the vast majority of our faculty probably do a pretty good job of that, and some do a very good job.”
Earlier in the meeting, Hybl introduced the idea of an Academic Prioritization Process, a way of reviewing the viability of existing and proposed degree programs in the face of ongoing diminished state funding and limited resources. He said he hopes the board would be able to engage administration in discussing such a process before possibly voting on a resolution calling for such a process; the target for the resolution vote is the board’s February 2013 meeting.
“The ultimate objective is to make sure, with our limited resources, that we’re intentionally teaching and having students learn what we at CU want them to learn and can afford for them to learn,” Hybl said. “We cannot be everything to everyone.”
The board’s meeting will continue today.