The University of Texas at Austin has created a new academic department devoted to studying the experiences of African Americans, indigenous Africans and people of African descent around the world and an affiliated institute that will focus on urban policy.
The Department of African and African Diaspora Studies was formally established by the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board in November and is preparing to hire faculty and offer courses and degrees by the fall. The department will work closely with the new Institute for Critical Urban Policy, which has been created with the support of members of the Texas legislature.
University alumnus Joe Jamail has made a gift of $1 million to fund an endowed chair in the department.
"It's a major step forward," Anthropology Professor Edmund T. Gordon said of the new department, which he will chair. "These types of programs are very rare. It will be the only Black studies department in Texas and, when established, the only Ph.D.-offering program in the south and southwest."
Currently, about 30 students major in African American Studies through the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. Gordon hopes to double that number within a few years and to hire 10 full-time faculty members from outside the university within five years.
"This is a landmark event for The University of Texas at Austin," said President William Powers Jr., whose support was instrumental in establishing the department and institute. "Not only will the new department and institute offer world-class educational and research opportunities, they also demonstrate the university's ongoing commitment to diversity and to pursuing understudied areas of scholarship."
The department will offer bachelor's degrees this fall. It is applying for approval from the Coordinating Board to begin offering master's degrees and doctoral degrees in the future.
"The important part of the process up until now was keeping our eyes on the prize," said Warfield Center Director and Theatre and Dance Professor Omi Osun Joni L. Jones. "To create what we're beginning to imagine is thrilling."
Several faculty members in the new department will also be affiliated with the institute, where they will research, analyze and gather data on the state's African American population and promote scholarship on urban issues. University officials are currently searching for a director to head up the institute beginning this fall.
"The new department is poised to make the University of Texas at Austin one of the premiere schools in the nation for African Diaspora Studies," said Randy L. Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. "It will be a place where scholars in history, literature, anthropology and other disciplines come together to further our understanding of the African Diaspora experience and train the next generation of students."
The university was closed to African Americans until the United States Supreme Court ruled in the 1950 case of Sweatt v. Painter that it was required to admit African Americans to its law school.
The university established an Afro-American Studies Program in 1969 and, in 2007, renamed what had become the Center for African and African American Studies for former Director John L. Warfield.
The Warfield Center will continue to operate after the department is created. It will oversee programs, lectures, faculty and student research, community collaborations and other cultural and educational opportunities on campus. The center's classroom teaching responsibilities will be transferred to the new department and expanded.
Sophomore and African American Studies major Diane Enobabor said she believes the new department will increase research opportunities for students.
"The major has given me a stronger sense of self awareness," said Enobabor, an Arlington native who also majors in Government and Latin American Studies. "The new department will be a centralized place for students to study these important issues and learn that Africans and the African experience are not monolithic."
State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, is among a group of lawmakers who has supported the creation of the new department and institute. He praised the move.
"This will be an invaluable resource to the legislature as we work to address issues facing the African American and rapidly growing urban population of our state," Turner said.