An open letter to President Hanna and Provost Rogers-Adkinson

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Black studies minor action statements from Bloomsburg University NAACP. Credit: @naacpbu_ Instagram

*Editor’s note: The following letter is an open letter received from Dr. Safa Saracoglu of the Bloomsburg University Dept. of History regarding the controversy and confusion surrounding the proposed Black Studies minor. According to the BU NAACP chapter, the “Black Studies Minor is a curriculum that explains and critically evaluates examples of anti-Black racism in past and present institutions, policies, cultures and practices.” Dr. Saracoglu sent the letter to all faculty and staff at BU.

Dear President Hanna and Provost Rogers-Adkinson,

I am writing this open letter because I was moved by the student protests Friday and confused by the article [in] the Press-Enterprise on Saturday.

“About 70 students,” says the article, “stood outside in a chilly rain for more than an hour” to protest removal of Ralph Godbolt from his current position as the head of Act 101 program and the insistence of the University Administration to reject the establishment of a Black Studies Minor housed here at BU. The students were there for about two hours. I think their protest should matter to the administrators on this campus who take pride in transparency and shared governance.

Transparency and shared governance were touted as absolute necessities in campus-wide meetings aptly moderated by leading faculty on this campus, Drs. Heather Feldhaus and Kara Shultz. I think it is in our best interest to consider the results of these meetings seriously and this incident gives us the opportunity. Please consider this letter as a call for more inclusive, shared governance on an issue that is very important to many on this campus, whether they are students, faculty, staff and administration. I think it is, it should be, one of the main missions of this university to actively work towards increasing diversity on this campus. I am very encouraged by Tom McGuire’s claims about our University’s commitment to diversity and “the concept of the new minor.” I trust Mr. McGuire is sincere in reflecting the university’s commitment and I hope the administration would consider taking a positive step [toward] transparency and shared governance by incorporating the faculty’s perspective on these issues. After all, creating a diverse and inclusive environment on our campuses is a joint mission for us all.

The two topics the students were protesting might appear to be different from each other. One is about reassignment of someone at a managerial position and the other is creation of a minor that is founded on principles of anti-racism. I have been on this campus long enough to know how increasing diversity through targeted recruitment and retention policies have been a key concern for multiple provosts, presidents and chancellors who came and left. As BU student Kharie Williams reported in the PE article, the Black Studies Minor was (and maybe is) going to be “a program that teaches you to be anti-racist and to speak up for other people” and as such, this program, prepared by Mr. Godbolt and Dr. Devries is most likely to be owned and promoted by committed students like Mr. Willams. I was in the BUCC meeting where this program was discussed and I read the memo sent by our provost comparing the two minors (one already existing in Mansfield and the other proposed here). I believe the program proposed here is superior for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the program being offered here is built not only on anti-racism but also on the relentless efforts of Mr. Godbolt who worked tirelessly to recruit and retain the students, like Mr. Williams, who are willing to protest in the rain to encourage us to move forward with the minor and to keep one of the main driving forces behind the minor, Mr. Godbolt, active in his capacity as someone who connects with these students directly. So these issues are not separate from each other.

Why is the program proposed by Mr. Godbolt and Dr. Devries superior? First, it is based on a coherent and robust foundation that requires three required courses on anti-racism as compared to the alternative, which has no required courses. The first of those required courses, INTSTUDY 120 – Anti‐racism, Equity, and Social Responsibility (which is already a part of our curriculum and being offered by Dr. Devries, regularly) is a general introduction to anti-racism. Dr. Devries, who received a TALE teaching excellence award, has also played a key role in developing the second required course INTSTUDY 220: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Exploring Black Studies. Following the general survey course, this second course aims to teach information literacy to the students of the minor. When approved, this course would also be taught by Dr. Devries, who, according to one of her students who nominated her [for] her well-deserved teaching award, dives into one of the toughest issues in the nation today [racism]…with grace, understanding and pragmatism” while maintaining her ability to “relate, analyze and execute [a] very challenging curriculum.” The third required course INTSTUDY 320 functions as a research course, allowing the students to dive deeper into further exploration in a topics course format. As an outgoing BUCC member, I saw the omnibus forms for these proposed courses (220 and 320) that provided a very solid foundation [for] the minor. I believe the unanimous support by the members of the highest curricular committee and the excitement of the students who are looking forward to take the 220 is a testimony to the academic integrity of this program. I am sure when our provost signs off on these courses, they will be a welcome addition to our curriculum and will go through the same process like all BUCC-approved courses (going through ICC with the new omnibus forms after being integrated to the new GenEd program). That was the consensus of BUCC, anyway. Mr. Mc Guire is quoted in the article praising how the new Gen Ed program has “specific competencies for diversity, equity and inclusion.” I am very happy to hear that and I am certain that these courses, waiting to be approved by our provost, will help us achieve those competencies. In fact, INTSTUDY 120 and the proposed (and unanimously approved) course INTSTUDY 220 have Gen Ed points under our current system. 

The second reason why the program proposed by Mr. Godbolt and Dr. Devries speaks for itself: the student interest. The African American Studies minor at Mansfield has only one (1) student in it. In fact, this one student was reported for 2021-22 academic year and there appears to be zero (0) students enrolled in the minor currently. I believe the “about 70” students protesting in the cold rain indicates the discrepancy in the level of interest [in] the Black Studies Minor proposed here. Perhaps this has to do with the curricular robustness of the proposed minor which has three required classes like many others on this campus (e.g. minor in personal financial planning or the recently BUCC-approved Banking minor with three and four required courses respectively). I am sure the students see the relevance of a robust program based on clear foundations promoting anti-racism. But I believe the student interest also has a lot to do with the organic community that has been created by the tireless efforts of Mr. Godbolt. One of the students mentioned in the article, Hakeem Bacon, expresses this perfectly: Mr. Godbolt “showed [that] he cared” about Mr. Bacon’s success personally. Perhaps that is why Mr. Bacon, who was on academic probation, is on track to be on the dean’s list. Mr. Bacon is one of the many students who were hoping to enroll in the proposed Minor in the Fall of 2022. This “care” (a simple word) involved listening to the difficulties that these students were facing, being an advocate for them in our complicated system and making sure that they finished their homework. Another student, Brittany Stephenson, who was an undergraduate here and a proud graduate student here at BU notes the significance of Mr. Godbolt clearly: “the program depends on Godbolt’s connections.” Mr. Godbolt, these students attest, is an essential part of the current success of ACT 101 as well as the future success of the Black Studies Minor. How does it make sense to try to merge a program based on solid academic foundations approved unanimously by BUCC and with clear student demand on our campus with a program that is not as contemporary and has little demand?

Ms. Stephens and Mr. Bacon point to a very crucial link that connects the current success of Act 101 and the significant potential of the new minor: Mr. Godbolt. I understand that Mr. Godbolt is not a faculty, he is from management, and as such he can be reassigned as the administration sees fit. But I have a minor issue with the way this is presented by Mr. McGuire and a larger point that triggered this letter about transparency and shared governance. Mr. McGuire must not have seen the proposals waiting at the Provost’s desk, because Mr. Godbolt’s is not the contact person on any of the omnibus forms–for the minor or the course proposals. They all list Dr. Devries as the contact person and she presented them to the BUCC. Perhaps this issue is a minor mistake-maybe the reporter misunderstood Mr. McGuire. The larger issue has to do with not providing transparency and not allowing shared governance on the matter of Mr. Godbolt’s reassignment, the main purpose of this lengthy note.

While I understand that it is not the purview of the faculty to determine how managerial positions are staffed, I think we can only benefit from hearing the faculty’s voice on this matter because diversity, recruitment and retention [matter] to all of us. Mr. Godbolt has been instrumental in this university’s and in particular ACT101’s success. The article cites Ms. Brittany Stephenson noting how “last year, the university reported, since 2017, nearly 20% more of those at-risk, first-generation students stay in school after their first year” and that number is up to 25%. Ms. Stephenson has not only been on this campus long enough to personally attest [to] the accuracy of these numbers (she graduated from BU) but also she would know what she is talking about as a graduate student in [the] College of Student Affairs here at BU. Our own university’s press releases point out the same thing. A press release from April 6, 2021 notes how “Act 101 students have increased their first to second-year retention rates by nearly 20 percent (45 to 63.7 percent)” since 2017. Adding how Mr. Godbolt “has put a lot of hard work into helping the students” encouraging them “to participate in the Emerging Scholars program, a program developed and implemented by Godbolt.” According to our own university’s press release this program provides “opportunities for students to develop the skills that will assist them in achieving academic success. The success of the Emerging Scholars Program directly impacted the strong first to second-year retention rates of Act 101 students.” WBRE noted this in promoting the success of Mr. Godbolt (see it yourself here). Mr. Godbolt’s efforts are not limited to the Emerging Scholars Program. Students, faculty and staff associated with the Act 101 office, under Mr. Godbolt’s leadership, have traveled to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to actively recruit students from different high school districts. In fact, 30 students from Philadelphia’s Simon Gratz high school visited our campus recently; our provost would know this because she “liked” the post on Facebook (or is it Meta now? I am confused). Last, but not the least, there is the visit by the First Lady of Pa., also noted in a BU press release from April 28. You can see a wonderful picture of Ms. Brittany Stephenson talking to First Lady Frances Wolf when she was visiting the Basic Needs Shoppe “a food and basic needs pantry designed to support Bloomsburg students” also developed under Mr. Godbolt’s leadership.

It is clear to me that the Black Studies minor is a great addition to our expanding curriculum. It is also clear that the success of the minor is closely linked with its organic link with our ACT101 program. It is clear not only to me but also to the university (based on the press releases and Facebook posts) that Mr. Godbolt plays an essential role in connecting the success of ACT101 with the proposed Black Studies minor which requires no additional resources aside from a single course overload for Fall 2022 semester. The program outline for the minor is there. It is unanimously approved by BUCC. It requires no resources. It is staffed by faculty and staff that has been awarded for teaching and recognized for their services by our university, which, ironically, aims to delay the passing of the minor and remove the link that connects our successful ACT101 with the proposed minor: Mr. Godbolt. I was moved by all of these enough to write this letter to ask our president and provost to reconsider their decision to remove Mr. Godbolt from his current position and I am certain that the model for Black Studies minor proposed by Dr. Devries will prove to be the successful model to lead all three campuses. The unanimous approval of the BUCC, all the other lower curricular committees and dean Brown, attests to that. But [the] removal of Mr. Godbolt and proposed relocation of ACT101 leadership to Lock Haven, which does not have a minor in Black Studies nor a significant and well connected black community, is baffling and utterly detrimental. I urge you to listen to the voices of our students such as Keiana Blanco who expressed her bitterness about how, last week when the First Lady was visiting, our university “used Mr. Ralph for a photo op. The next week they removed him from his position.” She is warning all of us as a current BU student: “There will not be one Black student here.” Do we want to risk becoming a less diverse campus? Can we ask the opinion of the faculty and students involved to determine the fate of ACT101 instead of making a top-down decision? This would be more in-line with the “shared governance” promise given by our administration. Our students and faculty are waiting for you to fulfill that promise.

Sincerely,

Safa

M. Safa Saraçoğlu

Professor, Department of History
Director, Digital Humanities Initiative
Chair, Middle East Studies Minor
258 Arts & Administration Building
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

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