Latinx program proposal denied despite growing student population

| Senior News Editor

The most recent attempt to lay the groundwork for the establishment of a Latinx studies program was shot down by administrators earlier this month, leaving some of its proponents unsure as to why.

The Latinx program would differ from the already established Latin American studies program, which is housed in the College of Arts & Sciences, in that courses would focus specifically on the Latinx experience in the United States, through an identity-based curriculum rather than a primarily historical and political one.

The latest rejection comes at a time when the population of Hispanic students is rising both nationally and within Washington University. Amidst the University’s recent emphasis on expanding diversity and its approval last spring of an Asian-American studies minor, many are questioning why the Latinx experience is still not adequately represented at Washington University.

According to William Acree, an associate professor of Spanish and a leader in the latest effort to kickstart the Latinx program, peer institutions with established programs dealing with Latinx identity and experiences have an edge in recruiting and retaining students from the growing demographic of college-aged Latinx.

“The Latino student population is considered to be the fastest growing student population across the board. Each year, there’s some 800,000 Latino children who turn 18, which is a huge potential college student population. The U.S. Census projection says that Latinos will constitute around 25 percent of the national population by the year 2020,” Acree said. “All that goes to reinforce the fact that the moment really is now.”

The proposal Acree took part in creating was through his home Department of Romance Languages and Literature with help from a group of colleagues in the Spanish section of Latin American studies, Acree said. He added that their goal was to lay out the framework for growth and faculty commitment.

“This was not a definitive model for how it would look, but it would have jump-started it,” Acree said. “I underscore that term because it’s really crucial to figure out how to start something that would be sustainable.”

Acree does believe that there is a committed group of administrators who do want to see such a program come to fruition.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences Barbara Schaal, a member of the team that reviews proposals for majors and minors each year, said that she envisions Latinx as being a true interdisciplinary program. To ensure such sustained collaboration, she feels that enthusiastic participation of faculty and students with a variety of interests needs to be demonstrated.

“We asked that [the proposal] be revised to broaden the array of topics to include multidisciplinary approaches,” Schaal said. “It’s an exciting area, and I’m looking forward to moving the revised proposal along.”

But those involved in furthering the proposal feel that the rejection came with little to no insight as to what they could improve on and noted there was a strong backing from both students and faculty for the program going in.

“There’s definitely a tremendous amount of commitment among students, there’s a committed group of faculty who don’t work directly in Latino studies on campus but who work in fields that are related, and I count myself among that group,” Acree said.

Senior Itzel Lopez-Hinojosa, a Rodriguez Scholar and co-president of the Association of Latin American Students (ALAS), felt that the proposal’s rejection was unclear.

“It’s dead; they didn’t say why. There was no communication. There were no comments, there was no feedback,” Lopez-Hinojosa said.

Lopez-Hinojosa, a Mexican-American student born to immigrants and the first of her family to attend college in the United States, noted that academic representation for students like her is seriously lacking at Washington University.

“There’s really no one that I see in class that looks like me, that has the same story as me,” Lopez-Hinojosa said. “I think college is supposed to be this place where you experience yourself and figure out who you have been for the last 18 years, and who you want to be, and if there’s nothing that can help me fortify my own identity then why am I even here in the first place?”

Vice Provost Adrienne Davis said she understands how important it can be for a student to fortify their identity in an academic context. She said her decision to major in African-American studies as an undergraduate student shaped her career, leading her, by her own admission, to do research on slavery and then became a law professor.

Davis, though not directly involved in the most recent proposal, has hope for the integration of the Latinx experience into University curriculum, but it’s too soon to say just how. The decision, she said, is part of a bigger consideration regarding how the University should approach race as an area of serious academic inquiry.

Soon after the events in Ferguson, Chancellor Mark Wrighton commissioned Davis and others to think deeply on how to develop the framework for improving diversity and inclusivity on campus. The commission came up with 12 “action items,” one being to explore the possibility of a University-wide race institute.

Davis believes the Latinx studies program is likely to find a home within the institute. Lopez-Hinojosa also serves on the committee working on the proposal for the institute, which will be submitted by late November.

One of the biggest questions they face is the scope of the institute. While an obvious home for it would be in Arts & Sciences, there would be value in extending it to encompass the entire University.

“You can make a compelling case that you can’t really understand the Latinx experience without understanding the law, and public health, and social work, and health disparities, and business and marketing structures,” Davis said.

Though the soon-to-be-proposed race institute holds a promising future for students looking to study the Latinx experience, it’s worth noting that comparable identity and experience based programs focusing on African & African-American Studies and Asian-American Studies have already been established.

Junior Laura Delgado believes the existence of these programs makes an obvious case for the development of a Latinx-focused one.

“It’s not like we feel like we should have a program just because these other groups do,” Delgado said. “But because these groups of people have shaped American society, and as such are worth studying in the context of the U.S. as minorities.”