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Behind Closed Doors: Assessing the Controversial LACS and AFS Merge

By Fanny Belaud | November 6, 2023

The University at Albany has faced and continues to face a storm of student concerns and criticisms over the pivotal merger of the Department of Latin American, Caribbean, and US Latino Studies (LACS) and the Department of Africana American Studies (AFS), raising questions about transparency and the future of the programs. While the merger itself may not yet be set in stone, some claim that it’s a “done deal” behind closed doors, which has left many students concerned.

Student and worker protest against the LACS and AFS merger.

Photo Credit: UAlbany GSEU on / @UAlbanyGSEU

The Current Goal for the Merger

No one body will decide the exact course that this merger will take. UAlbany’s President, Havidán Rodríguez, is in charge of implementing policies adopted by the Board of Regents – the external body that oversees education across multiple universities in New York State. The Provost Carol Kim oversees all academic aspects of the university, including its numerous schools and colleges.

The LACS and AFS departments in particular fall under the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dean Jeanette Altaribba. Professor Walter Little acts as the chair for both LACS and AFS.

“This is the year that we are transitioning into what is the Department. It was announced that the joining is underway, and this is a transitioning era for us to talk about what it’s going to look like moving forward," said Dean Altaribba, who is aiming for the merger to be set in stone for the Fall of 2024.

“It’s not too late, if the university didn’t care or didn’t want these programs they would do nothing. - I think what we see is Dean Altaribba, and academic affairs trying to change the story, try something new, try to figure out a way to generate more interest,” Carleo-Evangelist said.

The Origins of the Merger

According to Dean Altaribba, this merger was proposed to Provost Kim in 2021 as a merger. She specified that the idea for the merger itself was presented to her by two tenured faculty members – she did not mention anyone by name – one in LACS, and one in AFS highlighting their concerns regarding the future of their departments. Dean Altaribba decided it was an option worth exploring and brought it up to the Provost who supported the idea.

However, according to the Director of Communications and university spokesperson Jordan Carleo-Evangelist, “In the fall of 2021, the Provost proposed forming a new school, with its own dean that would have included LACS, and potentially AFS, and other departments to give them more visibility and give them a little bit more of a separation from the biologies and psychologies under the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). CAS is our biggest college, in the number of students, and majors. There are 21 departments and it’s important to recognize that it’s more difficult for some of the smaller departments like LACS, AFS, Women’s and genders studies, language literatures and cultures, to sort of vie for visibility and resources as part of a bigger college.”

President Rodíguez said that when proposed, the faculty within those departments were not in support, so the proposal did not initially go any further than that.

Provost Kim was contacted by the ASP for comment on this with a brief answer sent through Carleo-Evangelist, stating “The merger was Dean Altaribba’s idea with strong support from Provost Kim. Dean Altaribba did not specify which department LACS would join; that was a product of discussion within CAS and these departments themselves.”

However, President Rodíguez did comment on the difference between a merger and the creation of a new college, “A merger is when you combine two programs to create a new program, and basically the identity of the previous programs is erased – You will still have the bachelors degrees that they offer, for example, Latin American Studies offers a Ph.D. through the department of Spanish. That all keeps going on, the faculty, the staff, etc…” President Rodríguez said.

“That [LACS & AFS] would be a merger because that would be two departments combined into one. Potentially under a different name, we’ve asked them [the faculty within those respective departments] to prepare a proposal to review regarding the plans for the future, what they want to do to grow and expand, and the resources they need. In the case of creating in a new college,” President Rodíguez explained, using the new College of Health and Sciences as an example, “it will be a stand-alone entity, with the School of Social Welfare remaining its separate entity under the School of Public Health.”

President Rodíguez emphasized that merging departments encourages interdisciplinary cooperation, which could lead to the development of new academic programs, minors, and majors attracting more students for growth. This could also open up new research opportunities. On the other hand, when it comes to creating a college Rodíguez pointed out that it shares a similar goal of promoting collaborations but also aims to integrate new academic departments into the existing ones.

Student Response and Town Hall Meeting of Oct. 12

On Sept. 28, UAlbany’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized a student-run meeting to discuss the merger, originating with an Instagram post created in reaction to the announcement of the merger.

NAACP UAlbany's post that gathered students to discuss the merger.

Photo Credit: UAlbany NAACP / @ualbany_naacp on Instagram

The Instagram post advertised a meeting, along with a QR code to a Google Forms Petition, made by Deborah Hoyte, the President of the NAACP’s UAlbany chapter, which asked questions about whether people had previously been informed about this decision, and if yes, when they first heard about it. The majority replied that they had not been informed, and had learned about it the day of the gathering through reposts of the NAACP’s original Instagram post.

A Town Hall meeting was held on Oct. 12, by Dean Altaribba, as well as Professor Little in response to the NAACP’s event.

Dean Altaribba addressed an audience member’s question regarding the decision process, saying, “In terms of the decision, Deans, in general, are asked to consider departments and areas where enrollment is very low, where there are challenges with enrollment, and to talk with the provost about any possibilities to improve the situation to help those departments. This comes out of a review of all the enrollments of all the departments, and then in a discussion with the provost decisions [are made for] …how to help these departments go forward.”

The idea for the merger was brought to the Provost by Dean Altaribba after she noticed changes in enrollment. “The total number of undergraduate student majors falling from 34 in 2018 to 11 (five as primary majors; six as their secondary majors) as of Spring 2023, current stats say students coming here to study LACS and or AFS, has been zero as Intended majors,” Dean Altaribba said.

A question raised by the audience stated: “In the event of a merger, do you, as a professor, feel supported by the administration to go through with this merger?”

Professor Little responded, saying “... I feel supported by the Dean, but what I learned as chair of the anthropology department, and what I am learning now in this role, [is that] the deans have very little control, and I don’t feel supported by the President or the Provost. I can’t even schedule an appointment to talk to the provost – I write emails to them and I don’t get a response. I didn’t get a response when I was chair of anthropology. So, no I don’t feel supported by them.”

Though not present for the previous student-run meetings, President Rodríguez was present at an SA Senate meeting on Nov. 1 to address some concerns over the merger on Oct. 26.

Caleb Sapp, the SA Director of Programming and Marketing, commented on the Town Hall meeting at the SAs Senate meeting on Oct. 18, “This meeting was a disappointment, and no information was provided on what a post-merger world would look like.”

When asked by a member of the audience, Maceo Foster (Foster is a member of the ASP, but was not representing the ASP at the meeting), if after three years of deliberation, whether a plan or a consensus had been reached on the structure of this merger and/or if a plan a been made, the answer was “No.”

Dean Altaribba expressed her commitment to trying to find the best solution for everyone, saying, “If I did not care then I would leave three faculty with five students, and then in the coming years that would make it a very big struggle to continue. Part of it is to say, what can we do together? There is no intention of getting rid of any part of this. My intention in part is to see what the vision is of students, or students who might want to come, and what else can we build leading the part that we have, how do we come together to look at areas, to look at topics, to look at subjects that we can grow together that might be things that we [faculty members] don’t really know much about, but that students are even more interested in.”

Additional Remarks

SA President Jalen Rose, who attended the Town Hall meeting, mentioned that Dean Altaribba’s office had not sent an email to the SA President’s Email in four years. The last contact they made was a demand from the Dean of the CAS asking SA to promote events for their office.

“The Student Association is here to empower student voices. It’s our job to be the liaison between the university administration and the undergraduate student body. The university failed to uphold their end of this agreement. They did not notify, inform, or include students on the decision of the merging of these departments,” President Rose said. “I am disappointed in the administration for this massive oversight. Our administration has prided itself on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and did not uphold these values in making their decision to merge these departments.”

Professor Little stated that he had no initial intention of being the chair for both of departments, stating, “In the beginning, I thought I was just going to chair Latin American Studies, I’ve been a long-time affiliate, and I knew this was probably going to happen at some point in my life – what happened from that first discussion to the summer is, the departments were merged. All I know is they were merged. I can’t really say why or how because I am not informed enough myself to say that. At that point I was asked if I would chair both departments.” Professor Little said.

Jasmine, a student employee in the admissions department commented on the lack of enrollment, saying, “When people come in for a tour, the majors that are being promoted the most are the 4+1 programs [which allows students to complete a master’s and bachelor’s degree in less time than it would individually], having representatives from a certain major coming to preach to freshmen about those programs. This was the largest incoming freshman class size we’ve had in a while…. I go to the university hall every day. I see the numbers every day. I do the presentations every day. I do the tours every day. I see the people who are coming in and it is true that not a lot of people are coming as AFS or LACS intended majors, which is unfortunate, but I think it is simply because it’s not being promoted as much as the other programs.”

President Hoyte of UAlbany’s NAACP criticized the university’s system for calculating the success of a program, saying “My question is why isn’t an equitable approach being chosen to measure the success of these departments, I know a lot of people take these classes for electives or minors, and also a lot of people struggle with their advisors and ask for advice saying ‘I want to double major in this’ but are being turned away and discouraged.”

President Rodríguez defended the merger, stating that “The assumption was one year from now, five years from now after the merger, will someone be able to get a degree in Africana Studies? Yes. Will you be able to get a degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies? Yes. How many faculty are you eliminating? Zero. Are we providing more resources to the combined program? Yes, that’s the proposal we asked for.”


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