The Black studies department at Portland State has been called “woefully underfunded,” which Ian Sutherland—a PSU student working toward a degree in social work—believes “is due to a larger unwelcoming environment for people of color on campus as well as systemic and racist indifference.”
In a letter addressed to Dean Matthew Carlson, Provost Susan Jeffords and Interim President Stephen Percy on Dec. 27, Sutherland expressed frustration with insufficient resources PSU has allocated to its Black studies department. Sutherland said he learned this through a fellow classmate and Dr. Ethan Johnson—the Black studies department chair at PSU.
“I have not received any response from the administration so far,” Sutherland said in an email concerning his letter.
“I am not a Black student; I am definitely a white man, but [this] is impacting my education in profound and incredibly useful ways and I felt that it would be a mistake if I took that knowledge in [and] I did not respond to attacks or indifference towards the black studies department,” Sutherland said in an interview.
The Black studies department
The Black studies department celebrated its 50-year anniversary in August 2019. According to the university’s website, PSU became the first college in the Pacific Northwest to offer a program in Black studies. Throughout the last half-century, Black studies at PSU has evolved from an experimental program to a full department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“[The Black studies department has] some non-tenure track faculty and some adjunct faculty, but I would say we’re not really a department,” Johnson said in an interview.
Despite a historic past, Sutherland and Johnson are not satisfied with the Black studies department’s current state. Their criticisms arise from the belief that the department is not being adequately funded.
“I’ve found out that PSU administration has made it feasible for other departments to sustain literally dozens of tenure-track positions, while denying the addition of two to a department that is rapidly shrinking, both in faculty and student engagement,” Sutherland said in his letter.
“The university uses our department to claim that they are doing something and then says to us, ‘Well, you’re not growing so why should we invest in you?’” Johnson said. “But if you don’t invest in something then it [has no value,] and then why would students participate in it?”
“[The university] does brand itself on being the most diverse place; often they put Black people on the front cover of the website,” Johnson continued, “It uses Black people to represent itself but has nothing in place to support Black people, staff, administrators, faculty and students. Nothing.”
The “About PSU” page on the university’s website includes a graphic of the state of Oregon above the statement “Most diverse public university in Oregon.”
The same page contains a link to the university’s five-year strategic plan. Goal four of the plan states: “Portland State University is an access institution with a history of diversity and an emerging focus on addressing racism, equity and inclusion…We must ensure a campus climate that welcomes all students, employees and community partners.”
Letter to the administration
Johnson and Sutherland believe the PSU administration has created an unwelcoming environment for students of diverse backgrounds.
“The university knows that Black students are not graduating, and they know that Black faculty and staff have been leaving and they know that they leave because they are not welcome,” Johnson said. “They have known this for a long time and when they don’t do anything about it substantively—to me…I would say it’s intentional. Inaction as an action is just as intentional.”
“When you’re so flagrantly aware of these injustices and you still don’t even bother to respond to it, that’s disturbing and that is just so clearly wrong,” Sutherland said.
In an email regarding Sutherland’s Letter, Chris Broderick, associate vice president of university communications, said that he was not familiar with the letter and would forward the question to be addressed by CLAS.
Based on his communications with Johnson, Sutherland included in his letter three ways he believes the administration should begin funding the department: Add at least two tenure-track positions in the immediate future, determine why so many person of color students and faculty feel unwelcome and unsafe, and contribute to the Black Bags speaker series that is currently being funded from the already low department budget.
Johnson added to the list by saying, “I think the university is cheating students. I think students deserve to have to take courses focusing on racial inequality, and I think that should be a requirement. This state in particular has a very unique story in relation to racial inequality.”
“I also think that there needs to be an initiative that is directed specifically at Black students,” Johnson continued, “I think there needs to be a program in place that specifically tries to attract, recruit and retain Black students, and I think that Black studies should be, as a department, involved in that.”
Although not completely sure which direction and in which ways he will take this matter, Sutherland has plans to continue working to make a difference in the Black studies department.
“I want to support students of color in protesting and petitioning,” Sutherland said. “I want to get students involved. I’m thinking of developing a flyer, but not necessarily being on the front lines as the white man coming in to save Black studies; that would be ridiculous and condescending.”
Sutherland hopes that all students, even those who are not Black studies majors, will be able to relate to this issue and come together to create change.
“I was encouraged when I first started thinking about this to examine the ways Black studies intersected with my own education,” Sutherland said. “I encourage other students to do the same. Think about not only just Black studies but critical race studies and what they can contribute to your education, whether or not that is directly by taking classes or philosophically by getting an education from in an institution that believes and that funds these things.”