Institutional racism was defined by Sir William Macpherson in the UK’s Lawrence report (1999) as: “The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behavior which amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”
Institutional racism appears to be alive and well at the University of Alaska, inadvertent though it may be. The evidence is clear and compelling. The Board of Regents eliminated the sociology degree program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Sociologists do the work needed to address Alaska’s critical social issues: mental health, homelessness and sexual abuse. At UAA, 45% of those in the sociology program are people of color. By eliminating the program, the university denies students the opportunity to attain a degree in sociology and the opportunity to pursue a career of service to their community. That 45% of these students are people of color results in a disproportionately large adverse impact on minorities seeking an education of their choice.
Eliminating the sociology degree will also result in losing our ability to hire Alaskans as sociologists. Wouldn’t they be more committed to making things change for the better here than outsiders? How can eliminating a program that is largely populated by people of color working to gain the tools needed to address pressing needs in their community be a good idea?
The students, community, Legislature, administration and all stakeholders need answers to these questions: How does making the state more dependent on outsiders fulfill the mission of the university? How does eliminating a program that is largely populated by minorities who will work to support those with mental health issues, experiencing homelessness, and a need for safety serve the needs of the state, given these are among our most pressing social issues? What were the other possible choices, and why was sociology deemed the least worthwhile and worthy of elimination? Were the other choices considered also going to disproportionately adversely impact minorities, or was it just this one that would? How does a decision that will result in students leaving the state to pursue a degree in sociology advance the goals of the university and state?
While it is true that fiscal issues need to be addressed, it cannot just be about money. The value the state receives needs to be considered too. It is not clear that value the state receives from the program or the adverse impact on minorities were that well considered this time. This decision needs to be questioned by all stakeholders of the university. The minority groups that will be most impacted by this decision really need some answers regarding why they are the ones holding the short end of the stick (again).
Frank Jeffries is a Professor Emeritus of Management in the College of Business and Public Policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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