Wherefore Cultural Centers at UIUC? A New Way Forward

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On February 20, 1969, J.W. Peltason, the first Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana (UIUC) and the Faculty Senate began the process to establish the Black Cultural Program-commonly referred to as the Black Cultural Center. Three major factors motivated this action:

1. A Mass arrest of black students (many from Chicago) and Urbana-Champaign stakeholders at the Illini Union;

2. Intense political pressure for such a center coming from the Black Student Association, black law students, and white students; and,

3. Realization by Chancellor Peltason that one major impediment to implementing his educational opportunities initiative for the “disadvantaged” (commonly referred to as “Project 500”) was recreational rather than academic in nature.

The Chancellor’s negotiators “agreed in principal to the establishment of a cultural center, provided it was a supportive unit of the Special Educational Opportunities Program.” On the other hand, numerous individuals argued that any Black Cultural Center should serve all students and stakeholders. Conflict between these political positions made for a lack of clarity with respect to the purpose of the proposed center. This was a common problem in colleges and universities across the United States where cultural centers were established without the benefit of empirical analysis.

The murky vision was perpetuated through cultural and structural factors in the history of the Center. Establishing the Black Cultural Center at UIUC as, primarily, a support for the 500 Project meant that it would fall under the aegis of Student Services-now Student Affairs. This translated into a blurring of academic and support functions that, while not inherently problematic, tended toward inconsistent integration of both. At the outset, Center directors designed programs and activities informed by a Black Cultural Nationalist and Pan Africanist perspective. These perspectives were new to those embedded within the mainstream academic cultural arena. Well-meaning administrators did not understand these perspectives and so programming oversight was idiosyncratic to each subsequent director. This,  coupled with campus leaders’ perceptions that the Black Cultural Center was a temporary and peripheral (read palliative) program, translated into neglect. The Chancellor’s Office spent little time or effort to develop and sustain meaningful  capacity for the Center; whether that be in the form of mission, unit location in the institutional/organizational structure, or facilities.

When the fifth Center director, Robert Ray, resigned in 1973, he wrote:

“The problem of a [lack o] clearly defined purpose has been singularly the most distressing problem of my two-year tenure as director, and I suspect of each of the other directors. There is no clearly defined relationship between this program and any other administrative unit on campus.”

Thirty-nine years later, this problem remains-though it has become even more diverse. Most student affairs units are modeled on the Black Cultural Program – that is, they are idiosyncratic and left, for the most part, to sink or swim without direction from UIUC administration. There are currently two “Resource” units, and six additional units identified as Cultural Programs:

1. The Bruce D. Nesbitt African-American Cultural Center (formerly designated to be named the Edgar Hoults Black Cultural Center);

2. The Women’s Resource Center;

3. The Native American House;

4. The Asian American Cultural Center;

5. Japan House;

6. LaCasa Cultural Latina;

7. The Hillel Foundation; and,

8. The Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center.

An additional program, The Cosmopolitan Multicultural House, was recently closed.

Campus administrators have recently budgeted a whopping $210,000 to assess the architectural feasibility of designing a building in which the aforementioned Student Affairs’ programs can be housed together while maintaining each unit’s autonomy. The financial rationale for moving the units into a combined space is sound, it would be cheaper than establishing a new building for each unit. This would also fit right in with the university’s current efforts at downsizing (on the quiet). However, there are many non-fiscal questions that should be addressed. For example:

1. Cultural recreation remains a critical ingredient for successful recruitment and retention of all students. Further, students and stakeholders are known to self-segregate when it comes to recreational activities. Does bringing together groups that have historical and current tensions accelerate flight from programs (and the institution as a whole)?

2. Housing programs with murky and diverse conceptual foundations together may lead to segmented programming. Will this result in costly activity duplication and scheduling issues?

3. The North garage on University and Goodwin has had space available since 2004. Understandably, administrators have been waiting for a paying tenant. There are likely other unused spaces across the campus. Given this, are we currently utilizing space in an effective and efficient manner?

These (and other) questions highlight a need for further reflection before any decisions are made. What should administrators do now? First, perhaps they should revisit the current space availabilities. Second, as recommended by the UIUC Faculty Senate, the administration should not combine academic and support units. In fact, if the administration were to relocate the ethnic and women’s studies programs in a “brownstone” design, this would bring academic units together without sacrificing their autonomy. Organizational isolation and conflict would be significantly reduced. Inter-disciplinary collaboration could also occur more naturally-something for which the university has been calling for years. Take, for example, relations between black studies and women’s studies. Education scholar Johnella E. Butler writes:

“Black studies and women’s studies have clear affinities. Both enterprises have strong roots in movements for social change; both cement the connections between theory and practice, between the academy and the world. Black studies and women’s studies offer definitions and critiques of culture, analyses of oppression and, as inter-disciplinary undertakings, challenge the traditional compartmentalization of knowledge.”

Third, for a change, appropriately conceptualize each unit under Student Affairs supervision. Administrators have operated under the premise that these units are extras for students. This is in conflict with Chancellor Peltason’s original mandate that such programs should also serve the Urbana-Champaign community as part of the university’s public service responsibilities (though Cultural Center staff have consistently worked to develop programs that serve all stakeholders). This isn’t mission creep, it’s a creepy mission.

Chancellor Wise should move to incorporate cultural and resource programs into the university in ways that are aligned with the mission of the university. Administrators can then boast that they are good stewards of donor and taxpayer money in these financially and legally challenging times. This would also ensure the longevity of these programs. There is no doubt that the footprint of the academy must become smaller and resources (including human ones) be repurposed. Taxpayers are aware that there is a growing and disturbing prosperity gap in Illinois. They want our universities to be the light in the tunnel. So, I say to the administration, “lead the way.” In order to do that effectively, all stakeholders-especially administrators, must seriously consider new ideas.


About Terry Townsend

Terry Townsend participated in Project 500. He is a former Champaign County Housing Authority commissioner, and a long-time community activist.
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