By Phil Brown
This November will mark the 44th anniversary of a sit-in staged by University of Nebraska at Omaha students at the office of the university president in 1969.
The students, who would go on to be dubbed “the Omaha 54”, were members of the campus group Black Liberators for Action on Campus, and their protest was against the lack of voice black students at the university felt. One of their demands was for a black studies department at the school, which at the time had only one course that studied black history.
The sit-in gained notoriety, attracting news coverage and the attention of community leaders. Images of “the Omaha 54” being escorted away by police seemed to strike a chord with the public. Machinations began on campus to start a black studies program of some sort, and with much deliberation, the University decided to devote a whole department to the area of study, one of the first of its kind in the nation.
In the decades since then, the black studies department has struggled almost incessantly to define and defend its place on campus.
Since the 1980s, the department has clashed repeatedly with administrators on topics like budgets and funding. The department was one vote away from being downgraded to a program in 1984.
“I don’t think the university ever really embraced the black studies department as a viable part,” A. B. Hogan, a former Omaha community member who helped rally support for the program in the tenuous 1980s,” told The Reader in 2010.
In the past year, the department has again been embroiled in dispute. Black studies Professors Omowale-Akintunde and Manfred Wogugu filed suit against the University earlier this year in February, alleging unfair treatment in the school’s handling of an internal conflict with then-chair Dr. Nikitah Imani. More than just an interdepartmental argument, the suit reflects the existential struggle of the department over the years.
Court notes reveal that the professors feared that the University was attempting to “prevent it from operating effectively, thus, justifying the elimination of black studies as a department.”
But the conflict of the spring has a happier sequel. The suit was dismissed last month, but the issues at the core of the legal action seem to have been resolved for the time. The plaintiff’s attorney, Sheri Long Cotton, told the Omaha World-Herald that “as far as I know, my clients have pretty much received everything they wanted to receive.”
A change of leadership took place in May, as Dr. Cynthia Robinson was given the appointment of department chair.
Robinson, who began her UNO career as an undergraduate student in 1991, double-majoring in black studies and broadcast production, taught Black Studies as an adjunct from 1997-1999 before focusing on teaching Communications for the majority of her career. However, Robinson has kept a courtesy appointment as black studies faculty since 2006-2007, and even served as interim chair of the department from 2011-2012.
Robinson is squaring up to the task of bringing stability and growth to a department that has become stagnant over the years. Robinson’s main goal is to “strengthen the department,” focusing on relation-ships with faculty, students, UNO community and the Omaha community in general.
“The department of black studies needs stability, and stability comes from this position,” Robinson said.
Another priority is dusting off the department’s textbooks.
“We’re doing a curriculum over-haul,” she said, citing high leader-ship turnover as a factor leading to an outdated curriculum and course catalog.
Robinson is also intent on optimizing the match between her faculty and the courses they teach in terms of expertise. These changes will be reflected in the catalog as early as the coming spring semester.
“It’s doable, it just needs to be done.”
Amidst practical concerns like these, however, there are more pervasive, subtle problems plaguing the department.
One of the most prominent is low major population. When she was a student, Robinson knew maybe one or two fellow black studies majors, and things haven’t seemed to change much in the 24 years since.
“What we need to do is increase the majors,” Robinson said, with only a “handful of majors” the department could claim. The problem they face is an attitude, a culture.
“Part of it is you are dissuaded from majoring in black studies. How are you going to get a job in Black Studies?” Robinson said. The department is focused on answering the question, telling students “This is what you can do with a degree in black studies.”
A contributing factor is the sense of isolation felt by the department.
“We need to make ourselves known,” said Robinson. “We need to gain the respect of the College of Arts and Sciences and the University.”
Making greater efforts to include the community is one of the ways Robinson and her department in-tends to do so. Robinson plans to make the annual Malcolm X Festival in the spring more “community-oriented”, de-emphasizing the stuffy academic stigma of a conference.
Instead of academics and scholars from outside the community, Robinson plans to bring in leaders in Omaha’s community as speakers at the event.
“That’s what we ultimately want to do, to bring the university to the community and the community to the university,” Robinson said.
“Black studies is in a transitional period, but we are here, we are alive, we are vibrant, we are building this department,” Robinson said. “We can do nothing but grow, so that’s what we’re going to do.”