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LSU is upgrading its African and African American Studies program to department status, the second of its kind in Louisiana. 

Two decades after it was recommended, LSU is launching a department devoted to African and African American studies.

The measure breezed through the LSU Board of Supervisors earlier this month, which means the topic will be elevated from a program to a full-fledged department.

"It is a wonderful time and and an appropriate time for AAA to become a department," Stephen Finley, director of the program, told the board.

LSU would be the first public college or university in Louisiana to create such a department.

Only Tulane University, a private school, has one today.

The plan next faces review from the state Board of Regents, which oversees all higher education institutions. 

Meanwhile, a controversial proposal to require future LSU students to take a course on African American contributions to Louisiana and the rest of America in order to graduate was withdrawn Monday night at the LSU Faculty Senate.

Sponsors said their effort got bogged down in details when the issue cried out for a focus on "anti-blackness" at LSU and elsewhere.

The course addition was backed by the LSU provost and system president.

Critics said last month the proposed class amounted to "left wing racialism."

The action on the new department follows a long and tortured path that began in the 1970s, when Black students repeatedly urged that courses on African American history and culture be added to LSU's curriculum.

An African and African American Studies program was launched in 1994.

The focus was the study of Black people in the United States and worldwide.

A few years later, a consultant hired by the school recommended that the program be upgraded to a department.

Similar departments had sprung up nationwide during the 1970s and 1980s, according to a report submitted to the Board of Supervisors.

But the recommendation went nowhere for 20 years.

Finley said Tuesday he thinks a "confluence of events," including the reaction of students to the death of George Floyd and others last year, helped pave the way for approval of department status.

"I think that was certainly part of it," said Finley, who is associate professor of religious studies and African and African American studies.

Floyd, a Black man, died at the hands of a White police officer in Minneapolis last year, setting off protests worldwide.

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The action comes amid other changes on campus, including the removal of Troy Middleton's name from the main library last year because of questions about the former LSU president's racial views and the review of street and building names with ties to the Confederacy.

The Board of Supervisors was told that giving African and African American studies department status would add prestige to the school.

"A full-fledged AAAS department would place LSU in a leadership position, the SEC and the nation, and magnify its image as a progressive, innovative, ultramodern and forward moving institution of higher education, all of which could give LSU a competitive advantage in the recruitment of African American students and in attracting African American faculty," according to a report that accompanied the recommendation.

LSU officials also noted that Black residents make up about one third of Louisiana, more than half of the city of Baton Rouge and that the school has one of the highest enrollments of Black students of any mostly White colleges in the South.

In a statement Tuesday night, interim LSU president Tom Galligan praised the board's action.

"Student demand, our enrollment trends and Louisiana's incredible diversity call for us to develop a more comprehensive African American Studies Department in our College of Humanities and Social Sciences," Galligan said.

He said the change "helps place LSU in a leadership position in the state, the SEC and the nation."

Department status for African American studies not only carries a certain prestige.

It also means that, unlike a program, it will not depend on faculty from other departments for its operations.

Departments also enjoy more budget and other autonomy than programs.

The Faculty Senate resolution was co-sponsored by Sonja D. Wiley, an associate professor of the Stephenson Department of Entrepreneurship Systems.

"We don't need to rewrite the history books. We simply need to add some truth to the history books," Wiley said last month.

The course was to be African and African American Studies 2000.

It was described as offering "dimensions of African & African American thought and practice in contemporary and historical perspective."

Backers said it was supported by the Black Student-Athlete Association, the African and African American Studies program and the LSU Diversity Roadmap-Diversity Curriculum Committee.

In an email Tuesday, Wiley said the proposal was the victim of "stall tactics, delay techniques and the ultimate watering down of the primary objective" -- confronting "anti blackness" by giving undergraduates access to an anti-racist class.

The other co-sponsor, Cassandra D. Chaney, made the same point.

In an email, Chaney said the Faculty Senate wanted to create subgroups to discuss the issue.

"The creators of the resolution perceived the establishment of these various subgroups as time intensive and unnecessary efforts that would lead nowhere," she said.

Chaney is the J. Franklin Bayhi Endowed Professor of the LSU School of Social Work/Child and Family Studies Program.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.