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The Daily Tar Heel

Defying critics in a shrunken department

Students pursuing African-American studies are proud.

That number would fall precipitously in the next five years, as news of a paper class scheme in the department cast UNC in a national scandal.

By spring 2013, there were 66 majors, according to data from the registrar’s office. The next semester, that number was cut in half.

Now there are 23 students majoring in the renamed Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies. The paper class scheme ended before current undergraduates started college, but the negative voices haven’t stopped.

Junior Abigail Parlier’s Facebook page shows her major, so when the Wainstein report came out, she said, people from her hometown questioned her.

“It would just be like, ‘So, are you going to class? So, I heard all your classes are easy,’” she said.

“Like, no. I work my ass off in all my classes. I go to class, I do my work, they don’t give me easy grades.”

She said she believes her degree will have equal value to any other social science degree.

“Just because people pass off my department as something not very valuable or something that’s easy to be manipulated, that doesn’t determine its worth,” she said. “’Cause, I mean, it’s priceless to me, and I love it. I wouldn’t have my education any other way.”

In spring 2015, one semester after the Wainstein report was released, Parlier had a Swahili class taught by Alphonse Mutima, who’s mentioned in the report.

“I was like oh, sh*t, what’s going to happen,” she said.

But Mutima turned out to be one of her favorite professors, and she said he didn’t cater to athletes.

Mutima and department chairperson Eunice Sahle did not respond to requests for comment. Director of Undergraduate Studies Kenneth Janken declined to comment.

Since 2010, the department’s curriculum and leadership have changed completely, Provost Jim Dean said — but he isn’t surprised by the decline in enrollment.

“A couple of faculty members, out of a large number of faculty members, really unfortunately created a bad reputation for all of them, and it’s really a shame,” he said.

That reputation sticks around, he said, because of a concept known in public relations as the lag effect.

“If you have a really good reputation and you start to do some things that aren’t so good, the reputation holds up for a pretty good while before it really starts to go down,” he said.

“And then when your reputation goes down and you start to do some good things, it takes a long time for your reputation to be restored.”

Dean said he’s tried to go out of his way to support the department and eventually, he expects students to return to the major.

“I know some people have been skeptical of why we would even have a department like this and I find that very, very difficult to even imagine that someone would ask that question,” he said.

“You can’t study history without understanding Africa and the contributions to human development that have been made by Africans in various countries over various years, whether you’re talking about architecture or mathematics or other kinds of culture.”

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In a similar vein, he said studying African-American history is essential to understanding the United States, especially in the South.

A fall 2013 course taught by Janken about the history of the civil rights movement convinced senior Lindsey Terrell to major in the department.

Terrell, who is white, said she still gets questions about why she cares about African-American studies — mostly in her rural hometown. The questioning got worse after the Wainstein report came out.

She said the report was all she could think about for a while, and she worried about the negative perception her professors faced.

“My AAAD instructors are my favorite instructors I’ve had in my life,” she said.

“To think that students or people in general may judge them because of the department they work in, it just breaks my heart.”

Senior Jaelyn Coates is majoring in the department along with political science. When the Wainstein report came out, she said she scheduled an appointment with her adviser to talk things over.

“Ultimately, I came to the decision that it wasn’t about African-American studies,” she said.

“It was about people who made some mistakes in a department, and it could have been any department, and what I didn’t want to do was contribute to the negative voices that were saying things like ‘African-American studies don’t matter’ or ‘it’s not a valid degree.’”

So she kept the major.

“I wanted to be part of the people who were like no, this is important,” Coates said. “This is an important field of study.”