Ethnic Studies at the University of Iowa: Possibilities for competitive advantage

by Michael Hill, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University professor of Africana studies, former UI department chair, African American Studies Program

The Ethnic Studies programs at the University of Iowa boast a storied past. While each of the units gestates along alternate timelines and in different circumstances, African American Studies, Latino Studies, and Native American Studies all show the university’s visionary commitment to interdisciplinary research, multicultural awareness, and pedagogical innovation. These programs illustrate the intersection between student support, faculty recruitment/retention, and educational innovation. As the UI defines itself within the challenging environment of the 21st century, its Ethnic Studies programs hold enticing possibilities to grant the school a competitive advantage.

Today’s headlines give us stories filled with vivid accounts of educational achievement gaps, mass incarceration, immigration policies, and land controversies.  If the general public sees these issues as recent landmarks within the landscape of contemporary existence, Ethnic Studies programs note these matters as longstanding topics that order their course offerings and research agendas.  The UI’s Ethnic Studies programs exemplify the benefits of gathering faculty from multiple departments to devise novel outlooks on complex problems. If the results of such gathering include scholarly publications like The Midwest Latino Reader and Invisible Hawkeyes, then the outcomes also include undergraduate students who exult in their exposure to classes that cover variegated cultural experiences. Such attitudes not only bolster academic confidence but also enhance feelings of institutional belonging. By affirming the value of studying minority life, Ethnic Studies programs give all Hawkeyes a chance to grow into a more dynamic community and more desirable future employees.

Faculty enjoy working in units where their teaching and research are understood, encouraged, and appreciated. For many professors, a position that carries these attributes may be more attractive than one with other perks. UI’s Ethnic Studies programs are populated by individuals who illustrate this principal. Filled with award-winning scholars and highly decorated instructors, African American Studies, Latino Studies, and Native American Studies have become destinations both for curious, motivated students and for talented, imaginative faculty. These developments reveal how humanities departments can serve as vital incubators to tackle the leading dilemmas of the contemporary world. As those august aims are pursued, faculty continually feel revived by feedback from ideal interlocutors and chances to showcase their intellectual explorations. The UI must keep these aspects of its identity in mind as it ponders strategies for diversifying the professoriate.

Experiential learning and multi-disciplinary inquiry are buzzwords in current conversations about higher education. If there is much to commend in the experimentation that leads schools to form new departments and centers, then Ethnic Studies programs suggest that legacy interdisciplinary endeavors also hold important lessons. The UI’s units are replete repositories of insight. From the Civil Rights Era through a post-9/11 epoch, the university has been called upon to reinvent itself and to craft nuanced responses to the pressing questions of the moment. African American Studies, Latino Studies, and Native American Studies have met that challenge in the past and are poised to do so again. By infusing the university’s curricular offerings with greater range, these units couple meditation on fundamental verities with a keen awareness of particular cultural iterations. They underscore the school’s commitment to a broad general education program while also stressing the necessity of studying phenomena deeply. If course offerings provide one line of edification, teaching methods also aid this unfolding. The UI’s Ethnic Studies units lead the way in attempts to connect the campus with the larger corridor community.  

The Ethnic Studies programs at the UI magnificently support the institution’s strategic plan. In the coming days, these units will reward the campus, the state, the nation, and the globe with abundant returns on every investment made in their efforts. They will be resources for leaders seeking competitive advantage. As more and more discover their worth, they will be converted to a perspective held by the students, the faculty, and the community members already touched by these entities. Oh, what a day of rejoicing that will be.