c/o Sydney Kim, Staff Photographer

c/o Sydney Kim, Staff Photographer

In response to Ujamaa’s June 2020 letter to the administration, the College of Letters (COL), an interdisciplinary major for the study of European history, philosophy, and literature, has eliminated the major’s application process starting in the Spring 2021 semester. First years can declare the major from Tuesday, Feb. 23 through Tuesday, March 23 by completing the Major/Minor/Certificate declaration form in WesPortal and the COL declaration Google Form.

In its letter, Ujamaa, the University’s Black student union, demanded an end to all major applications and increased hirings of Black faculty members. The letter names African American Studies; Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; and the COL as examples of predominantly white departments and calls on the College of Social Studies (CSS), the College of East Asian Studies (CEAS), and the COL in particular to end major applications. The COL is the only department singled out for both its application process and underrepresentation of Black faculty and students.

“Application-based majors only work to uphold an illusion of prestige, which carries no intrinsic value when the academic potential of low-income, public school-educated, first-generation, and students of color (particularly Black students), are put at a disadvantage,” the letter reads. “The College of Letters and College of Social Studies majors, in particular, suffer from a severe lack of representation of Black students.”

In addition to changing the curriculum to make it less Eurocentric and more diverse, the COL has reformed its declaration process. The COL previously admitted students to the three-year major based on performance in interviews, writing samples, and academic plans and goals. Instead, the COL will now admit the first 25 students to declare the major. The cap on the number of majors is meant to preserve the colloquia-centered curriculum and close-knit community. The COL will place those who apply after the limit has been met on a waitlist. 

“I think just the idea of there being an application sort of suggested a kind of exclusivity in the COL and even an elitism in the department,” COL Chair and Associate Professor of Philosophy and Letters Tushar Irani said. “That was the vibe I think that many students were getting who might be interested in what we do in the COL, in having an integrated, well-rounded humanities education, but were put off by and maybe had concerns about their own ability to thrive in what they perceive to be an exclusive major. We really wanted to disabuse people of that idea.”

The new declaration form includes the same request for a writing sample and questions about academic history, plans, and goals that the application previously entailed. However, the COL no longer uses these as criteria to evaluate students for the major, but rather to collect information for preliminary advising meetings and encourage students to reflect on their reasons for declaring the major. The COL has also dropped the interview, a requirement since at least 1967, after receiving feedback that students found it to be a source of anxiety.

“Even something as simple as changing the nomenclature, that would help change the sort of energy that people come to the interviews with,” Ujamaa Social Justice Coordinator and COL major Langston Morrison ’21 said. “I think when you have an interview,’ that is formal language.”

Throughout the Fall 2020 semester, COL faculty and class representatives repeatedly met to discuss the letter. The department unanimously voted to eliminate the application in early December, and the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) approved the change at the beginning of the Spring 2021 semester.

“I didn’t even really notice the Ujamaa manifesto, and they [the faculty] were already on it,” COL Senior Class Representative Natasha Patel ’21 said. “Even just the slightest mention of ‘things could be different’ sparks conversation, which is really beautiful.”

In previous years, students applied to the major soon after spring break. However, because the declaration period is earlier and the COL does not need to evaluate applications anymore, the department plans to cultivate relationships between incoming students and faculty members earlier.

c/o Wesleyan University Alumnus (May 1967)

c/o Wesleyan University Alumnus (May 1967)

“It would often be the case that the ball only really started rolling during the [fall] pre-reg period,” Irani said. “And obviously that didn’t give us enough time to get to know the students personally, for them to get to know each other. So we’re hopeful that, now that we have more of the spring semester available to us with this declaration period, we can actually start the sort of cohort-building experience that students sort of flock to the COL for.”

Prior to approving the changes to the declaration, the EPC asked COL to look closer into its application history. According to Irani, the COL used an “elective” process, similar to the new declaration process, around the time of its founding in 1959. The COL developed an application in the 1960s that has changed little before this semester.

“A student who elects this kind of education enters one of the Colleges at the beginning of his sophomore year and with his tutorial committee works out both his program in his area of concentration and his plan of studies in general education,” a COL document from Oct. 1961 explains.

For decades, the COL required majors to study abroad during the second semester of their sophomore year after reaching an advanced level of foreign language study. However, students who did not have the opportunity to begin studying a foreign language before coming to Wesleyan struggled to meet the requirement. To be able to study abroad in France, Morrison completed a summer intensive at Middlebury College.

“I had to take classes at Middlebury [to meet the language requirement], spend more money to go to Middlebury that I wasn’t warned about before,” Morrison said.

Two years ago, the COL changed these requirements to reflect limited or absent foreign language study in many high schools. The COL requires that students learn a language to graduate in the major rather than to declare the major. Currently, majors study abroad during the second semester of their junior year. 

“[The current sophomore class] was the first class that was admitted after this change we instituted, from having a foreign language requirement be an entry requirement to an exit requirement,” Irani said. “And that class has been the most diverse class that I’ve taught in my experience at Wesleyan.”

In the letter, Ujamaa also called on the CSS and the CEAS, the University’s other three-year majors, to eliminate their application processes. According to CEAS Chair Mary Alice Haddad, CEAS has never used its “application” as an evaluation for admission, but rather uses it as an information form. In response to the Ujamaa letter, CEAS has changed the language it uses to describe its declaration process to reflect the purpose behind it. In an email to The Argus, CSS Co-Chair John Bonin denied awareness of the Ujamaa letter. According to Morrison, Ujamaa will continue to follow-up with the CSS and other departments about the demands outlined in the letter. 

“It was our theme for Black history month, Black radical imagination,” Morrison said. “So re-imagining education, re-imagining the COL department.”

First-year students interested in declaring a major in the COL can attend a virtual open house on Friday, March 5, from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm.


Elias Mansell can be reached at emansell@wesleyan.edu

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