The African American Cultural Center, which was created to establish a welcoming environment for African-American students at the University, was absorbed by another office this summer.

The six programs it housed, including the Abeneefoo Kuo Honor Society and Black Theatrical Ensemble, were transferred to the Multicultural Services and Programs Office, a move which Dean of Students Bill McDonald said was considered after three key positions were left vacant over the summer.

“The catalyst for moving the African American Cultural Center back into Multicultural Services and Programs was that all three of our full-time positions were vacated,” McDonald said. “We chose it was more efficient to streamline, and it would build more unity among all our students.”

The former senior coordinator left to accept a position with another university in June.

However, former Director LaRetha Spain-Shuler and former Assistant Director Amy Anderson vacated their positions in May. 

University officials said they could not legally speak on issues involving terminated personnel. 

Spain-Shuler was “alleged to have engaged in egregious conduct that is not compatible with [Spain-Shuler’s] continued employment with the University of Georgia,” according to a May 1 email from McDonald to Spain-Shuler obtained by The Red & Black. Spain-Shuler’s firing was effective May 8, according to the email.

The Red & Black tried to speak with Spain-Shuler and Anderson, but neither were available for comment.

McDonald said the unexpected release of the two positions led to the changes in the cultural center, but he did not say what led to the termination of the positions.

“We had some changes in the [cultural center] staff, so that all our positions were open,” McDonald said. “We could have chosen to rehire, but we wanted to experiment and see how this works.”

But some familiar with the cultural center and its organizations are concerned about the changes and the way they were brought about.

Sequoia Bates, a 2012 graduate who held leadership roles in both the Multicultural Services and Programs office and AACC, said the merger left questions unanswered.

“The programs that the cultural center held were unique within the African-American community,” Bates said. “Why was it done in such a time when there weren’t students on campus? In terms of support services for minorities, there is that advocacy aspect, and this cultural center is needed. Even if it wasn’t needed, the University has a responsibility to address the community at large and discuss it.”

McDonald sent an email informing students of the changes in July and announced the decision to merge officially at an Aug. 11 leadership retreat. The move wasn’t unprecedented — the cultural center was a part of Multicultural Services and Programs until 2005.

McDonald said he has stayed transparent during the process but realizes that not everyone will agree with the changes.

“My goal is to be very open about it,” McDonald said. “My goal is to say these were my decisions. My goal is to say I understand that not everybody might agree with it, but I at least hope that they understand it. That’s my goal.”

A missing identity

There’s a lot in a name.

The history of a particular program is tied to its name. It’s how University alumni associate a program. Students who may have heard the name from relatives will search for it when they arrive on campus.

So when Kameron Dawson, the President of the ABK Honor Society, heard about the merger, her first concern would be that the cultural center would lose its identity.

“We weren’t really under a big umbrella [before],” Dawson said. “I was mostly concerned with how we were treated...and trying to figure out a way to keep the name, the African American Cultural Center.”

But her efforts were unsuccessful and the former cultural center programs became individual organizations within the Multicultural Services and Programs Office.

“We didn’t really get the chance to fight for it,” Dawson said. “It’s something I’m still thinking about fighting for just because it’s been around for so long.”

Dawson said she felt helpless to the changes.

“As students, the way I feel is we can only do so much,” she said. “You don’t want to be too radical and lose your spot. If at the very least, we can get the name back, that would be enough for me.”

The next concern was budgetary. In order to keep its identity, the former programs needed enough money to continue their services.

It wasn’t clear whether the cultural center would continue to receive the same funds it received as a stand-alone program or if its former programs would be lost in the budgeting shuffle.

“Because if they don’t have their own budget, with the budget cuts, those programs might not be able to be done anymore,” Bates said. “There may not be enough money...What happens five years down the line if they say, ‘We don’t have the budget, so we’re going to cut the [Multicultural Services and Programs] as well.’”

This year’s budget remains the same as last fiscal year.

The cultural center, despite being tied structurally to the Multicultural Services and Programs Office, was given a stand-alone budget for fiscal year 2013: $185,948, about $400 more than last fiscal year’s amount, according to the University budget.

McDonald did not rule out the possibility that the monetary amount, and its stand-alone function, could change in the future.

“They are [separate] from a budget standpoint, but you have a staff that is supervising both [offices],” McDonald said. “That’s how it is. That’s not to say that at some point we might not merge the two. The state is saying that we have to cut between 1 to 2 percent of our budget. I’m not saying those areas will be picked to cut or not, but...all areas may be potentially cut.”

A place to call their own

Miguel Hernandez, the director of Multicultural Services and Programs, steps out of his office and a graduate assistant asks for his signature. A few steps later and he’s talking to one of the many students he serves, asking if she’s writing an essay. She says no, but that she’d like to talk to him later. Later on, he mentions he has three recommendation letters to write and that if he doesn’t lock himself in his office, it won’t get done.

Hernandez is busy, and his job has become even busier with the addition of the former cultural center programs to his office.

But the extra work doesn’t bother him. He greets each student as a family member, calling them “friend.” He knows the students, which makes him confident the merger will be a success, despite others’ concerns.

“I would never say someone else’s concern is not valid,” Hernandez said. “For me, I don’t have that concern because I know the passion that our student organizations have to fulfill their purpose, their missions, their objectives. My job is like a coach.”

The coach has had a more difficult job as of late. With the decision to return the AACC to Multicultural Services and Programs, Hernandez has been tasked with making certain that annual programs intrinsic to both groups continue. It means planning far ahead and requesting monetary assistance early in the process.

“With the merger, I didn’t have a lot of time,” Hernandez said.

He said he heard about the change July 9. Within two weeks, he made certain that Rite of Sankofa, Kwanzaa and Black History Month would all be funded for the upcoming year. He knew the first concern would be that former cultural center programs might not continue after the transition.

“I don’t want to drop the ball,” Hernandez said. “I don’t want to let anyone down in that sense.”

But the conversion from two entities to one is about more than maintaining programs. It’s also about finding the room to house a larger, more diverse office.

“The second thing to make this transition work is to put everyone together,” Hernandez said. “It’s about physical space. It’s about the ability to walk next door and sit knee to knee and say, ‘Hey...I have an idea.’”

The former cultural center programs and the traditional groups within Multicultural Services and Programs have been sharing offices since August.

Douglas Hernandez, the president of the Asian American Student Association, said the dynamic was positive despite cramped quarters.

“I did not know much about [the cultural center] to begin with. I didn’t even know they were on the fourth floor of the same building that we were on,” Douglas Hernandez said. “But now I’m stuck with them. Not in a bad way. We’re family. We exchange smiles.”

And a solution to the size problem already was in the works. The University had approved plans to move most of the programs to the fourth floor of Memorial Hall. Seven rooms were originally being prepared, but after the decision to merge the two offices, plans to add seven more rooms were finalized.

“Having everyone on the same floor will continue that desire to bring [the programs] together,” Miguel Hernandez said. “I’m not going to put [cultural center] groups on one side of the floor and Multicultural Services and Programs groups on the other. We’re one family now. We’re going to mix and mingle...so they can continue getting to know each other and building relationships.”

Moving upstairs is an ongoing process, one that was initially slated to be finished by Oct. 1, but has since been tentatively set for Nov. 1. The 14 rooms will overlook the Memorial Hall atrium off of Reed quad, a space which Miguel called “absolutely amazing and beautiful.”

“It’s one thing to make decisions that people don’t agree with, without thinking through them,” Miguel said. “But our leadership doesn’t make decisions that they don’t think through. [They] have made a decision, but they also have supported that decision financially with this construction.”

On uncertain grounds

While University officials have adopted the changes without complaint, some students still feel left in the dark.

The students, many who had worked with the director and the assistant director of the African American Cultural Center, were never told the reason for the vacating of the two positions.

“It was kind of like your family member died or something and nobody tells you until you’re 12 years old,” Dawson said. “As students, as leaders, I felt like we are faced with different adversities and obstacles. We should have known sooner.”

Dawson, who had known Spain-Shuler and Anderson for two and a half years, said she was caught by surprise.

“We had our spring retreat in March...and it was surprising that they weren’t there,” Dawson said. “It wasn’t until July that I found out what had happened and I ended up telling the rest of my organization.”

Zuzu Bilal, the vice president of Black Educational Support Team, said an email was sent and a dinner meeting held, but the reasons for the positions being vacated were still not made clear.

“The email just told us about the changes. They didn’t go into detail about what actually happened in [the cultural center],” Bilal said. “When we did find out about it, we didn’t learn any of the particulars. They said, ‘They were terminated for reasons we cannot tell you.’”

Bilal said the transition has been smooth and has actually made the programs more organized. But she still wondered what had happened to cause the changes in the first place.

“We make up our own little things, but nobody knows for sure and nobody will tell us, so we just stopped asking,” Bilal said. “We don’t know what it was, and they won’t tell us.”

(2) comments

DegreedDawg
DegreedDawg

I am surprised it took this long to expose and address the multitude of issues with the cultural center, including its staff. I am an alum of UGA and actively participated in several organizations apart of AACC and MSP and can in good faith say that the Cultural Center never lived up to its potential and never had the professional leadership it needed to do so. Vanessa and Laretha were pariahs and rife with impropriety, 'bending' financial and other university policies for self gain. While it is important for African American students to feel like they have a home on what can be a less than welcoming campus, it is equally as important to have professional staff that can facilitate that environment. Perhaps now, MSP can provide that haven and students will be better supported and provided with an enriching experience.

truthteller
truthteller

It's really a shame when a university that prides itself on being "the state school of the south" has to hide behind such shady dealings. We as students think we know what;s going on, and that staff is always on our side with our best interets in mind. Not the case here. During my time at the AACC the staff was so helpful, and gave us the opportuinuty to develop into leaders. Now, while they made some decisions that I didn't always agree with, calling them "pariahs with rife and impropriety" is a little far fetched, and honestly sounds like someone is holding onto some hurt feelings, (sad). I believe that the staff leaving was a calculated, well planned, attack from Mr.McDonald and other higher-ups.Or maybe they sent him on a dummy mission because of course it was "his decision" (sounds like a set up to me.) He claims he wants to be "open" ...please. Its time for someone to blow the whistle on what's really going on. We all reap what we sow. It's not my bed, so I don't have to lie in it.

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