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Unity on Hold 

The UA's slimmed-down minority student affairs offices remain instate-budget limbo

Maria Moore doesn't have a budget or a staff, so when classes begin at the UA on Monday, Aug. 24, Moore wonders what she'll be able to offer students.

Moore is the interim program director of the African American Student Affairs office at the UA's Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center, and right now, the future of programs aimed at African-American and other minority students is looking tenuous.

The center opened a year after dozens of African-American students at the UA blocked the entrance of the administration building one day in April 1989. They demanded that President Henry Koffler find space on campus for an African-American student center.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center at Mountain Avenue and First Street grew from that student protest, and other minority student affairs offices would later open, including Chicano/Hispano Student Affairs, Asian Pacific American Student Affairs and Native American Student Affairs.

Over the past 20 years, these programs have grown, often focusing on retaining minority students with mentorships and tutoring, and creating a welcoming environment with cultural-specific programs.

However, over the last year, all minority student affairs offices—just like all other departments on campus—have had to cut staff and budgets. Moore says her department was cut so much that she's now the only person on staff.

The UA administration proposed merging all minority student affairs offices into one program called a Unity Center, a unified multicultural student center that would also house the Women's Resource Center and the Office of LGBTQ Affairs.

The program director positions were created for all the student affairs offices, with the idea that each director would create programs geared toward the specific student populations within the merged Unity Center.

At African American Student Affairs, the staff cuts and Unity Center proposal happened to coincide with its executive director, Bruce Smith, leaving last spring to take a position as director of the Black/African American Cultural Center at Colorado State University. Moore was hired to take his place and given the new program director title.

Moore says that although it was difficult to see staff members in her department go, she felt the UA did a good job of making sure all laid-off staffers were notified of other open positions. Most people she worked with were able to remain employed by the UA, if they were interested in and eligible for other positions.

As the UA continued with its plan to merge the minority student offices, it merged all retention programs, such as tutoring, into a new department that now works with all students, including those with disabilities and transfer students in need of extra help.

Moore says she was particularly happy with this change, because her department didn't always have the budget to do what it needed. Each student-affairs office budget is based on its student population—and African-American students account for less than 3 percent of the overall UA student population.

"It's more support than we had before. In the past, we didn't have the funding to pay our tutors," Moore says.

Regarding the Unity Center, Moore says she was excited. The idea of merging the programs, on the fourth floor of the Student Union, would provide her programs more exposure, she hoped.

"At times, it seems we are hidden away out here," she says.

However, in late spring, it became clear that not everyone was happy with the Unity Center idea—particularly some in Tucson's Latino community. The large vocal opposition stymied the project and forced the UA to at least temporarily table its plans.

Socorro Carrizosa, director of the Chicano/Hispano Student Affairs office, is facing a situation similar to Moore's—she has a new program director title and is the only person in her office, located in the César E. Chávez Building (which, unlike MLK Jr. Cultural Center, is near the heart of campus). While Carrizosa agrees with those who spoke up against the initial plans for the Unity Center, she says that she understands why the center remains a possibility, due to the state's continued financial problems.

That financial stress has also created another problem: No one at the UA has any idea how much money they'll have in their budgets, since state legislators have yet to pass a budget.

Melissa Vito, the UA's vice president of student affairs, says everyone is waiting cautiously and preparing to make additional cuts if needed.

Vito's office is in charge of all the minority student offices. Her budget was cut 20 percent last year, which is why the Unity Center was proposed—to save money while continuing to provide cultural programs for UA minority students.

"The process (for the Unity Center) took shape at the same time the budget situation went from bad to terrible," Vito recalls.

To learn more about a multicultural student center model, Vito visited Northern Arizona University's Multicultural Student Center last year. The center at the Flagstaff campus works with all minority student groups on cultural-specific programming, and sponsors all minority student clubs. Vito says staff at NAU told her it was tough to start the now-successful center—but Vito never imagined it would be nearly impossible to get the initial support needed to start a similar center at the UA.

"At the end of the day (at the UA), what became really clear to me (is that) the Chicano/Hispano Student Affairs office really serves as a symbol of all the work the community has done to make higher education a welcoming place for Latino students," Vito says. "We did pause (the project), and I still have to meet budget cuts, and I still like the idea of coming together, but we also know that we may have to maintain individual space and cultural identity in some way. We just don't know what that will look like right now."

A concrete state budget will help Vito figure out what she will do next.

"We know we're going to have another cut. We will have areas functioning for when students come aboard, but at a much-scaled-back level," Vito says.

When will the Unity Center get back on the planning table? What will it look like? Vito says she's unsure.

"We're in a place of transition that will be heavily collaborative, and I expect we may tweak as we all move along this year," she says. "It could be worse, but it's not likely to be any better."

More by Mari Herreras

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