Town hall discusses POIR department’s lack of diversity in faculty, curricula

Photo of The Center for International and Public Affairs at dusk. A lone person walks beside the building.
In a letter sent over the summer, USC’s foreign service society Delta Phi Epsilon asked for syllabus and faculty diversification to accurately reflect the current state of international politics. (Charles McCollum | Daily Trojan)

USC’s political science and international relations department plans to “decolonize” its curricula and include underrepresented voices through a newly formed syllabi review task force. The task force aims to create an informational hub with resources related to representation and inclusion in Spring 2021, professors from the department said in a virtual town hall meeting Monday. 

The task force and town hall itself came in response to demands made by Delta Phi Epsilon, USC’s foreign service society, in a letter addressed to the University’s POIR department over the summer. In the letter, DPE called on the department to diversify its syllabuses and faculty for the department’s education to more accurately reflect the current state of international politics and address historic inequalities within the discipline.

Art Auerbach, a professor of political science who represented the political science major at the town hall, said that in response to DPE’s concerns, POIR faculty have also attended the first of three mandatory anti-oppression trainings and have been asked to read and discuss scholarship on the discipline’s intersection with race and underserved communities. Additionally, a tenured position focused on race and ethnicity has been approved, with the department currently searching for someone to fill the role, he said. 

DPE President Charles Convery and External Vice President Natalia Parraz said in an interview with the Daily Trojan that a few productive meetings have taken place between the organization and the POIR department since their letter this summer, but the town hall was the first public response to their demands. 

“I was definitely blown away after our first meeting on just how seriously they took our concerns and their honest efforts in implementing them,” Convery said. “I am worried that there’s more resistance perhaps under the surface, especially with other professors who maybe are not as agreeable in what they see as curriculum or what should be analyzed. Hopefully … we can make this kind of student-faculty collaboration become much more standardized and much more routine for the entire department.”

Despite the department’s work on the syllabi task force, student concerns on the curriculum’s lack of diversity remained. 

Ida Ghohestani, a sophomore majoring in international relations who is DPE’s membership vice president, asked about the department’s efforts to address the lack of regional focus on Central, South and Southeast Asia. Ghohestani also questioned the department’s grouping of the Middle East and Africa as one region. 

“A lot of these issues are because … we don’t have teachers [with backgrounds in these regions], and we’re looking for teachers, but I think another issue is why wasn’t POIR looking for these teachers before these concerns were raised?” Ghohestani said in an interview with the Daily Trojan following the meeting. “It’s very clear that the regional focus requirements just completely neglect so many different regions within the world … there’s so many different people within the student body not represented within the regional focuses.”

In response to Ghohestani’s question, Iva Bozovic, a professor of international relations, said the department does not have a scholar with expertise on Southeast Asia but has attempted to hire one for a “long time.” In regards to the issue of diverse hirings, Bozovic said, “When we say we’re trying to hire, it really means we’re trying. We’re making offers.”

Bozovic also said grouping the Middle East and North Africa is a standard designation used by many international organizations, such as the World Bank, for the regions’ cultural, economic and environmental similarities. 

Some students disagreed with this logic after the meeting, with Ghohestani calling the default grouping “extremely ridiculous.”

“Not only is combining the Middle East and Africa racist, it’s also bad IR. It’s bad academics,” Convery said. “We’re not gonna be prepared to go out and be international relations scholars or employees in various sectors and think of the Middle East and Africa as one giant conglomerate.” 

Robert Scalia, a sophomore majoring in international relations, said that he has had difficulty finding a professor with a research interest in Africa. He said that he has been repeatedly referred to one professor, who is currently on leave, and that he could only find one other professor with a listed research interest in Africa. 

Bozovic pointed Scalia toward a few faculty members such as assistant professor Megan Becker, who has studied civil war in Africa, and said that the department recognizes the importance of having classes for each region, even if it is not as many as they would prefer. 

“One of the other issues is that a lot of the professors that they pointed out that were doing research in Africa focused on conflict studies or something related to that,” Ghohestani said. “I think it maybe reinforces stereotypes, where the majority of IR classes, when we learn about conflict, when we learn about issues like that, it’s always in regards to the Middle East and Africa and Latin America.” 

Parraz also commented on the list of professors suggested to Scalia, adding that the majority of the professors mentioned were white. While lecturer Safia Farole, a woman of color, will teach “The Political Economy of Africa” this spring, Parraz said that the department needs to do more to focus on “who is teaching this material.”

“I think POIR is focusing on what they’re teaching right now, which is a great first step, but we need to focus, again, on who is teaching this material,” Parraz said. “Is it men, is it women, is it people from these countries, is it people of color, is it by [Black and Indigenous people and people of color?]” 

Parraz said that if the department struggles to hire more representative faculty, it could invite guest speakers with more diverse backgrounds and expertise to speak at panel discussions. She said DPE brings speakers from diverse organizations with global perspectives — such as a recent talk with Rhoda Robinson, the co-director of the Nigeria-based nonprofit HACEY — and the department should follow the same standard.

“If we can do it, they can do it. And it’s not our job, but because they aren’t, we have to because that’s what we want to study, that’s what we care about and we want to learn more,” Parraz said. “We’ve shown them what they can do, just by example, so I’m just waiting on them to pick up on it.”