Saying goodbye

Amadeus Smith

Pan African Studies: Oscar Ritchie renovation a long time coming


Credit: Jason Hall

It has been more than a decade since Kent State’s administration, faculty and students in the Department of Pan-African Studies made an initial agreement to renovate Oscar Ritchie Hall.

Now, the university has set a starting date for renovation this fall and plans for the project to take a year.

A plea for help

Tim Moore, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said that after Pan-African Studies professor George Garrison became the department chair in 1995, members of Black United Students and the Pan-African Studies faculty pushed for the building’s renovation through negotiation and protest.

Garrison said the department made the push again three years ago. The initial results included adjustments to light fixtures, carpeting and a few air-conditioning units.

However, Mwatabu Okantah, director of the Center for Pan-African Culture, said in a Pan-African Studies open panel Thursday that the initial renovations were not a result of negotiation.

“Carpeting and paint looks like a response, but the state told the university to utilize the space properly,” Okantah said.

Moore said Oscar Ritchie was at the top of the list for renovations in 1995, but the administration pushed it to the bottom of the list.

Pan-African Studies professor Francis Dorsey agreed, saying the university has renovated every other building surrounding Oscar Ritchie without any opposition, but Oscar Ritchie’s renovation has been met with resistance.

“The questions and issues that were raised about the renovations of this space – and were not asked of other buildings that have been renovated – had racial overtones,” Dorsey said, adding that the university has allocated more money and time to fixing the roof of the Michael Schwartz Center.

Now, the delay has left the building without proper air-conditioning units. Garrison said offices and classrooms in the space become too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, forcing faculty members to cut down on office hours.

In addition, Dorsey said the building is laced with asbestos and is not handicap accessible. He said the department has had to move many classes from the third floor to the first because the building doesn’t have an elevator.

Pan-African Studies professor Jacqueline Rowser said the absence of an elevator is unacceptable.

“In 2007, every public building should be handicap accessible,” Rowser said during the panel.

Some space in the building simply can’t be used at all. Garrison said a poor “circulation of air” has led to mildew in some spaces, which causes students to get sick.

Also, Dorsey said the building has sustained many different leaks that have yet to be fixed. He said a leak in the library destroyed two large boxes of books and a table. He said different maintenance departments at Kent State have been arguing about who should fix it instead of fixing it.

Garrison also said the first floor has been taking in water through the sides of the building since 1979.

During Thursday’s open panel, Sasha Parker, president of Black United Students, said that during an interview with President Lester Lefton he was unaware of the problems in Oscar Ritchie Hall.

Dorsey said members of the administration haven’t really visited the building and, therefore, make decisions for the space without truly knowing what it needs.

Losing a home

Though the renovation has been set, students and faculty still have concerns. Rumors of an ethnic studies department occupying Oscar Ritchie Hall after the renovation have been circulating around the department’s faculty members and student body.

Parker said she has heard that the administration plans to make Pan-African Studies a sub-department within a department devoted to all ethnic cultures. She said the department would be a “generic blanket covering the importance of the Pan-African Studies department.”

But Moore said the rumor is just a rumor. At one point, he said, the administration suggested developing an ethnic studies department but is no longer planning to do so.

“I saw it in writing in a document about a year ago, and I stopped it right there,” he said.

But many are still concerned about losing the space. Moore said the university goes through a process of comparing enrollment numbers for different departments and how much space has gone unused to decide how to house departments.

“The university is a place where they pay attention to every cubic foot,” he said.

Still, Moore said he is not concerned with enrollment numbers and believes it is just a matter of time before they increase.

Many students and faculty members said Oscar Ritchie Hall has become a home away from home. Parker said having a centralized department creates a community feel within the building.

In the late 1990s, the building offered shelter from racism in the university. Traci L. Williams, who was BUS president in the ’90s and is now a professor in Pan-African Studies, said she used to get recruitment forms for the Ku Klux Klan slipped under her residence hall door when she was a student. She said the department offers students an escape from situations like that, and faculty members are always available to talk with students.

“I’ve been there talking to students until one in the morning,” she said, adding most of the conversations are about personal issues – not academics.

Moore said he believes the building is a representation of Oscar Ritchie – the man for whom it was named.

Contact minority affairs reporter Amadeus Smith at [email protected].