Students stepped into Mary Watt’s office in Fall 2016 and said the African American studies program deserved to become a department.

“They felt it would give the program higher profile and greater autonomy,” said Watt, the associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Now, after 50 years of being a program, the college has initiated its transformation into a department, Watt said.

“Since it mattered to them, it mattered to us,” Watt said.

A program is a collection of courses that compose a major or minor. A department is a unit of faculty for a specific academic specialty.

The last time a program became a department in the college was in 2010, Watt said.

The potential department must consult Chris Hass, the associate provost for academic and faculty affairs. From there, the potential department must create a proposal, conduct a vote of affected faculty, gather input from various academic advisory boards and receive statements of support from the dean, vice president and provost, according to UF faculty senate bylaw 22.

“When we enhance our course offerings, program offerings, we are enhancing that learning experience, and it goes both ways,” Watt said. “I see the creation of the eventual, hopeful department of African American studies as one more enhancement it adds.”

While the timeline of departmental status is fluid as of now, the African American studies program will welcome four tenured-track professors this year.

“In many ways, UF is behind,” said Manoucheka Celeste, an assistant professor for the center for gender, sexualities and women’s studies research and the African American studies program. “Right now we’re just catching up to what’s happened across the country.”

This change doesn’t just affect students within the college, Celeste said. The program’s classes teach important analytical and empathic skills.

“There is no one on this campus who doesn’t benefit from African American studies,” Celeste said.

Contact Hannah Beatty at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @hannahbeatty_.