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From the newsletter: Embracing Campus Diversity

Embracing Campus Diversity: Ongoing Struggles, Incremental Progress

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In February 1956, Autherine Lucy—the first African-American student to enroll at the University of Alabama—was forced out because of riots and death threats. Sixty years later, campuses still face struggles with diversity, from acrimonious debate to literal racist, sexist, and homophobic violence, as well as religious intolerance. Fellowship talked this spring with five Fellows from various WW programs who work on campus diversity issues.

Evelyn Blackwood WS ’90 is a faculty advisor for Purdue University’s Center for Research on Diversity and Inclusion. Today’s campus climate, she says, reflects continuing ignorance about discrimination. “It’s still too easy,” she says, “for majority students to reject arguments about racism—or sexism, homophobia, and so on—and to call other students ‘too sensitive’ when they respond to racist and discriminatory actions and behaviors.” Ironically, she adds, concerns about freedom of speech leave faculty poorly positioned to address instances of aggression cloaked in opinion.

On the other hand, José Orozco MN ’88, a professor of Latin American history and an advisor to Whittier College’s MMUF program, is concerned with structural barriers—the effect of college costs on access to education for the impressive students of color he meets. “The MMUF students are fantastic and eager and they want to get out there [in the academy],” he says. “But getting a college education is so expensive now—that haunts a lot of us in academia.” The burden is especially heavy, Dr. Orozco observes, for Latino and African American students, a disproportionately large number of whom “come more from working-class families and have less family support.”

Whether rooted behaviorally or structurally, inequity and discrimination on campus cause strains that seem intractable to many observers. Richard J. Reddick TR ’06 CEF ’10, Assistant Vice President for Research and Policy in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and a professor of educational administration at the University of Texas—Austin, cites the “tension between students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members recognizing the deficits in how institutions embrace and develop diversity—and the desire and urgency for immediate change.” That change, Dr. Reddick observes, requires revisions to curriculum, recruitment of new faculty, and removal of barriers, all shifts that take time. “How does one endure the painful and long process to enact meaningful change?”

All five Fellows emphasized that the answer lies in leadership and a long-term commitment to change organizational culture, including a more robust pipeline of future scholars and leaders. Alvin Schexnider WF ’72—an advisor to the Association of Governing Boards who has led Winston-Salem State University, Norfolk State University, and Thomas Nelson Community College—points out that ultimate responsibility rests with the institution’s board of trustees, “which must set expectations for the president and the campus and then ensure accountability.” Boards themtselves, he adds, have to cultivate a consistent, high-priority commitment to diversity and ensure that their own membership reflects campuses’ increasing diversity.

“Diversity is also about organizational culture, the quality and frequency of meaningful interactions between people who are different from ourselves, institutional policies, and ensuring that everyone feels respected and valued,” says Chiquita Collins CEF ’04, Associate Dean for the Office of Diversity and Cultural Competence and professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Well-intentioned efforts to diversify academic institutions should not be emblematic or short-lived but reflect a sustained commitment by senior leadership and college administrators to ensure a diverse, equitable and inclusive climate for all of its members—students, trainees, staff, and faculty.”

With so many challenges still ahead in embracing campus diversity, what’s the good news? The Fellows noted that more institutions are hiring executive-level diversity officers who focus precisely on these issues. While national statistics on college and university faculty still comprise too few people of color—with just 10.5 percent from underrepresented groups—institutions are also making progress in hiring faculty of color and sustaining academic programs that explore diversity. Meanwhile, women’s college enrollment continues to rise, from 51 percent of students in 1980 to a projected 59 percent in 2023.

“Institutions make incremental progress, and we need to recognize there is so much more work to be done,” says Dr. Reddick. “It’s our responsibility to ‘stay woke’ and critically examine, research, and speak out when we observe inequality in educational settings.”

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This story appeared in the spring 2016 issue of Fellowship, the newsletter of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, in a section titled Diversity at WW. To see the full newsletter, click here.


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