Delaware Will Shine: Fixing UD’s diversity problem

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Kirk Smith/THE REVIEW
Vice Provost of Diversity Carol Henderson speaks at last month’s Lara Ling speech. Henderson’s position was created last year, reflecting the university’s push to create more diversity and inclusion.

 

BY MARGARET MCNAMARA
SENIOR REPORTER

 

In 2009, a campus climate survey reported that minorities felt uncomfortable at the university. This spring’s draft of the university’s new strategic plan, Delaware Will Shine, aims to rehabilitate the unwelcoming attitudes that still exist on campus six years later.

“We have this very much siloed system—the black students can go here for support, the Latino students go over here for support, the queer students are over here,” said former Haven President Jeremy Mathis. “But I think there’s power in solidarity.”

The draft’s diversity section aims to bring awareness and challenge social injustice on campus through research, by developing a culturally sensitive curriculum and by recruiting members from underrepresented groups.

“There’s a number of important topics that we’re beginning to talk about,” executive committee chair Charles Riordan said. “I think our campus climate right now is that it’s a place where good conversations are beginning to take hold, but there is much work ahead.”

The draft plans to recruit and support faculty, students and staff of underrepresented groups and survey why they do not choose to attend or stay at the university.

The last campus climate survey reported a quarter of the staff, students and faculty of color agreed racial discrimination was a problem at the university, while one in 10 white staff respondents said it was a problem. In this same 2009 survey, the most recent of its kind, more than half of L.G.B.T. respondents reported feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome on campus.

The university is tolerant of underrepresented groups but its not always the most accepting environment, Mathis said. No one tells minority students explicitly that they cannot be here, but they are not welcomed with open arms either, he said.

Riordan said the campus needs to be a place where everyone feels safe and welcome. Everyone should feel they have a voice, where different perspectives are encouraged.

The draft comes at a time with heightened attention to diversity at the university. Racist comments on the anonymous social media app Yik Yak prompted response from university President Patrick T. Harker this fall. Early this winter, students marched on Main Street and held other demonstrations in reaction to the non-indictment verdicts in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Shortly thereafter, the university launched #VoicesOfUdel to facilitate conversations on race and diversity.

This spring, the NAACP criticized the university’s lack of diversity in a letter to President Patrick T. Harker this spring. Five percent of students and two percent of faculty are black. The university is 76 percent white, 7.5 percent multi-ethnic, 7.4 percent Asian and 2.5 percent Hispanic/Latino—a decline from the 4 percent of students that identified as Hispanic in 2010.

Within the past three years, much of admissions’ focus has been centered on increasing diversity. 2014 saw the most diverse year ever, with 26 percent of the freshman class coming from minority groups.

Mathis said there have been improvements in the university’s handling of current issues––instituting a Title IX coordinator for issues regarding sexual assault, hiring the Vice Provost of diversity and adding more full-time staff members at the Center for Black Culture. Mathis said more multicultural programs are needed.

“We’ve been making strides but I don’t think that they’re enough,” Mathis said. “We’re, in a sense, putting a band-aid on a larger wound.”

James Jones, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity, said the university not as diverse or as sensitive as it needs to be, but it’s making progress.

“We’re trying to identify issues and find an approach that will assist us to figure out what works and what doesn’t,” Jones said.

The draft also emphasizes a diverse curriculum. John Pelesko, chair of the task force to reform general education requirements, said faculty members are working to keep diversity as an integral part of the curriculum.

Pelesko said the requirements include two new core courses that incorporate group work and interaction with students outside of one’s major. Within each degree program, students need to take a capstone requirement that focuses on applying diversity to their individual fields of study.

“The big switch in philosophy here is that we want to measure and see how students develop diversity competence over their four years,” said Pelesko.

Jones said right now the multicultural requirement is the only specialized curricular requirement that addresses diversity.

While diversity is a specified section of the Delaware Will Shine draft, it’s a theme that is integrated throughout the entire plan, Riordan said.

“The world you guys are going into is increasingly diverse,” Jones said. “We want people to graduate and really be good citizens.”

Correction: The article stated that this year’s freshmen class was the most diverse ever with 26 percent of students coming from minorities. However, the percentage of minority students declined from 2013 to 2014 from 25.6% to 23.2 percent, respectively.

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