James Farmer Rests in Peace, But Mary Washington College Still Wrestles with Multicultural Issues
A plan at Mary Washington College to relocate the school’s James Farmer Multicultural Center and divert resources to “cultural” programming has provoked angry protests from faculty and others.Faculty at the liberal arts college say the changes belie the administration’s stated commitment to diversity. The administration says the relocation is part of a larger reshuffling necessitated by the 4,000-student college’s growth, arguing that the move will promote greater interaction among students of all colors. African American, Hispanic, Asian American and international students together make up about 10 percent of the college’s student body.The school’s multicultural center is named after late civil rights activist James Farmer, who founded the Congress of Racial Equality. Farmer taught at the college from 1985 until 1998. Students packed the classroom to hear about his experiences fighting for equal rights during the civil rights era. Plagued by ill health that cost him his sight and eventually his legs, Farmer died in 1999. He had received the Presidential Medal of Freedom the year before.The James Farmer center provides support and guidance to minority students. It also sponsors programs such as a speaker series and an annual Multicultural Festival.Administrators initially planned to move the entire center from Lee Hall, on the campus’s main strip, to Marye House, which is set back in a wooded area. But after students and faculty protested that the favorite minority student hangout should remain centrally located, administrators changed their minds — sort of. It was decided that Lee Hall would continue to house the center and its student hangout. But the new acting director of multicultural affairs, Ameeta Vashee, and her assistant would move to Marye House.The change was prompted by space problems, says Mary Randolph Corbin, executive assistant to the president. With a new campus in Stafford County, the college’s admissions staff in Lee Hall has expanded and needs more offices, she says. All of the college’s student affairs and residence-life staff are moving to Marye House. “The dean thought it was important to keep multicultural affairs with student affairs,” she says. “It affects all students, not just minority students.“All of our students will have to be [in Marye House] for something, at least once a year. We would like multicultural affairs to be there to give students an opportunity to rub elbows and literally integrate,” she adds, noting that James Farmer believed in integration.But faculty members say the policy is more about damage control. “They’ve been trying to use Farmer’s words to pretend they have a new vision, when in fact they’ve just been reacting to pressure we put on them,” says Dr. Carole Baroodi Corcoran, a psychology professor who helped found the school’s Race, Class and Gender Awareness Project.Splitting the multicultural affairs department is “the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” says Special Collections Librarian Brenda Sloan. “There are 18 people on my staff. If they moved all of us into the gym and left the library, what good would it serve? The staff that’s qualified to run the James Farmer Multicultural Center, they are moving.”Attempts to push inclusion typically put the burden on minority students to make bridges and adjust to the dominant culture, says Dr. William Hanson, associate professor of sociology. “You reduce the protection or enhancement of ethnic heritages that the multicultural center is supposed to bring to campus in as full glory as it can bring,” he says.Research has shown that at Mary Washington — as at predominantly White schools generally — Black students are significantly more dissatisfied than White students, Corcoran says. “The one small comfort zone students had on campus is being removed in the name of inclusion.”Seventy faculty members signed a petition expressing concern about the changes. They want the college’s president, Dr. William Anderson, and the vice president of student affairs, Dr. Bernard Chirico, to halt the plans while a committee studies possible alternatives, Hanson says.“We hate to delay this with a committee,” Corbin says. The administration is concerned that the number of African American students on campus hasn’t changed in 10 years — hovering around 175 — while the numbers of Hispanic and Asian students has increased, she says. “If you’ve got 10 years of statistics and have no improvement, it’s time to change,” she says. The critics in this issue “seem to campaign for the status quo.” Student Affairs is going to create a committee that will monitor the results of the change, she says.But faculty concerns are not limited to the relocation of the center. They object to the decision being made without input from faculty, not even faculty heavily involved in diversity work. Students too have complained that they weren’t consulted about changes supposedly made on their behalf, says Sloan.Faculty members also say initial budget figures showed resources for multicultural affairs being cut or merged with other student-centered funds. The administration says all multicultural programs will remain intact. The James Farmer center will receive additional staffing — two mentors based in Lee Hall. The mentors will be dedicated strictly to working with students at the center, Corbin says. But a $25,000 budget increase is actually going to “cultural” rather than “multicultural” programming as a way to “widen our diversity,” Chirico says. About half of the increase comes from money set aside for outgoing Dean of Multicultural Affairs Forrest Parker’s travel. “They could use [that money] for anything,” Corcoran says.Administrators say Parker has left to take a sabbatical, but local news reports say he has become a private consultant.Parker was at one time a vice president, but a couple of years ago his title changed to “dean.” This change removed the only person of color from the president’s cabinet, says psychology professor Corcoran. Hanson says it also pointed to a larger problem at Mary Washington — a lack of zeal about improving diversity. “It’s a very good school, with a good reputation, but we don’t do enough in the area of hiring faculty and recruiting students,” he says. “There is not a very aggressive approach.” And the climate at Mary Washington has gotten worse for African American students, Corcoran says. She says her research shows that in 1988, 70 percent of Black students said there was racism at the college, compared to 41 percent of White students. In 1998, 89 percent of Black students cited racism, while only 16 percent of White students thought it existed. “It’s a clear case of indifference and denial,” she says.Chirico admits there is dissatisfaction. “We know that our students may not be happy when they graduate from Mary Washington,” he says. But with the emphasis on social integration and a new mentoring system, he says, “I think we can make better ambassadors out of our students for Mary Washington.” College officials are honoring James Farmer’s memory with a commemorative bust — “a good example of efforts to show the commitment I feel Mary Washington really has,” Chirico says. But others are skeptical. “The college has certainly made its [public relations] money on Jim, and will continue to,” says Hanson. “But at the same time, we are not increasing our focus [on diversity]. And we could be pretty unique in this case — a predominantly White college that had a major civil rights leader teach for 15 years.” Sloan feels a “desecration of James Farmer’s memory” is in the works. “I tried to put it down on paper, how is this being effective?” she says. “I just don’t see it. How [are these changes] making the multicultural center an effective tool on campus? This looks more like isolation to me.”Students returning in the fall are expected to protest the changes in multicultural affairs. “Any time there’s change, students and others are going to question it,” Chirico says. “And they should. I expect there to be some questions asked, and I expect some voices to be loud and vocal, and I hope that when I respond to them, they understand where I’m going with it.”
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