Colleges, Universities Traveling Different Paths to Diversity - Higher Education
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Colleges, Universities Traveling Different Paths to Diversity

by Reginald Stuart

Diversity, once primarily measured by ethnicity and gender, is today taking on a richer meaning at institutions across the nation as even the word “diverse” is being redefined by the emerging generation of college students and graduates, not just administrators and gatekeepers.

History is being erased and sanitized, as historic names with relations to negative chapters of the nation’s past are being removed from campus facilities and literature. Cafeteria menus and dormitory restroom uses are changing as are days of the year that honor historic milestones not noted in past decades.

Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden is chief diversity officer of the University of Maryland, College Park. (Photo by Daryl T. Stuart)

Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden is chief diversity officer of the University of Maryland, College Park. (Photo by Daryl T. Stuart)

Today, more people are being recognized by more distinct differences, while at the same time being included in increasingly different ways.

“Traditionally, diversity was about race, two or three races,” says Scott Snowden, director of the Center for Leadership and Service at Kean University, a minority-majority institution since 2011. Kean is where the nation’s first Latino fraternity and Latina sorority were founded more than four decades ago.

“There’s all these new views of diversity beyond race,” observes Snowden. “The minority student isn’t about race anymore,” he says, noting Kean may be ahead of most of the nation’s institutions in being diverse.

Still, it has to stay on its toes to stay that way in real terms, he says. “We’re beyond knowing about diversity,” Snowden says, explaining today diversity is also about religion, sexual orientation and disabilities, both mental and physical. “We’re about understanding it.”

“We used to say ‘these are the things the students need,’” says Stacy Downing, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at Delaware State University. “Now, we’re really assessing what they say they need.”

Downing, Snowden and other student life officials from coast to coast and border to border say diversity is changing and broadening at a rapid pace. As student population demographics change, so is the range of things they say they need to feel part of an institution’s community.

“We have to think about what a student’s experience is like outside the classroom,” says Jen Walsh, director of student engagement and leadership at Beloit University, the small, private liberal arts college in Wisconsin that has historically prided itself as being progressive.

Beloit was prompted last year to kick its diversity eff orts into higher gear by a surprising campus hate crime, she says, echoing peers at other institutions. They cite the University of Missouri student demonstrations and other protests, such as those in Ferguson, Missouri, as fuel to get moving.

Innovations

Changes are running the gamut.

At Delaware State, for example, there are themed days of each month when ethnic menus are featured to introduce the entire student body to more varieties of foods routinely consumed by students who are different from those who traditionally attended the historically Black college.

In California, where diversity in higher education remains a priority despite state budget woes and a law banning state-funded affirmative action programs, officials still find ways that they hope will convey to students a feeling that their institutions are good places to be.

“A lot of our students were saying they are ‘out’ everywhere, except on campus,” says Stephen Rice, associate dean of student life at California State University, Dominguez Hills. “How do we change that narrative” was the challenge to the institution, says Rice. At no additional cost, the institution began setting up dialogue narratives, small voluntary discussion groups where most any topic has a group.

Known at Dominguez Hills as Diversity Chats, one discussion group may explore different religions, while an-other tackles ethnic or race topics. Another type, called CSUDH Safe Space, is a discussion group where one can discuss gender and sexual identifications that run the alphabet (LGBTQQIA) and slice it by zone of interest or inquiry.

The discussion groups “are their home away from home,” says Rice, noting it’s of added value as his institution is largely made up of commuter students.

These so-called “safe spaces” are an important diversity tool, allowing students, faculty and staff   (when they want to participate) to ask questions, share knowledge and think without fear of criticism.

In North Carolina, administrators at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) are learning how to better recruit members of the state’s growing Hispanic college-bound population for the historically Black college. School officials say that they are finding the key to cultivating interest and relationships ranges from attending more events in Hispanic communities to bilingual student and parent orientation and campus tours.

“We understand parents want to be involved,” says Johnnie Southerland, director of strategic planning at NCCU. “This is a whole family thing,” he says, adding institutions today “really care about their [students’] participation, beyond academics.”

At the University of Maryland, College Park, changes beyond numerical and gender diversity are emerging around the campus. Just last year it designated a central area of its frequently used library plaza as Fredrick Douglass Square. ‑ The university has removed the name of its legendary president, Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd, from its historic football field. Byrd, Maryland president from 1935 to 1954, was a known racial segregationist during his time, a fact student protestors asserted last year should disqualify Byrd from having such an honor.

Maryland also named the Art-Sociology Building in memory of the late Parren Mitchell, the first Black person to earn a degree from Maryland’s graduate school and later represent the state of Maryland in the U.S. House of Representatives for more than a decade.

“We’re not immune to Ferguson,” says Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden, the university’s chief diversity officer and associate vice president of diversity and inclusion, referring to the outburst of civil protests over police treatment of Blacks in the small Missouri town that struck a nerve nationally. “We’ve had our own challenges,” she says.

The symbolic moves of the past year are to be followed by more efforts to bring about greater faculty and staff diversity, Shorter-Gooden adds.

In the Bluegrass State, the University of Kentucky (UK), which like most historically White and Black colleges has integrated Greek letter clubs, this year introduced its first multicultural sorority. The 15-member UK colony of Theta Nu Xi includes African-American, Caucasian, Japanese, Welsh, Latina and Afro-Caribbean students.

At Kean, meanwhile, Snowden says that the priority is on celebrating and showing that diversity is natural at every opportunity it has and rewarding those who keep the ball rolling. As he says, the diversity bridge has been crossed.

Among the university’s ongoing efforts to promote and facilitate inclusion, Kean hosts an  annual “United We Stroll” event, launched last year. It is a partnership among Latino/a and Divine Nine Greek Letter organizations celebrating their history and culture. Kean also has an annual Five Star Report in which it gives groups points for various activities. Extra points are awarded for supporting different activities of groups other than your own.

“There is no one-size-fits-all, no magic wand,” says Downing, echoing the sentiments of peers around the nation who were asked if there was a definite game plan to ensure diversity translates into inclusion.

Walsh expresses the same sentiment as Downing and other peers, adding a mental measure she once heard at a forum of diversity  and inclusion.

“‘Diversity is like inviting people to a party,’ the speaker explained,” she says. “Inclusion is asking them to dance. We have to interact and engage.”

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