For Maine Colleges and Universities, Diversity Challenges More than a Matter of Numbers - Higher Education

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For Maine Colleges and Universities, Diversity Challenges More than a Matter of Numbers

by Lois Elfman

For institutions of higher education in the Whitest state in the country, handling changing demographics is a work in progress.

Keeping Maine’s colleges and universities thriving requires new approaches, including embracing diversity and addressing cultural understanding. While the institutional intent is clear, everyday realities don’t always live up to it.

In April 2015, Dr. David Greene, president of Colby College, addressed several hundred people gathered on campus to denounce racism. He was acting in response to racist comments that appeared on Yik Yak, a social media application that allows users to post anonymously. ­The comments had been posted after Colby students did what thousands of others throughout the United States were doing — demonstrating to protest racial injustice and the shooting deaths of unarmed Black men.

Greene and faculty members condemned the racist comments and called for discussions on campus around racial issues. Last September, Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, was invited to campus and addressed an audience of more than 200, encouraging students and faculty to be meaningfully engaged. In October, Colby and ­Thomas College joined together to discuss racial identity in Central Maine.

­The discussions are meaningful and sincere, but issues run deep.

Telling numbers

According to statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau last December, Maine’s population decreased by 928 people from July 2014 to July 2015. An influx of immigrants from Somalia has kept numbers from dropping significantly lower.

Although the citizens of Maine have socioeconomic diversity, there is little racial diversity. An article in the Bangor Daily News noted that about 95 percent of the population is White.

For the state’s elite private institutions, such as Colby, Bowdoin College and Bates College, there has been more aggressive out-of-state recruitment. Dr. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, director of the African-American studies program and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of African American Studies and Sociology at Colby, says that, when she began teaching at the college in 1987, her students were predominantly from Maine or Massachusetts. Today, that is not the case.

“In the process of trying to attract minority students, the admissions process became more nationalized,” says Gilkes. “[Colby] has done a good job of diversifying its student body. I no longer teach classes where I have no Black students.”

Many of the Somali immigrants have settled in Lewiston, a city in which a large number of residents are lower income. In 2011, two Bates graduates founded Tree Street Youth, a youth center that grew out of a summer drop-in program. One of its best known programs is BRANCHES (Becoming Responsible Adults ‘N Cultivating Higher Education Success). Tree Street Youth boasts a 95 percent college acceptance rate.

Building and developing the program has placed co-founder and executive director Julia Sleeper in direct contact with many colleges and universities around the state. She has observed firsthand best practices as well as some apathy in terms of meeting the needs of first-generation college students.

“We do our best to set kids up and build those relationships of support in advance of them going [to college] so they ensure that they have people there that they trust and can go to,” says Sleeper. “Also, we do a lot of work with financial aid, ensuring kids know where their resources are and how to access things.”

Sleeper says that, most of the time, BRANCHES kids are well received and the schools are excited to add to campus diversity. What varies from institution to institution is how willing administrations are to invest in the success of these students.

“Generally speaking, everyone is open and wants to learn,” says Sleeper. “I would say certain institutions are better at it than others — from the perspective of if they want to learn and receive feedback directly from the youth as well as from us. They do their research and they take strides to improve their own campuses and their own systems.

“Some institutions will take that information and be like, ‘We don’t know if we’ll be able to do all that,’” she adds. “The will and the want to engage more diverse populations are there. It’s more in the practicality and logistics how you actually do this.”

Activism on campus

When Ben Chin, political engagement director of the Maine People’s Alliance, was a student at Bates (he graduated in 2007), he fought for campus changes around diversity. One day, he and a couple of hundred other students barged into a trustees’ lunch. In response, administration actually developed an office for intercultural education.

“There’s probably still a long way to go, but some of the most important pieces are having a senior institutional person who really is tracking the stuff and making diversity an institutionwide priority,” Chin says.

In April, Maine college students held rallies as part of the nationwide Million Student March to raise awareness around cost and student debt. Focal points for the Maine Student Action Network were tuition-free public colleges, cancellation of student debt and a $15-per-hour minimum wage for campus workers.

“I’ve encountered a lot more students who are really willing to be vocal, speak up and demand that there’s some accountability,” says Chin. “There’s a little bit more of a critical mass of diverse students now so there’s less isolation. With greater numbers, there’s a stronger sense of agency.”

Crystal Williams, associate vice president and chief diversity officer at Bates, says that, at its founding more than 160 years ago, Bates recruited freed slaves to study there.

“My job is to make sure that we live up to these deeply held values in the current era,” she says.

Williams points to such recent developments as restructuring the faculty hiring process and securing more than $1.4 million in grants directed at increasing the diversity of new faculty hires. Bates also relocated the Office of Intercultural Education to a central location on campus and has and is continuing to increase staffing and programming.

“Institutionally, we have committed to hosting conversations among faculty, staff and students about microaggressions on campus,” Williams says. “For instance, our upcoming fall orientation program will include an original docudrama orientation program designed to explicitly uncover and address the kinds of microaggressions that students at Bates have experienced.

“Also this fall, we will host a series of trainings for students from underrepresented groups to help them develop self-care strategies designed to interrupt and reframe negatively characterized interactions — skills that we believe will be useful to them at Bates and beyond.”

Last fall, students on Bowdoin’s sailing team hosted a “gangster” party, where stereotypical dress was encouraged. At a February “tequila party” at a Bowdoin residence hall, some party-goers wore sombreros; two members of student government were in attendance.

Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) was quick to address these situations and make clear statements of solidarity with student victims hurt by these acts of cultural appropriation. There were also some anonymous racially charged attacks on social media.

BSG stood firm, denouncing racist behavior and expressed the hope this would be a “teaching and learning moment for all students.” In a public statement, Bowdoin President Clayton S. Rose noted that discrimination is intolerable and contrary to the values and mission of the college.

Academics

Colby has an African-American studies program and Bowdoin has an Africana studies program. Both programs graduate a relatively small number of majors and minors, but more importantly, courses are intertwined with other departments, thus exposing a wide range of students to the subject matter.

Gilkes’ course African-American Culture in the United States usually has between 35 to 75 students, unusually large for Colby, which generally caps class size at 20. Her courses intersect with departmental requirements in sociology, religious studies, anthropology, and women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

Dr. Brian J. Purnell, director of Africana studies at Bowdoin, says courses combine academic disciplines such as political science, economics, history, music and anthropology. They invite dynamic speakers and artists to campus, which brings a broad range of students, faculty and staff   into contact with the program.

Many events are open to the public and members of the local community are invited to attend. Faculty also participate in programs at other institutions and organizations.

“Rather than think about Bowdoin creating a presence for Africana studies in Maine, I’d rather think about the ways Africana studies at Bowdoin can work with any interested person or group to think deeply and dynamically about democracy, citizenship, opportunity and pluralism in our state, our nation and our world,” Purnell says.

“To help form citizens who are competent, compassionate, critical thinkers, is, in part, a mission of Africana studies at Bowdoin.”

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