Diversity, Recruitment, Retention, and Academic Integrity

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Every year, the Black Student Government associations from the Big XII universities gather for a big conference where students can discuss the challenges they face at their institutions and offer each other support, creativity, and motivation. While I have never attended this conference, I have heard profound testimonials from students who have about the way it has empowered them. Last night, a former colleague of mine at Iowa State shared this quote from the closing keynote speaker at the conference, Dr. Gwendolyn Webb-Hasan:

If an institution won’t treat you right, is it reasonable to expect them to teach you right?

I think there is a certain brilliance to this quote that informs the work of many professionals in our field, as well as the continued advocacy on campuses across the nation. If universities do not offer every single resource they can toward making their campuses truly welcoming for every student, they are not doing right by many of those students. And Dr. Webb-Hasan’s point is critical: if you can’t trust a university for your safety, your prosperity, or your comfort, why should you trust a university for your knowledge, your career, or your future?

In the last year, I have seen many universities cut or freeze positions dedicated to working with diversity and inclusion, from Multicultural Services to Women’s Centers and LGBT Centers to Disability Offices to whatever kind of student resources are out there. These services are vital to institutions, and in most cases, they exist to attempt to compensate for severe deficits in campus climate, some of which will take decades to repair, and some of which might never be mended. To limit or deprioritize these resources does not just have a detrimental effect on recruitment and retention, but also on the very academic reputation of the university.

Consider: if only white students feel comfortable or have the resources to succeed on a particular campus, it can then be concluded that such a university is not capable of teaching students of color. Not only does such a reputation help maintain a narrow enrollment of students of color—maintaining their marginalization on campus—it also perpetuates racist mythologies about the very potential of people of color to succeed. The same could be said of straight vs. queer students, and we don’t even have mechanisms for identifying LGBTQ students!

If universities are truly committed to providing equitable opportunities for education, they need to step it up. They could have the best professors in the history of the world, but it wouldn’t matter if only straight, white men can effectively learn there. How pathetic is it that at almost every university, underrepresented populations of students have to continue to advocate for themselves? We would ask that of no other student, but for our women, our people of color, our LGBTQ folks, our people with disabilities, our veterans, our atheists, our religious minorities, and our international students, we often look at them and just say, “If you need a particular resource to be successful here, you have to do the extra work yourself.”

Advocating for our students and advocating for our students to learn is the same thing. When will our universities recognize what we already know?

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There are 3 Comments to "Diversity, Recruitment, Retention, and Academic Integrity"

  • Al says:

    Read your blog.  Enjoyed your comments.  Actually cited one of your paragraphs in mine.  “Consider…succeed.”
    You may check it out at: http://www.diversitycontact.wordpress.com

  • Shelley says:

    Despite the fact that my university has has rolled the Women’s Center and the Minority Student Education into one office, the Center for Diversity.   As far as I can tell, the number of programs being offered hasn’t diminished, but the unfortunate case is that the number of programs offered was very small to begin with.  GLBTQ students don’t even have an office to go to (there are a number of people listed as contact people, but working with GLBTQ students is not their main job), although they do have an extensive lending library and are the most socially active of the minority groups, meeting twice monthly for lunch and twice monthly for discussion groups.   Students with disabilities have it by far the worst, because of the size of the school there is no full-time disability coordinator.  As a student with disabilities, the Associate Dean of Students acts as my liaison with professors, but a lot of times I am the one who needs to advocate for myself to her what kind of resources I need to succeed and a fair amount of the time I can’t get those resources in a timely manner.  (For example, I have an auditory processing lag and some fine motor skills clumsiness that makes it difficult for me to take my own notes.  I am authorized to get a note-taker for any class I request for, paid for by the Deans, but a lot of times they either can’t find one until partway through the term or the note-taker only turns in the notes to the Deans’ office once every three weeks, or both, meaning that I almost never have complete up-to-date notes in any of my classes.  Add this to the fact that I have panic disorder with agoraphobia, which means I sometimes can’t go to my classes, so I frequently lose track of what is going on at all.)
    However, despite all the drawbacks, my school is making a lot of progress in some areas.  As one of the most purely science-focused schools in the nation, we’ve always had problems with “The Ratio,” as it were.  I remember back when I first came it was probably close to 2:1; five years later the undergraduate class overall is 37% female and the most recent freshman class is 41% female.  It doesn’t sound like a lot, but the increase IS noticeable.
    Unfortunately the story for students of color is much less rosy.  We are by no means a “white” institution (Asian/Pacific Islanders make up 40% of the student population, at least for undergrads), but underrepresented minorities are only 8% (5% for grad students).  However I think that rather than this being a matter of discriminating against color, I think it’s more of a matter of discrimination against income.  People who don’t live in good school districts won’t meet the application requirements because their schools can’t offer them the programs necessary to achieve these requirements.  The biggest hurdle is that all applicants MUST have taken a year of calculus prior to applying.  Not a lot of high schools offer that.  If your high school doesn’t have a teacher qualified to teach calculus (and there was only 1 teacher qualified at mine), then you would have to take extra classes at a local community college at night or during the summer in order to meet the requirement (if the schedule allowed it and you had the means of transportation to get there, of course).  And for a lot of low-income families (which are disproportionately families of color), that’s just not feasible, no matter how many outreach programs the Office of Diversity sponsors for underrepresented minorities or the affirmative action policy the institute has in place for admissions–if said minorities don’t have living circumstances that make it possible to meet the admission requirements, then we can’t admit them.  And that’s a problem I don’t know how to fix, because that year of calculus and that year of physics and that year of chemistry are absolutely necessary academic preparation for the courseload that students will face their freshman year.  And despite our 3:1 faculty to student ratio, we really don’t have the resources for teaching remedial courses. (Trying to get professors to teach courses here is like pulling teeth anyway.)
    As a very minor plus, the atheists seem to be doing just fine for themselves here.  No one will even bat an eye.  On the other hand, both times the Veritas forum has come here the posters advertising it were actively parodied.   People respect each others’ rights to religion (or lack thereof, which I think is the predominant mode here), but are very touchy about anything they see as proselytism.  Especially since religion is very hard to back up with those hard facts we scientists like to see. 🙂
    I sort of forget where I was going with this, but I hope it doesn’t offend you for not being particularly on topic.
    P.S.  Any guesses as to where I go to school?  I should have given you enough hints, but I’m wary to go right out and say it because of the small size of the school.

  • ZackFord says:

    Shelley, I actually know EXACTLY where you go to school, but I will respect your choice not to out yourself. Still, I’m sure many would be surprised by the prominence of your school (number 2 in the world!) and yet the lack of services it has to support underrepresented student populations.

    Thanks for sharing that detailed description of your campus climate. I hope others read it and consider both strengths and weaknesses of such approaches!

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