For University, diversity still a pressing issue

One year after the Morrill Hall protest, some are still skeptical of the U’s diversity efforts.

Brian Edwards

Since a sit-in at Morrill Hall last February, the University of Minnesota has introduced a number of initiatives to address growing concerns about a lack of diversity at the school.
 
 
But some students say they’re skeptical whether the University’s diversity-boosting efforts are enough.
 
 
Student advocacy groups, like Whose Diversity? and Asian and Pacific Islanders for Equity and Diversity, laid out demands last year urging the University to become more diverse.
 
“The subjective experiences of people struggling are not being talked about,” said Rahsaan Mahadeo, a doctoral student studying sociology and member of Whose Diversity?.
 
 
Abeer Syedah, vice president for the Minnesota Student Association said students of color can sometimes feel unwelcome on campus because of the lack of diversity. She also said initiatives, like the Campus Climate Working Group that she takes part in, aren’t always given the tools they need to be successful.
 
 
“The message that the University sends about diversity is certainly more romanticized than it is,” she said.
 
 
The demands of Whose Diversity? and APIs for Equity and Diversity include measures to increase the number of students and faculty of color.
 
 
The number of students of color at the University matches closely with the state’s demographic numbers, but lag far behind Minneapolis’ numbers, particularly in relation to black and Latino students.

 
 
Black students make up about 4 percent of the University’s population, but nearly 18 percent of Minneapolis’ population is black. Faculty numbers are even lower, with about 2 percent of faculty identifying as black.
 
 
Latino students represent about 3 percent of the University’s student population, while almost 10 percent of the city’s population said they are Latino, according to census
data.
 
 
The University has not addressed the root cause of the lack of diversity on campus, said David Melendez, a graduate student in theater and dance and member of Whose Diversity?.
 
 
More faculty of varying backgrounds will help patch up a lack of diversity at the school, he said, but it won’t fix the source of the issue, which he said is the disconnect between the University’s plans for diversity and its actions. 
 
 
He said the The Race, Indigeneity, Gender and Sexuality Studies Initiative — a plan by the school to hire more diverse faculty members — is “a Band-Aid fix” to the issue.
 
 
Although the University had proposed the RIGS initiative before the sit-in at Morrill Hall, the school didn’t take action until after the protests, Mahadeo said, adding that Whose Diversity? wasn’t given any credit when the school announced the cluster hire.
 
 
Last year, the school announced a cluster hire of four faculty members as part of RIGS. 
 
 
“RIGS is manifesting, but we were criminalized for the actions that made it,” Mahadeo said, in reference to the University pursuing student conduct code violations against Mahadeo and Melendez after the protest.
 
 
The two students didn’t experience any legal punishment, and on Dec. 11, they were found not to be in violation of student conduct codes, he said. Still, Melendez and Mahadeo remain banned from Morrill Hall for a year.
 
 
Mahadeo said the drawn out threat of punishment could discourage students from speaking out.
 
 
The University acknowledges that the solution to diversity issues at the school doesn’t end with the faculty cluster hire, said Karen Hanson, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost.
 
 
“If an institution thinks that hiring underrepresented faculty will solve their problems, that’s a burden on the faculty hired,” she said.
 
 
Both students and faculty with different backgrounds are needed at a University, Hanson said, because including having a wide array of experiences can improve the learning process for everyone.
 
 
She said hiring faculty from diverse backgrounds shouldn’t be an add-on but needs to be an implicit part of the hiring process.
 
 
The University is attempting to add new, diverse faculty in a variety of ways, like reviewing the “short list” of a department’s request to hire new employees to make sure it made a concerted effort to attract faculty of color, she said.
 
 
Catherine Squires, communication studies professor and director of the RIGS initiative, said in an emailed statement that the RIGS search has been focused on the cluster hires. She added that she has seen great enthusiasm for RIGS, but the high expectations for the initiative are a little worrisome.
 
 
“We have a long road ahead of us as a college and a university to make sure we engage effectively with the issues and create new ways to ensure an equitable campus,” Squires said in an emailed statement. “RIGS cannot and should not be the only vehicle for that process of change.”