University tackles diversity shortages

A report found disparities in student experience, spurring new ideas to diversify campus.

Parker Lemke

University of Minnesota students of color are less likely to feel welcomed and respected on campus compared to their white peers, a new report found.

Campus leaders hope to change that with a new plan to recruit more students, faculty and staff from underrepresented populations and promote respect for all cultures.

“We cannot be an excellent university without being a diverse university,” President Eric Kaler said. “Being in a situation where you’re the only person of color in a classroom or the only person of color on your dorm floor does, I think, make you feel like you’re not a part of that community,”

Amid recurrent criticism of the school’s commitment to diversity, Kaler assembled a committee of administrators last spring to create the Campus Climate Report, which was released late last week. The group held listening sessions, met with student groups and reviewed student experience surveys over the past several months.

To improve the state of the campus, the report outlines plans to bring in more students of color by reaching out to schools in the Twin Cities and increasing scholarships for those who “contribute to student body diversity.”

The University is particularly interested in increasing the enrollment and retention of black men, said Shakeer Abdullah, assistant vice president of the Office for Equity and Diversity.

Less than 5 percent of students enrolled at the Twin Cities campus last fall were black, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

Diversity needs can vary across departments, Abdullah said. Some might lack students of color, he said, while others could use more women.

“It makes it harder for folks to imagine themselves here if they don’t always see people who look like them here,” Abdullah said.

But simply increasing diversity won’t solve the problem. The University needs to foster a campus that’s friendlier to all types of backgrounds, he said.

“You can have numbers all day, but if folks are isolated and not engaging, they are not going to fit in,” Abdullah said.

Minority faculty, cultural centers seek support

While Al-Madinah Cultural Center president Nora Nashawaty said the University community seems more diverse than most of the state, she still rarely comes across faculty who share her cultural heritage.

“I’ve never had a Muslim professor … I have never had an Arabic professor,” she said.

The University plans to increase the diversity of candidates in its faculty search pools to help tackle that problem, according to the report.

But this isn’t the first time the school has promised to increase the number of underrepresented faculty and staff, said Edén Torres, associate professor and chair of the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies.

“For years, that has been the mantra,” she said, “[but] I haven’t always seen that happen.”

The Chicano and Latino studies department has recently been in flux because it only had one full-time faculty member, Torres told the Minnesota Daily in November.

While she said the report did a fair job of capturing the feelings of people of color on campus, the University will need to follow through on its plans create a better environment.

Nashawaty also said the school could improve how it distributes resources to cultural student groups.

She said the committees that have judged groups’ student services fees applications in previous years have been comprised of mostly white people and men, which she said could possibly influence how much money they receive.

To help obtain feedback from student groups, the University plans to launch a Student Climate Advisory group this semester made up of representatives from cultural centers and student government leaders, said Lamar Hylton, an assistant vice provost in the Office for Student Affairs.

“That will kind of allow us in [OSA] to get the pulse of campus climate from a student perspective more readily and more frequently,” he said, adding that the feedback will help shape future policies and programs.

With a report in hand, the University will now begin working on implementing ideas, Abdullah said.

“We’ve got some evidence, now let’s sit down, let’s kind of review what people are talking about [and] look at specifics,” he said.