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The Need to Listen Eloquently: Race and Campus Climate(s) Today

Mary K. Rouse, Dean of Students, and Roger Howard, Associate Dean of Students, University of Wisconsin–Madison

As student affairs staff members, we have watched and influenced many changes in our university's racial climate. It is increasingly clear that recruiting and retaining greater numbers of ethnic minority students, faculty, and staff are not only legal requirements and political advantages; they are also critical measures of the quality of our educational environments. We know, however, that the racial climates on campus directly affect our ability to attract and retain a diverse student body.

We offer these comments as a snapshot of where we are now in hopes of helping to chart future courses. While the racial climate at Wisconsin may have improved over the last twenty years, it remains a troubled source of discomfort for many students. An outward appearance of relative calm masks many serious concerns and strong feelings about race and other forms of difference that percolate just below the surface. Our own efforts to encourage honest dialogue and improve the climate at Wisconsin has led us to the following five conclusions:

Majority and minority students differ greatly in their perceptions of campus climate.

We believe that this disparity is fairly common (see Student Expectations and Experiences: The Michigan Study). Minority students, especially African Americans, report significantly lower comfort levels or senses of belonging on our campus than do white students. They believe that a "color-blind America" is a future concept with only a few roots in the ground in the 1990s. Wisconsin sociology professor James Sweet, who recently conducted a survey of student satisfaction levels, concluded that "the differences by ethnicity are quite complex. Black students are much more negative on all measures... than the other groups. Asian students tend to be similar to white students on [all] climate measures, with Hispanic students falling between black and majority white students."

Highly publicized racist incidents tend to generate discussions about the racial climate on campus. Yet when we rely only on explosive incidents to generate discussion about the campus climate, the community gets a distorted view.

If the public hears only about occasional overt racist conduct, we promote the belief that the only negative aspects to a campus's climate are these rare public incidents. This impression can lead to simplistic and ineffective policy responses based on the false assumptions that (1) our campus is a friendly, welcoming community for all persons and (2) we only have to eliminate the few "hotheads" who engage in racist behavior and we will once again be a "color-blind" place, equally hospitable to all persons.

The truth about the racial climate in our communities is much more complicated. The gap between the observations of white and nonwhite students cannot be explained by examining a few overt racial incidents. We must be willing to listen more carefully to minority students, faculty, and staff to hear the nature of the day-in/day-out, routine experiences that contribute to their discomfort. This investigation into the climate on our campuses should be an ongoing part of our analysis of our community. Just as we recognize that developing high quality academic advising programs requires continuous evaluation and attention over many years, so should we realize that improving a university's racial climate will require long-term, intentional effort throughout the university.

The traditional federal/state racial classifications which we have used to measure our success or failure in recruiting and retaining students, faculty, and staff are crumbling.

Our measurement of success in diversifying our campuses and our allocation of support resources depends on self-reported "membership" in particular racial/ethnic groups established by federal and state affirmative action guidelines. As arbitrary as these categories are, they have been essential to our efforts.

Each year, however, there is more uneasiness about our reliance on these crude categories and more dispute about whether or not we should continue to accept self-declaration of ethnic heritage as the basis for our offer of some special services. We do not want to serve as arbiters of debates over whether or not people are who they say they are. But the debates are increasing and causing growing resentment over the allocation of scarce resources.

Increasingly, students do not want to be locked into categories that do not accurately reflect their multiethnic cultural heritages. They resent our forcing them to choose. In the fall of 1995, students at Wisconsin founded the new "Racially Mixed Student Organization." Its purpose was to "establish an identity for students with racially mixed backgrounds. We strive for a better understanding of what it means to be mixed through study and discussion." The group registered again this past fall, but changed its name to "Students Addressing Multiethnicity" (SAME) with a different purpose, "to break down rigid racial definitions and to celebrate our diversity and multiethnicity. Through educational forums, meetings, and political, social, and cultural events, we will address needs, concerns, and issues involving people of color."

Members of groups described as "Hispanic" and "Asian American" are also demanding that we collect more detailed information about self-identification within these larger groupings; they argue that these classifications obscure more than they reveal about real student needs.

Finally, many "majority students" seem increasingly out of patience with the attention given to underrepresented students and look forward optimistically to a "color-blind" America. Some say that too many resources have been siphoned off by a small minority and that minority students ought to be able to make it on their own with no "special" benefits. These sorts of attitudes are reflected in recent court cases on affirmative action.

Intergroup communication among organized groups of students is very poor.

This is a situation we have helped to create through a proliferation of special programs designed to meet the needs of politically active groups or to respond to publicized incidents of racism and inequality on our campus. Student groups are competing for an ever-smaller piece of the pie and do not understand the criteria for the pie's divisions. Commonalities among students are de-emphasized; differences are exaggerated.

Glen Lowery, professor of economics at Boston University, recently suggested that "By celebrating 'difference' and demanding group rights in the name of equality, we have severed bonds of shared experience...and eliminated a sense of mutuality of fate."

Clearly, we must engage in honest dialogue about these issues on our campuses. In our view, however, we need to avoid being trapped in an "either/or" state of mind. We must continue to support historically underrepresented groups of students at the same time we foster intergroup communications and alliances. Every student has multiple identities and we must work to make connections among students through those multiple identities.

We need to listen eloquently.

Even with these disturbing observations, we see reasons for hope. At Wisconsin, we have a multicultural center that incorporates all the minority student groups and encourages joint programming. We see increasing numbers of students, faculty, and staff with more sophisticated understandings of the nature of racism and prejudice who are determined to work over the long term to improve our climate.

We need to "listen eloquently," however, if we are to close the dangerous gap between the university experiences of minority and nonminority students, faculty, and staff. If our observations about racial issues before us are at all accurate, we have our work cut out for us well into the twenty-first century.


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