What Everybody Isn’t Talking About … (Race and Racism on Campus)

Does the University of Rhode Island have reason to believe that its racial climate is any better or worse than climates at most other institutions? Is the racial atmosphere at URI reflective of the country’s racial climate? How committed is the University to true diversity and unity, to creating a community where everyone’s background is acknowledged and respected, to embracing a safe place where these critical issues can be aired out honestly?

These and other related questions have been asked of dozens of administrators, faculty, students, and staff over the past four months. Some answers emerge: URI is no different from other colleges and probably reflects the general national racial climate; the University seems more committed to diversity and unity than in years past; many people on campus are working to make it a safe place for racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities to have conversation with the majority to improve the atmosphere.

Other answers emerge: Non-white students, in particular black and Hispanic students, say they don’t always feel welcome or appreciated; administrators and staff acknowledge that the University has made little progress in hiring non-white faculty; some faculty believe black students sometimes respond defensively when faulted for inadequate work or for problematic classroom behavior; honest dialogue about race relations hasn’t happened much at the University.

President David Dooley has confronted these issues in a direct way and has encouraged all levels of the University to do so. Referring to a report submitted to him last summer by a coalition of students including racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities as well as disabled students, Dooley said they “have reminded us that the Obama era is not post-racial; all the problems are not solved.”

The students cited incidents of overt bias and harassment, mistreatment by some faculty, and a general sense of not feeling welcome at URI. Provost Donald DeHayes described the students’ individual stories about harassment and mistreatment as “real and moving.” Vice President for Student Affairs Thomas Dougan has maintained contact with the student group, known as I Am U-URI-Unity in Diversity, to discuss their concerns and plans to address them.

Stop the Hate Rally (video at http://web.uri.edu/quadangles/stop-the-hate/): Held on the Quad in fall 2009 and organized by Christina Knoll ’11, second from left, the rally sparked a subsequent Leadership Conference led by Provost Donald DeHayes and Vice President for Student Affairs Tom Dougan that brought together students, faculty, and staff to discuss responses to episodes of intolerance on campus.

It has set the stage for a new conversation about race relations at URI, one punctuated by Dooley’s assertion that it is necessary and practical, not just morally right, to prepare students to work in a multicultural, global environment. “This is the place to have these conversations,” Dooley said. “We are supposed to be preparing students to understand different cultures and to interact in a positive way.”

The students’ report highlighted, among other things, that many issues that black students raised in the 1970s and subsequent decades are still with us. While enrollment of non-white students since the ’70s has increased significantly, and other improvements have been made, in the simplest terms, the racial climate at URI reflects the general racial climate of the country, and it is often cast in a polarizing national conversation that impedes progress. So, what can be done about problems highlighted by students?

“Change begins at a university with the faculty and with curriculum,” says Jason Pina, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “URI is no different than other colleges, and I don’t know of a college that has this figured out. But faculty and staff have to be committed to improving the climate.”

Dooley and Dougan point to the creation of diversity task forces in each administrative department on campus. They note that URI’s Equity Council is examining the climate and recommending improvements. DeHayes said the provost’s Task Force has developed a set of multicultural competencies for students, and he wants to offer workshops to consider implementing these in the General Education curriculum.

President Dooley has recommended hiring an administrator for community equity and diversity to coordinate efforts to improve the climate. In another initial step, DeHayes has arranged for campus-wide posting of URI Cornerstones, a philosophical statement proclaiming the University’s values and emphasizing respect across cultures. The Alumni Relations office is reaching out directly to alumni of color through Michelle Fontes-Barros ’96, the assistant director who has created an Alumni of Color Network that supports a new mentoring program for students, and the Division of University Advancement has made a concerted effort to diversify images used in promoting the University to reflect a more welcoming atmosphere for people of color. Fontes-Barros, who was part of a black student protest in 1992 as an undergraduate, said she considers it her job to encourage diversity in her own division, and Pina notes that leaders in other areas of the University must do so as well.

The Equity Council, a group of more than 40 faculty, staff, and students that examines equity issues on campus and makes recommendations to the president, generally agreed at a recent meeting that their existence is evidence of change. The group agreed that attitudes opposing diversity still exist and incidents of bias have occurred, but the University is working to change this. The University has also created a bias response team to look into specific student complaints and to recommend disciplinary and corrective action.

“There’s a long way to go,” says Equity Council Co-chair Gerald Williams ’92, M.A. ’00, who is director of Special Programs for Talent Development. “There aren’t enough non-white faculty. The African-American Studies program is nearly extinct. But the Equity Council is a sign of progress.”

The 2010 Honors Colloquium, entitled simply “Race,” was designed to encourage dialogue about these difficult issues. “I became involved in this because I wanted to open a can of worms,” said Gail Faris, director of URI’s Women’s Center and one of the faculty coordinators of the colloquium. “There are numerous offenses all the time on campus, whether they are naïve or not.”

Faris, a member of the Equity Council, and her colleagues Kyle Kusz and Lynne Derbyshire, who all taught a course on race in the fall semester, said they were encouraged by students’ willingness to discuss the tough issues. In another class in the fall semester on Mass Media and Race Relations, students were asked to identify one thing they had learned about themselves from reading, watching films, and class discussions. Overwhelmingly the white students acknowledged that they were unaware of how prevalent racial stereotyping has been in the media or how significantly they were influenced by it.

Veteran URI History Professor Robert Weisbord, who has taught African-American history since the mid-1960s, said white students seemed more aware of issues and problems in the ’60s and ’70s than they do now. “What happens here is a reflection of society as a whole,” Weisbord said.

Marc Hardge ’03, an assistant director of Talent Development, which enrolls many students of color each year, says faculty are critical to improving the racial atmosphere for everyone. “Faculty have to make an effort to understand students of color and the differences among them,” said Hardge, who was involved in student protests in the ’90s that targeted mistreatment, lack of black faculty, and other issues. “Too often we hear from students that faculty are treating them the way I was treated as an undergraduate.”

That treatment, according to students interviewed for this article, includes assumptions that if they are black or Hispanic, they must be Talent Development students, and if they are in Talent Development, they are not properly prepared for college or capable of college work. Senior biology and French major Max Edmonds, who is not in Talent Development, recalled a class he took as a freshman where the professor ignored him for the first month, deliberately looking away from him during class, but that changed when he scored an A on the first test. “After that, he paid a lot of attention to me,” said Edmonds, who is bi-racial. “I know a lot of students who have had that kind of experience where teachers assume they will fail.”

Rhode Laurent, a senior nursing major and a Talent Development student, said a professor once remarked to her, “Your grades are pretty good for a Talent Development kid.” Laurent, who is a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and URI’s student chapter of the NAACP, said she takes such experiences as incentive to work harder to counteract that attitude.

In Hardge’s opinion, only students with Laurent’s personality and confidence will fight back in that manner. “Most students of color on a predominantly white campus are going to withdraw if they are treated that way,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to change the atmosphere, to get faculty to develop the kind of empathy they should have. It’s not easy, but it has to be done.”

The associate director of Talent Development, Sharon Forleo ’72, M.A. ’94, who has worked in the program since the early 1970s, said communication to faculty and students about the program could encourage greater understanding. Forleo notes that 10 percent of Talent Development students make the dean’s list every semester, and the program has produced doctors, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. But she and others in Talent Development insist that only a small number of faculty seem interested to learn about the program.

“People don’t ask why so many students of color who are not in TD gravitate here,” said Assistant Director Edward Givens ’88. “It’s because it’s the one place where they feel comfortable and safe.”

Jason Pina points to the College of Engineering as a model for diversity efforts. The college recruits women and students of color through the work of Charles Watson ’93, who serves as coordinator of minority recruitment and retention. He has created programs that identify students in middle school and high school and that encourages them to pursue engineering. Once at URI, the students are linked to internships, mentoring programs with professional engineers, and laboratory research with professors. Watson says there are at least 50 students of color who have graduated in recent years who are working as professional engineers in corporations and in government.

“We still have some faculty who expect students of color to fail,” Watson said. “We’re working together to provide the support the students need to succeed. It’s the same we do for all our students.”

Dayle Joseph, M.S. ’75, dean of the College of Nursing, has established a summer program offering additional instruction to students of color: “We have students of color that we know would make great nurses, but some of them struggle because they face daunting personal circumstances. We want to do whatever we can to help them achieve their goals.”

Some might see such efforts as preferential treatment, but that is exactly why the I Am U-URI student leaders insist the climate should be addressed, including black students who say they have had positive experiences at URI. Tyrene Jones, a 2010 graduate in political science and English, said she often saw restrained conversation in class. “White students didn’t want to say the wrong thing, and black students didn’t want to always be the voice for all black students,” she said.

Creating greater opportunities for students of color is one thing; altering the climate of interaction is another. Douglas Tondreau, another of the student leaders, says it’s natural for students to gravitate towards others like themselves, but that shouldn’t excuse hurtful or hostile behavior. “It is possible to unite and still be different,” said Tondreau, a triple major preparing for law school. “The entire campus has to be sensitized to this.”

Some students are trying to improve the situation. Gianna Prata, vice president of the Student Senate, opened a dialogue with students of color last year as chair of the Senate’s cultural affairs committee. “We had received a lot of complaints that we did not understand the value of certain cultural organizations,” she said. “I reached out to multicultural groups and told them I wanted to listen. We created a cultural fair, and we now are funding more multicultural groups. It’s all about promoting unity.”

No aspect of this article aroused more sensitivity than the number of black and Hispanic faculty. Most students of color interviewed said they either never had a black teacher or no more than one or two. The University has never had a high number of black faculty; the figure is currently somewhere around 16. Jody Lisberger, director of the Women’s Studies program, says “it’s a disgrace” that there are so few black faculty: “Students need to be exposed to a wide range of faculty; it just takes a committed effort to hire non-white faculty. We’ve done it in our program.”

Donald Cunnigen, professor of sociology, says the atmosphere for black faculty is often unsupportive and sometimes hostile. He co-authored a report with Library Sciences Professor Donna Gilton in 2007 as part of a University commission on the status of women, faculty of color, and students of color, that listed incidents where black faculty felt abused by colleagues or department chairs to the point where they left the University for other jobs. Cunnigen notes that black faculty see almost no persons of color in administrative positions, which makes it difficult to feel confident that their issues will be dealt with fairly. Similarly, the lack of black faculty means fewer mentors for black students.

Incidents of overt bigotry or racial hatred that have occurred from time to time on campus, as happened in the fall 2009 semester, tend to bring out the underlying resentments that instigate protests. But Pina doesn’t see those incidents as a barometer of the racial climate or a springboard for changing the climate. Instead, he says, without commitment from the top, including curricular change, the University will not become truly diverse.

President Dooley has set a tone of commitment. Who will join?

By John Pantalone ’71