By JOHN ELIGON
FEBRUARY 3, 2016
Scott N. Brooks, draped in a dapper shawl-collar sweater, looked out on the auditorium of mostly white students in puffy coats and sweats as they silently squirmed at his question. Why, he had asked, does Maria Sharapova, a white Russian tennis player, earn nearly twice as much in endorsements as Serena Williams, an African-American with a much better win-loss record?
“We like to think it’s all about merit,” said Dr. Brooks, a sociology professor at the University of Missouri, speaking in the casual cadence of his days as a nightclub D.J. “It’s sport. Simply, the best should earn the most money.”
Maybe tennis is not as popular here as overseas, one student offered. Dr. Brooks countered: Ms. Williams is a global figure. As the room fell silent, the elephant settled in. Most sat still, eyes transfixed on the stage. None of the participants — roughly 70 students new to the University of Missouri — dared to offer the reason for the disparity that seemed most obvious. Race.
The new frontier in the university’s eternal struggle with race starts here, with blunt conversations that seek to bridge a stark campus divide. Yet what was evident in this pregnant moment during a new diversity session that the university is requiring of all new students was this: People just don’t want to discuss it.
The racist episodes that rocked the Missouri campus last fall, leading to resignations by its president and chancellor, set administrators here and around the country on frantic course correction efforts. They have held town halls to hear students’ complaints, convened task forces to study campus climates, adjusted recruiting strategies and put in place new sessions on implicit bias and diversity, like the one Dr. Brooks spoke at, held in mid-January.
More an introduction to the diversity on campus than an instruction manual for navigating it, the session featured eight professors who spoke about their teaching and research that related to race and culture. One presented a campus survey showing how Missouri students’ attitudes broke down based on their race (for instance, about 63 percent of black students identified as liberal, while only 38 percent of whites did). Another discussed myths about Islam and offered a few surprising facts (the country’s oldest mosque is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa). Yet another talked about cultural appropriation (Mexican-themed costume parties can be offensive).
And then there was Dr. Brooks, a 43-year-old African-American who teaches “Race and Ethnic Relations” and challenged the students to think about race through the prism of sports. He offered a gentle explanation of the Williams/Sharapova discrepancy: “Maria is considered a beauty queen, but by what standards of beauty? Some people might just say, ‘Oh, well, she’s just prettier.’ Well, according to whom? This spells out how we see beauty in terms of race, this idea of femininity. Serena is often spoofed for her big butt. She’s seen as too muscular.”
After the session, Dr. Brooks told me: “There’s still a reluctance to want to use the explanation of race, racism. I think that becomes part of what we try to do.”
The professors hoped the session would get students interested in exploring and embracing different cultures — to “stretch,” as Antonio Castro, an education professor, called it. “You have to be willing to take on opportunities to do something you haven’t considered before,” he advised students.
Such is the ideal, a campus where diversity is embedded in the everyday routine.
College officials have spent decades rolling out one initiative after the next, from scholarships to summer bridge programs to race-conscious admissions, to attract students from underrepresented populations. Since 1980, the percentage of blacks and Hispanics attending higher education institutions has more than doubled, from 13 percent to 28 percent in 2014, while the white population has dipped to about 52 percent from 84.
Yet administrators might have been missing a trickier truth: Diversity is one thing, inclusion is another.
Yes, colleges have brought more minorities to campus. But that has not necessarily meant success. The four-year graduation rate for black students who started college in 2007 was 21 percent, a mere 1 percentage point higher than for the 1996 cohort. (At the same time, the rate for white students went up 7 percentage points, to 43 percent.) According to the latest data from the Consortium for Student Retention Data Exchange, a quarter of black students left their campus after freshman year, compared with 16 percent of white students.
All too often, administrators and students say, universities have allowed, and in some ways fostered, siloed existences in which different races barely interact with one another. Academic support services and social events bring together students of the same race; thematic freshman interest groups and housing cluster like-minded classmates. Students — black and white — self-segregate in Greek life and even campus cafeterias. “Rather than integrating these students into the fabric of the institutions, they created separate and distinct systems for them,” said E. Andre Thorn, who worked in academic retention services at Missouri before directing the multicultural center at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
When she set off to write her doctoral dissertation for the University of Maryland about eight years ago, Leah K. Cox sought to find out what colleges could do to increase interaction between races. She surveyed about 20 liberal arts institutions and concluded in her thesis, “Interactional Diversity and the Role of a Supportive Racial Climate,” that “when students feel comfortable, their desire to interact with other students, faculty and staff is greater.”
Dr. Cox, now special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., remembers the days when conversations about creating diverse and inclusive campuses were confined to whispers among a small community that cared. “Now,” she said, “people are asking to talk about it.” In her 30 years in academia, she’s never seen anything like it.
Inclusion starts with ensuring that minority students are “not on campus in token amounts,” said Linda S. Greene, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has served in various administrative roles that included diversity work. While some universities, particularly wealthy elites and flagships, conduct outreach to minority high school students, Ms. Greene challenges them to be as committed to building diverse and thriving student bodies as they are to recruiting top-flight athletes. She advocates identifying, developing and nurturing minorities as early as kindergarten, and investing in research on initiatives that drive success. “The big picture for me is this: You can determine an institution’s priorities by its dollar commitments,” she said. “We know what it takes for stem cell advancements and transplantation breakthroughs. When diversity becomes important enough, those commitments will be made.”
The terms “campus climate” and “inclusion” have taken off as diversity buzzwords. The University of Minnesota has established the Campus Climate Workgroup to study the problem and announced in January that it was creating a bias response team on the Twin Cities campus. At the University of Texas, Austin, the Campus Climate Response Team has been busy: In its second year, 2013-14, students reported 69 distinct incidents, 75 the following year and 53 this fall alone. Experts say bias complaints tend to be underreported, so increases indicate that the online resource has made students more comfortable reporting problems.
Since the campus uprisings last fall, students have been emboldened to complain about racial slurs yelled across campus as well as subtle but offensive messages from white students and professors, who look to them in class to answer questions about minorities and signal low expectations. Reuben Faloughi, a doctoral psychology student and member of the black protest group Concerned Student 1950, told me people often assume he’s on a sports team. Is being an athlete or an entertainer “the only thing I can be successful at?” he asked.
Benjamin D. Reese Jr., vice president for institutional equity at Duke University and chairman of the national association for college diversity officers, is in high demand these days, getting more requests to deliver lectures about bias than he can fulfill. “I think where we’re at now is a recognition on the part, primarily of students, that there’s a lot of work that’s been left undone,” he said.
One call came from Chuck Henson, named Missouri’s interim vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity last November, a day after Timothy M. Wolfe, the university system’s president, resigned. Mr. Henson invited Dr. Reese to campus to give faculty and staff members a lecture on implicit bias. To illustrate the attitudes and beliefs lurking below the surface, Dr. Reese flashed photographs of people on a projection screen and asked the audience to shout the first thing that came to mind. A picture of a heavyset black man, sitting with his leg propped up and wearing a suit, elicited “heavy,” “musician,” “bookie” and “savvy.” He was Tyrone B. Hayes, a biologist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.
The lecture was just one step Mr. Henson has taken as he faces the daunting task of turning around a race problem that has haunted the university for decades. At about 7 percent of the student body and 3 percent of the faculty, African-Americans remain underrepresented in a state that is nearly 12 percent black. Calls for diversity have ebbed and flowed over the years along with black enrollment. Like other public universities in the Midwest, Missouri draws large numbers of rural and urban students, two cohorts that tend to be opposites in terms of race, culture and experience, which officials say makes nurturing understanding between them that much harder.
On paper, the university has done plenty to address diversity. An initiative that began more than a decade ago included a two-day summit, a campus climate study and a program called Difficult Dialogues, in which faculty members learned techniques in conversing on controversial topics and conflict resolution. But faculty, students and administrators say such efforts never seemed central to life on campus.
Reaching students where they live starts with administrators simply listening, said Mr. Henson, a Yale and Georgetown Law graduate who carefully weighs every word he speaks. He remembers the reaction of students at Mizzou Hillel after sitting with them for about two hours last November to hear about their experiences on campus. Weeks earlier, a swastika had been found smeared on a bathroom wall with feces.
“What kind of overwhelmed me, and still does as I reflect on it, is how happy they were that we just sat there and listened,” Mr. Henson said. “If you are interested in a relationship, particularly in a circumstance where one is in a position of authority, my personal belief is you don’t wait for someone to reach out to you. The right thing is to take the first step. Not to pretend that something didn’t happen or that whatever happened didn’t have a sufficient magnitude to cause you to react to it.”
Since taking on the new role, Mr. Henson has met with many student leaders, protesters, faculty members and administrators. He tapped the head of the black studies department and of women’s and gender studies to organize diversity sessions for incoming students. With the help of the Missouri historical society, he has organized a lecture series about the history of African-Americans in the state. But really, Mr. Henson said, creating the nurturing environment the university wants will take more than a series of programs.
A little more than a year ago, Craig Roberts, a plant scientist and chairman of Missouri’s Faculty Council, was sitting in on a session organized by R. Bowen Loftin, the flagship’s chancellor at the time, to allow black students to air their concerns after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. A white Mississippi native with a twang and a frothy smile, Dr. Roberts is as conservative as they come. He had never seen race as a problem in more than a quarter century on campus. But that night he heard the testimony of black students.
He was convinced. “They weren’t just telling how they’ve been treated,” he said. “They were giving each other tips on how to cope with this when it happens.” (One student pulls into the nearest gas station when he sees the police behind him.)
Dr. Roberts had an idea: a race relations committee. He tapped Berkley Hudson, a fellow Mississippian who teaches journalism, to lead it. They recruited people who had experienced racism as well as those who were skeptical that the campus actually had a problem. The hope was to have honest conversations about their differences and come to understand and respect one another. They would then figure out ways to replicate their methods campuswide.
The committee ended up with four women and eight men — five white, five black and two Hispanic. Two members were students, including Jonathan Butler, a graduate student whose hunger strike in November grabbed headlines.
A meeting last fall serves to illustrate how the experiment works.
Raymond Massey, a white, Bible-quoting professor of agricultural and applied economics who is skeptical of claims of racism on campus, described how he had asked his students what they thought of the university’s latest episode, a slur hurled at a black student group. But instead of addressing that incident, a white student interjected that she had been terrified when demonstrators staged a die-in, lying silently on the floor of the student union in protest of police violence against blacks. She was afraid to get up from her seat. She couldn’t get around them, she said. And she feared if she left, they’d call her racist.
As Dr. Massey spoke, Corie Wilkins fumed. Mr. Wilkins, an African-American in his senior year studying journalism, was unmoved and, in fact, offended. The die-in was peaceful, he argued, and white people didn’t have to worry about facing violence on campus. “Now if this was a black person coming out of work late at night and there’s three, four white guys standing around their car, that, to me, that’s real fear,” he said.
Dr. Massey shot back: How could Mr. Wilkins validate his own fears but not the woman’s? Mr. Wilkins countered: Because there was no history of racist attacks against whites on campus. Back and forth they went, until Michael A. Middleton, a committee member who is now interim president of the four-campus university system, intervened. “We have to understand each other if we hope to be understood,” Mr. Middleton, who is black, told them. “So we need to think through why she felt unsafe and understand that she did feel unsafe and deal with that. Just as we’re asking the white population to deal with the fear a black student has walking across campus.”
Voices eventually came back down. Tempers simmered. This was precisely the type of emotional untangling the committee was working toward.
“If we commit to a better understanding of why we as individuals act, speak, think, behave the way we do,” Mr. Henson said, “we are in a much better position as individuals to have a culture that we can share. I’m not asking you to change your beliefs. I’m asking you to think about what your beliefs are and why you have them.”
Dr. Massey said that what resonated for him was how quick he had been to embrace the white student’s fear but he had not done the same with black students. “I saw it as a pervasive problem that everybody was looking at their own side and understood their perspective,” he said. “They didn’t understand the other person’s perspective.”
Mr. Wilkins said he learned that tone matters. He cannot get too excited every time he hears something he doesn’t like. “I can admit that that wasn’t the time to assert my point the way I did,” he said.
Now the committee is wrestling with how to export what they are doing. They have released video confessionals of members talking about race and they plan to shoot more. They hope to go to like-minded cohorts to help them grapple with the issues they themselves have struggled with in committee meetings.
“We realize,” Mr. Hudson said, “we are writing a script to how to have these conversations about race.”