Racial diversity initiatives absent in college policy
By Julissa Trevino
“There’s a way in which diversity can becomesuch a broad, vague and general term that it means nothing in the end,” said Asma Barlas, professor of politics and program director for Ithaca College’s Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity. “But at the Center we are focused primarily on racial diversity, and from our perspective, this is a pretty homogenous campus. It’s white, middle-class, upper-middle class… I’m not sure how anybody in their right minds could think that’s diverse.”
Still, this is what Ithaca College is labeling as “diversity.” The college’s Diversity Awareness Committee recently developed a new campaign to give the impression the campus is full of different kinds of people. The “i Am Diverse” campaign features fliers with photos of an assortment of individuals on campus that tell of their backgrounds, interests and hobbies. But we are being manipulated into thinking that being born and raised in Long Island, becoming a “soon-to-be middle-aged first-time father”–IC President Thomas Rochon himself–and volunteering makes this campus something other than white, rich and uniform. While the mission of DAC is “to provide educational programs, training sessions and experiential activities on issues of diversity” relevant to IC, what the committee is actually doing with this campaign is portraying the campus in a misleading fashion.
“The ‘i Am Diverse’ campaign completely undermines historic racial and ethnic lack of diversity in institutions of higher education. It does so by claiming that you can be diverse by just being from somewhere different or liking other things than different people,” said sophomore exploratory student Natasha Tanner, who met with Rochon in early March to try to get his stance on the issue. “That undermines the lived experience of people who are of different racial and ethnic minorities than the majority white population.”
Originally from Philadelphia, Tanner came to Ithaca College because of her financial aid package. Because she visited during an Ithaca Today program, in which prospective students get to experience a day in their schools with lectures and various presentations, she said she didn’t get to experience what IC was really like.
“[The lack of racial diversity] pisses me off. And it perpetuates the way of thinking that we’re supposed to speak for our race and we’re the voice for our race. We’re the spokespeople that are supposed to know everything, which is absurd. It’s a constant battle,” she said. “Every day in class, there are students who are oblivious and can be because there’s nothing, besides maybe me, saying that they are.” Tanner, who went to an all-girls public school where about half of the student population was black, said the college is deceptive when it comes to the way the school tries to show its “diversity.”
Various faculty members and students have been quoted in The Ithacan saying diversity means a variety of things—not just race or ethnicity, but backgrounds, hobbies and interests. While this may be true, it takes the focus off the real issue at hand: Ithaca is, in fact, lacking when it comes to race, ethnicity and culture. Based on the enrollment figures of fall 2008, out of 6,446 students attending IC, 4,824 were white–there were only 1,624 students who were either non-white or whose race/ethnicity was unknown. Since 2004, the number of “minority” students has only slightly increased.
“[Ithaca College can] attract a diverse population because you have huge, big cities which are very racially mixed… We can’t pretend that we’re in the middle of, say, Kansas and we can’t attract anybody here,” said Barlas. “We’re on the east coast and there are cities on the east coast that are very racially diverse. There’s a possibility that you could recruit more people.
“I think if you create a critical mass of students and faculty of color, then that becomes a source of attraction [for non-white students].”
Unfortunately, since 2001–when Peggy R. Williams, former IC president, adopted the Institutional Plan, which included policies that led to the establishment of the Division of Interdisciplinary and International Studies, CSRCE and Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholar Program–not much else has been accomplished when it comes to attracting more students of color (aside from the development of the Latino/a Studies and African Diaspora Studies minors in the past two years). While Tanner thinks programs like the MLK Scholar Program are great parts of IC, she also sees it as token “for the institution to point to and say, ‘Look, we’re doing something,’ instead of actually being proactive and taking it a step further.” Tanner, who became an MLK scholar entering her sophomore year, said most of her friends are students of color at Ithaca. She added that when she came to IC, the opportunity opened up for her to make friends who were white, but “people weren’t willing to talk about parts of my identity because it made them uncomfortable,” she said. “At home, there was more of a probability to relate to some of the white people there because of socio-economic statuses. Here, you can’t make that jump.” Tanner is trying to build her own major in African Diaspora, which is currently only offered as a minor.
Barlas says even in her Politics of Identity class, where she sometimes gets an astonishing eight or nine students of color, the dynamics are different when there are students with different backgrounds. It is appalling to see classes at IC that have maybe one or two non-white students. How does this even resemble the real world? In 2008, the U.S. was home to 44 percent of people of ethnic or racial minorities. According to an August 2008 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2042, non-Hispanic whites will no longer make up the majority of the population. It’s doubtful that the same could be true of Ithaca College.
“Of course IC does not represent the population of the United States,” said Rochon, adding that the college is a regional institution. “Ithaca College is not as diverse as it should be… We do everything to present our campus as a diverse campus.”
Perhaps that’s exactly the problem–that Ithaca is, in fact, not diverse, but it attempts to appear to be so. The “i Am Diverse” campaign is only part of a larger issue. The DAC wanted to advertise campus personalities to show people are different, said Brandon Bariles-Swain, one of the committee chairs for DAC and resident director of the Circle apartments–his face can be seen on one of the campaign posters. “The campaign’s goal is to educate students what other definitions of diversity are,” said Bariles-Swain. But doesn’t the campaign just skirt around the real issue?
“[The new president and provost] have been speaking about developing a new integrated curriculum; they’ve been speaking about a strategic vision for the college. And as I have pointed out to President Rochon and to Provost [Kathleen] Rountree, there is really no mention of racial diversity in that new vision, in that new curriculum,” said Barlas. “Just taking that as an example, what message is it sending to people who might be looking at Ithaca College?”
The college has been hypocritically saying for years, in various outlets, that racial diversity is important. Rochon himself said, “This is a very high priority issue.” It’s a matter of social justice and providing students with a quality education, he added, though he dismissed categorizing IC as “white, upper middle-class.”
“There are several initiatives–efforts around recruitment of students, faculty and curriculum–the admissions staff is sensitive to diversity,” said Rochon. But he gave no specific details on what initiatives or strategies are being enacted to ensure racial diversity.
It seems IC students and faculty alike are catching on to the problems with making promises and taking no action. People are noticing that while IC can portray itself as a diverse campus, the school continues to refuse to create initiatives to make it the reality.
“Why not make racial diversity a priority in a meaningful way? Lots of people just say, ‘Yes, well, diversity is a core value at Ithaca College.’ I have heard the president say that,” Barlas said. “But how does that translate into recruitment strategies and retention strategies? If that is going to be a core value, then you need to develop appropriate strategies for putting it into practice.”
Barlas believes this is an issue–and how could it not be? How can an institution simultaneously say to us that racial diversity is a priority but do nothing about it? “We have close and honest relationships with our students,” said Barlas. “At an individual level, I think we’re trying to do the best we can. But at an institutional level, I think just simply even increasing the number of students and faculty of color can create a support group. If you have, say, four faculty on campus [who are non-white], what message is that sending you and what support can those four faculty provide you?”
Julissa Treviño is a junior writing major. E-mail her at jtrevin1[at]ithaca.edu.