Administration

Diversity Officers Under Trump: Rattled but Voicing Resolve

March 15, 2017

The task of making college students feel welcome on campus has been greatly complicated by both the election of President Trump and the political currents that helped put him in office, said campus diversity officers who gathered here on Tuesday.

As the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education convened its annual conference, participants and guest speakers described themselves as shell-shocked by his victory and alarmed by the impact that the nation’s growing political polarization has had on their institutions.

"Divisiveness seems, increasingly, to be the worry of the day," Kim E. Schatzel, president of Towson University, said in moderating a panel focused on maintaining healthy campus climates.

Having spent much of the previous academic year dealing with a wave of protests by minority students who felt uncomfortable on campus, college administrators reported on Tuesday that they now confront an onslaught of anonymous expressions of hate directed at those same populations. President Trump’s statements and directives dealing with immigrants and other minority populations have contributed to the students’ unease, they said.

"It’s a tough time," said Archie W. Ervin, who is president of the diversity officers’ association and chief diversity officer at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He said the association has felt compelled to reconstitute a committee that reviews federal and state policies to be able to react more quickly to news from the White House.

Into the Fray

Among those who spoke at the conference, Kathy E. Johnson, chief academic officer at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, described a "steady negative undercurrent" caused by the posting of hate-filled fliers on campus. The fliers, which began appearing on campus early last fall, have become much more common in the wake of the November election. She said that they appear to be the work of national organizations commonly associated with the "alt-right" and that they feature attacks on gay students or slogans such as "Black Lives Don’t Matter." Anonymous social media has amplified the discomfort many students are feeling, by, for example, subjecting Muslim students to frequent accusations of connections with terrorism, Ms. Johnson said.

Conference participants described a host of obstacles that diversity officers face in trying to make campuses feel inclusive. Among Tuesday’s presenters, Alison Akant, founder of DiversityEdu LLC, a company that provides online diversity courses, argued that "the elephant in the room" is outright resistance to efforts to promote diversity, by people who tune out such efforts or challenge them.

Ms. Johnson of Indiana described dealing with faculty members who "are terrified of doing the wrong thing," and said her institution has expanded the offerings of its center on teaching and learning to help instructors better deal with diversity-related issues.

Freeman H. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, urged conference attendees to maintain campuses that are open to debate even if it means some people might be offended. "You don’t change hearts and attitudes when people only say the things that they think will keep people happy," he said.

Ms. Schatzel of Towson University said recent developments have served to expand the universe of students that diversity offices need to be looking after, by, for example, focusing more attention on the worries of immigrant students and the need to maintain ideological diversity on campus.

"It is exhausting for us all," said Denise B. Maybank, vice president for student affairs and services at Michigan State University. But, she said, "We have to decide we are stepping into the fray."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.