ADVERTISEMENT
Race on Campus

Engage in higher ed’s conversations about racial equity and inclusion. Delivered on Tuesdays.

March 23, 2021

From: Katherine Mangan

Subject: Race on Campus: When Diversity Wasn't Enough, One College Created a Blueprint for Belonging

Welcome to Race on Campus. This week, we’ll share how Albion College responded when it found that being on campus is not the same as belonging. Then we’ll talk with one diversity officer about why colleges need to educate students and faculty members on anti-Asian racism. And we’ll share the details on an upcoming virtual event featuring student-body presidents of color.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

‘That Work Belongs to All of Us.’

Albion College’s shift over the past six years from 18- to 41-percent students of color was a welcome accomplishment for a campus seeking greater diversity. But it soon became clear that the rural college in south central Michigan hadn’t done enough to prepare for the rapid transformation of its student body or to ensure that its new students felt welcome.

Like many other financially strapped private colleges, Albion has reached deep into its endowment to offer steep tuition discounts to attract students. The tuition breaks have helped persuade Black and Latino students from Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston to take a chance on a small-town Midwestern college.

Being there, many discovered, wasn’t the same as fitting in. That’s something the college is trying to change with the appointment of the college’s first chief belonging officer, Keena Williams, a 2009 Albion graduate. It’s Williams’s job, as a member of the president’s cabinet, to make sure that everyone at Albion is working to ensure that diverse students, faculty, and staff members feel welcomed and valued.

Keena Williams
Keena Williams, chief belonging officer at Albion College

“Diversity is not the responsibility of one office or one person,” says Williams, who is also the college’s Title IX coordinator. “That work belongs to all of us.” The college, she said, suffered “growing pains” in recent years.

As their numbers increased, Latino students were sometimes asked why they were speaking Spanish as they walked across the quad, Williams said. Black students gathering with friends were accused of being too loud or acting “too ghetto.” White students flocked to parties in mostly white fraternities, but there were no predominantly Black fraternities.

The 2016 election of Donald Trump exacerbated simmering racial tensions as students were confronted on campus with signs like “Build a Wall” and “KKK.” The racial makeup of the faculty and staff doesn’t yet mirror that of the students, 18 percent of whom are Black and 14 percent Hispanic. This year’s incoming class included 48-percent students of color.

The college has gone all in with the focus on belonging, creating an Office of Belonging and a Blueprint for Belonging, to which each department, unit, and club, from the chemistry department to the custodial staff to the Student Senate, is required to contribute. As part of the yearlong process that will culminate in the release of public recommendations in June, each must create actionable goals to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. The reports will influence funding and training, as well as personnel evaluations.

In some ways, Albion’s focus on belonging is a natural evolution of the shift from a focus on diversity to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The latter acknowledges that it isn’t enough to bring people into the room if their voices aren’t heard, their opinions valued, and their experiences validated.

“Belonging takes us past diversity, equity, and inclusion and asks us to be a place where Albion feels like home to everyone,” says Mathew B. Johnson, who became president in July. That includes people of all races, genders, and sexualities.

As he sees it, DEI efforts all stem from the perspective of the majority person, while belonging puts the spotlight where it should be. “It’s this idea that the learner needs to be the center of what we do, and if the learner doesn’t feel like they belong, that’s a problem with the institution, not the learner,” Johnson said in an interview.

When Williams was serving as the college’s main diversity officer, any issue related to diversity ended up in her lap, the president said. “It was her job to handle it, which basically meant to make it go away.” That’s a typical complaint by campus diversity officers who describe feeling overwhelmed by unrealistic expectations. Johnson thought the college could do better by dispersing responsibility and proactively creating more-welcoming communities. Other colleges have started to emphasize the concept of belonging, and Johnson said he wanted to be part of that change.

Students who feel that they don’t belong expend cognitive energy that can interfere with academics, he says. Their brains are forced to work overtime when confronted with microaggressions and more overt signs of racism.

Among the changes the college has made: When administrators realized that minority students were more likely than their white counterparts to stick it out in a class they were failing, they made the add/drop system less intimidating so everyone had the same opportunity to avoid an F.

Johnson has heard the complaints from those who say diversity work isn’t something they’re qualified to do. “Twenty-five percent will openly resist,” he says. “There’s a lot of, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ which is a cop-out. Of course it’s hard. There’s not a user’s manual for figuring out the legacy of systemic racism.”

Some worry about “saying the wrong thing” when tackling sensitive topics around race, Williams says. “Part of it is heart work, not just head work, and thinking deeply about what kind of institution we want to be for our students.”

With the blueprint, she says, “We’ll no longer be preaching to the choir. I want to bring everyone into the conversation.” —Katie Mangan

Combatting Anti-Asian Sentiment.

Last week, eight people were shot and killed at spas in and around Atlanta. Six were of Asian descent, but the attack has not been classified as a hate crime, prompting outrage from those who say discrimination against Asian Americans is under-recognized.

Colleges need to talk about the complex history of violence in the U.S. against Asian and Asian Americans, says Ria DasGupta, chief diversity officer for academic affairs and community outreach at Georgian Court University. If people don’t understand history, these tragedies will repeat themselves, she says.

Growing anti-Asian sentiment was already sounding alarms on college campuses as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the U.S. For some Asian and Asian American students, that discrimination grew and followed them off campus during remote learning.

It may seem difficult to picture what Asian discrimination looks like. Part of that challenge comes from the model-minority myth, DasGupta says. This is the idea that Asian Americans are ideal American minorities because many speak proficient English, or are propped up as American success stories. That sentiment has spread to colleges, DasGupta says. Institutions see that Asian students are well-represented in their student populations, or pass at good rates, she says, which can lead colleges to ignore instances of discrimination or fail to create resources for Asian students.

“What gets lost is that there are students who are suffering in silence,” she says. “Not only students: There are faculty members and staff members who are also suffering in silence too because there is no avenue for them to express without them feeling like a weak person.”

If an Asian or Asian American student or faculty member is distressed or experiencing discrimination, there’s not always a clear place for them to turn to on campus, especially if institutions cling to the idea that Asian Americans should succeed at all costs.

There should be targeted training on campuses to address the needs of the Asian American community, just like there should be similar anti-racism about the needs of, among others, Black, Latino, and Ingenious communities, DasGupta says. —Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez

Hear From Student-Body Presidents of Color.

The faces of student representation are changing. Presidents elected to lead student bodies at several predominantly white institutions this year are the first Black student in the role. Emphasizing issues like diversity and inclusion, they are driving change on their campuses. Sign up here to hear how — and tune in live next Monday or later on demand.

Read Up.

  • In the San Francisco Bay Area, Covid-19 infection rates for Latinos are four times higher than white residents’ rates. This investigation found that unequal testing in Latino neighborhoods and a lack of bilingual translators led to the disparity. (The Mercury News)
  • A sociologist explains how immigration policies and the over-sexualization of Asian women led to recent surges of violence against Asian American women. (The 19th)
  • One company wants to improve diversity and inclusion training with virtual reality. Will it work? (The Washington Post)
  • Brian Rice is like many athletic 16-year-olds. He’s played baseball, soccer, basketball, and football. But nothing compares to snowboarding. He wants to be the first Black snowboarder from the U.S. to compete in the Olympics. (The New York Times)

—Fernanda
Correction: Last week’s newsletter misstated the degree that Ángel Gonzalez is seeking. It is an Ed.D., not a Ph.D.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, student success, and job training, as well as free speech and other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.
Fernanda is newsletter product manager at The Chronicle. She is the voice behind Chronicle newsletters like the Weekly Briefing, Five Weeks to a Better Semester, and more. She also writes about what Chronicle readers are thinking. Send her an email at fernanda@chronicle.com.