Thursday, September 3, 2015

ACTION, NOT STUDIES, NEEDED TO ADDRESS RACISM IN HIGHER EDUCATION



Harry Targ

The Office of the Provost [of Purdue University] recently established the Diversity Transformation Award, which challenges faculty to create research projects that improve recruitment, retention and overall success among underrepresented minority students and faculty, such as African-Americans, Hispanics, or people with disabilities. (Taya Flores, “Purdue Invests $1M into Diversity,” Journal and Courier, August 29, 2015).

The newspaper article cited above did not indicate whether or not the current  administration was aware of the efforts at Purdue that had been carried out in the past to address issues of recruitment and retention of faculty and students of color. In addition, the article did not refer to the extensive published research literature that has investigated strengths and weaknesses of policies many universities and colleges have adopted in the past. The subsequent posting on a Purdue website provided a more detailed and nuanced description of the research and programs that may be funded including brief mention of extending or adapting current programs of research and action. 

However, there is no mention of the many efforts that have been taken at Purdue University in the past to increase recruitment and retention of students, faculty of color, and staff nor does the article allude to prior extensive experiments and research at universities comparable to Purdue University. The Diversity Transformation Award Program (DTAP) might revisit and assess prior policy and research programs as part of the University’s commitment to diversifying the academic community. Selected examples are described below.

In the late 1980s, then Vice-President of Purdue University and Dean of the Graduate School Robert Ringel assembled a group of some forty faculty members from various colleges and programs in the university to address recruitment and retention of African American graduate and undergraduate students. These faculty members reflected the same lack of diversity that existed among the student body, undergraduate and graduate, in the university at-large. However, for all their limitations they were chosen by Vice-President Ringel because of their interest in promoting diversity. Those who participated enthusiastically endorsed the effort.

The faculty committee decided to create sub-committees to address recruitment and retention. Each sub-committee surveyed existing research, interviewed students, and developed a series of recommendations for the Vice-President to consider. Prior to this mobilization of faculty, Ringel had already established a program that invited college seniors from historically Black colleges to visit campus to consider pursuing graduate work at Purdue University. The projects initiated by Vice-President Ringel motivated faculty to give their time and expertise to making Purdue University, a public institution, as diverse a campus community as existed in the state of Indiana.

Several years later, Judith Gappa, University Vice-President for Human Relations, distributed a report authored with Myra D. Mason, Director of the Diversity Resource Office, entitled “From Barriers to Bridges: The Purdue University Plan for Enhancing Diversity.” The report was based on student surveys and focus-groups as well as data gathered about existing programs of action concerning recruitment and retention around the campus. The report listed a variety of successes in the pursuit of diversifying the student body and educational programs. 

It also referred to shortcomings such as inadequate funding for programs addressing diversity. Perhaps the most serious remaining issue cited was that of the 647 students surveyed: “…most do not believe the West Lafayette campus has yet achieved a positive climate for diversity. Black students experience a predominantly white campus differently from other groups; many minority students often feel isolated in the community. There is a need to recruit and hire larger numbers of minority faculty and staff” (Purdue News, “Purdue Diversity Report Completed,” September 8, 1997).

In 1997, Janice Eddy, an expert on creating environments in organizations that are sensitive to diverse work force populations, was hired to inform faculty, staff, and students about issues of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. She organized multicultural forums that were held across the campus, but primarily in the Colleges of Engineering, Science, and Agriculture, involving faculty, students, and staff. The goals of the two-day forums were to develop “cultural competence” and to create an environment of “inclusion and diversity.” The project was based on the assumption that preparing faculty and staff to engage in a more culturally diverse world was a necessary first step in providing for a tolerant and welcoming campus atmosphere for students. 

Eddy in collaboration with Barbara Benedict Bunker studied the impacts of the Purdue program, reporting on their results in “Innovations in Inclusion: The Purdue Faculty and Staff Diversity Story, 1997-2008” (Purdue Press, 2009). The publication chronicles the efforts to implement multicultural forums around campus and provides some assessments of successes and failures.

In 2009, the Black Cultural Center presented the first showing of an hour-long documentary “Black Purdue.” The first half-hour documented institutionalized racism at Purdue University from its foundation in 1869 until the late 1960s. It highlighted the 1969 Black student protests that demanded respect, a Black Cultural Center, and an education for the entire campus that reflected the history, values, and culture of the diverse population of the country. The second half of the video described various mentoring programs and student success stories of graduates in engineering, science, business, and liberal arts (You Tube, Black Purdue Documentary Film).

Purdue’s struggles with its racist past, student protest, and efforts to develop programs to increase recruitment and retention of faculty and students were paralleled by similar experiences at colleges and universities everywhere. Research based articles in education, the social sciences, and the teaching of science and engineering, suggest the enormous efforts that educational institutions have engaged in to overcome the history of racism in America. 

Caroline Sotello Viernes Turner, Juan Carlos Gonzalez, and J. Luke Wood published an article “Faculty of Color in Academe: What 20 Years of Literature Tells Us,” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 2008, Vol. 1, No. 3. In it, the authors summarized results of 252 research-based publications by 300 authors that studied the causes and possible remedies for the under-representation (just 17 percent of full-time faculty) of minority faculty. The authors pointed out that “from 1988 to 2007 there was a continued rise in publications addressing the issue of the low representation of faculty of color.” The survey “documents supports, challenges, and recommendations to address barriers and build on successes.” It  was designed to review many years of scholarship to inform “researchers and practitioners” who were interested in better understanding recruiting and retaining faculty of color and developing policies to achieve these goals.  

The documentary film referred to above, various protests, and anecdotal evidence from racial incidents over the years suggest that racism has been and is a problem on the campus of Purdue University. Data indicates that faculty, staff, and students of color remain below the proportions of people of color in the state of Indiana. In the society at large, income and wealth inequality disproportionately disadvantages African-Americans and Latinos. 

Given the record of programs and studies of recruitment and retention of African Americans at Purdue University and the knowledge that is available from studies of programs at comparable universities, new ones will be enriched by building on knowledge of past research and action; not entirely starting over.

Also, new programs at Purdue might draw upon the experiences and wisdom of minority students already at Purdue. The video, “Black Purdue,” made it clear that much of the positive change that has occurred on the campus since the 1960s has resulted from the passionate, articulate, and courageous protests of students of that generation.

In sum, participants in the Diversity Transformation Award Program (DTAP) at Purdue University should reflect on the history of racism on the campus and the many efforts, some mentioned above, that were pursued to address it. The DTAP briefly mentioned consulting existing literature and studying programs of action carried out elsewhere. These efforts should be prioritized. In addition, Diversity and Inclusion administrators might compare historic efforts at Purdue University and elsewhere to recruit and retain women faculty and students to develop programs of action in reference to under-represented minorities.

In the end deliberations might lead to the conclusion that putting resources in the hands of those who need it, prospective students and faculty, might be a more effective first step in creating a more representative campus community. New programs and research projects may then usefully follow commitments of support to Indiana students and new faculty.