IUPUI Minority Students Pressure School to Improve Diversity Outreach

It was the kind of crisis most universities dread.

In November 2006, a group of minority student leaders at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis threatened to sue the university if administrators did not heed demands that included providing more funding for multicultural student groups.

In a letter to university administrators, the leader of the university’s Black Student Union also appealed for the hiring of more African-American faculty and administrators. The demands came on the heels of several concerns expressed by minority students, including the fact that they did not feel welcome on campus and that requests for excursions by Black student groups were often rejected.

The mandate and threat of a lawsuit attracted the attention of community members and local and regional media. For the administration, the public revelation that an urban institution built in the center of Indianapolis’ African-American community failed to meet the needs of its Black students made for some discomfort.

“Black students felt alienated and dispossessed and they believed that the concerns of other groups on campus were attended to as their own concerns were virtually ignored,” says Dr. Chalmer Thompson, an associate professor in IUPUI’s College of Education. “What the students did in strongly calling for change was necessary and important.”

The outcome from that episode has produced some changes that intersect with other reforms at the university.

Among the changes:

• The university has created a cabinet-level position of assistant chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion. Dr. Ken Durgans, who holds this position, reports to university Chancellor Charles R. Bantz. Durgans oversees a staff of a little more than 30 that includes an associate vice chancellor and several directors who work in such areas as multicultural affairs, community partnerships and academic partnerships. Durgans says more than half of the positions under him are new.

• IUPUI in 2008 created a multicultural center that includes offices and meeting places for African-American, Latino, Asian, Native American and gay students. Ethnic minorities make up 15 percent of its approximately 30,000 students. The multicultural center includes a success center that focuses on mentoring, retention and a variety of academic and nonacademic programming. The center will move into newly renovated offices this fall.

• More professors of color are on tenure-track; 23 percent of professors in tenure-track positions are minorities compared with 13 percent in 1998.

• The school now has a Department of Africana Studies that this fall will begin offering a bachelor’s degree in Africana studies.

• IUPUI has expanded its community partnerships with local and national civic groups, such as 100 Black Men and the Society for African-American Brotherhood, in an attempt to provide additional mentoring and support for minority students. It has also broadened relationships with nearby school districts. The university credits its partnerships and initiatives as well as aggressive efforts to help minority students for the jump in its graduation rate, which has more than doubled for African-Americans in the last six years, rising from 11 percent in 2002 to 25 percent in 2008.

“We are an urban university,” says Durgans. “To be an urban university means having a higher commitment to your community at an even higher level than other institutions. We are doing things that make sure we do our due diligence to the constituency we represent.”

Proceeding With Caution

Dominic Dorsey, the former Black Student Union president who wrote the letter outlining students’ demands, has noticed the changes. But he tempers his optimism with caution.

“Things are much different than in 2006,” says Dorsey, a graduate student in higher education student affairs at IUPUI. “The environment is not as hostile. (But) it is an ongoing process where students of color should feel appreciated and respected. We have to remain ever vigilant when it comes to things like race and culture. You have to remain vigilant in a society that wasn’t necessarily built for you.”

In the period leading up to the demands by the minority student leaders, Dorsey says, many students of color felt ignored and disrespected. He alleges that in one instance a Black student’s cell phone went off in class and the professor said the student “could go handle a drug deal.” In another instance, he says, a Latino student was approached by a faculty member outside the bathroom who mistook him for a janitor and asked him to go inside and fix a plumbing problem.

IUPUI is an unusual kind of institution. Just 40 years old, it is a hybrid of Indiana and Purdue universities. It offers more than 200 academic programs that range from engineering, medicine, dentistry and law to nursing, art and design and education. Located on the Indianapolis’ west side, it was built in an area that some longtime residents say was a thriving African-American neighborhood of well-kept homes, prosperous shops and vibrant night life.

Despite its looming presence in the community, there’s been a feeling of alienation on the part of some of the neighbors. African-Americans make up approximately 10 percent of the student population, but 25 percent of city residents. The Indianapolis NAACP expressed concerns about the graduation rate at several colleges in the area, including IUPUI. The overall six-year graduation rate for the 2002 freshman class was 33 percent.

“We’ve got to get more resources to focus on” graduation rates, says Carole Craig, education co-chair of the Indianapolis NAACP. IUPUI “was designed to focus on community. To have such low graduation rates is very defeating for the purpose.” Craig says her organization has formed a higher education subcommittee to work with various universities and colleges in the area on graduation and retention. She says the NAACP also plans to work with IUPUI to ensure that faculty, staff and administrators are “culturally responsive.”

“We are trying to get the professors and those responsible for the curriculum to be responsive so students feel embraced in every way, which eventually helps retention, especially for students of color,” she says. For its part, the university is looking at other elements that enhance diversity in the classroom.

When he came to IUPUI four years ago as its executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer, Dr. Uday Sukhatme brought with him an idea for recruiting and retaining minority faculty he developed when he held a similar position at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Through a matching fund program, his office helps cash-strapped departments hire minority faculty. “To date we have hired (47) faculty in three years. The program was so successful that we ran out of matching money,” he says. Sukhatme says he plans to restore the program in fall 2011, but that hiring is only the first step.

“We want to make sure the faculty members we hire are successful,” he says. “So they each have mentors. We do programming and have promotion and tenure workshops. By holding meetings each semester they get to know each other and form support groups.” Sukhatme says his hiring strategy had nothing to do with student demands. A university faculty, he says, should reflect the diversity of the community it serves.

Dr. James Hill, an assistant professor of computer science, is one of the new crop of minority faculty recruited in the last four years. Although he admits that the job market was tight when he started looking for work, he says the welcome mat rolled out by the university impressed him.

“I like the fact that I met with the dean,” says Hill, who joined the IUPUI faculty after receiving his doctorate from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. “He actually came to meet with me in Nashville. The dean showed me that they are about change. He said, ‘We want you.’”

Hill says he’s not been disappointed since he arrived on the campus.

“It is like a big family atmosphere,” he says. “They are growing and they welcome change. They gave me a lot of flexibility and they are behind me 120 percent. They tell me to go for it. It’s very welcoming. They welcomed me from the time I first got here.”

Dr. Alejandro Arrieta, an assistant professor of health administration who is completing his second year at IUPUI, also voices similar sentiments.

“I love the experience of being a professor here, the research environment,” says Arrieta, who moved to the U.S. from his native Peru nine years ago. “I like the environment. I think it’s a very welcoming environment.”

But he says the community appears to be somewhat insular and perhaps a little provincial.

“Most of the people in Indiana remain in Indiana and are not exposed to internationals and even people from other states,” he says.”

Thompson acknowledges that there have been some good changes but she describes some of them as “window dressing” or “superficial” and says many of them don’t go far enough.

“In order to get beyond the superficial goals they have to have a very informed perspective about structural issues that prevent us from achieving a truly inclusive campus,” she says. “I’m talking about not just making sure we have some numbers but there have to be innovative and research-driven strategies that get us to a critical mass. To do that, we have to understand what the agenda is. The agenda is, we’re going to benefit from a diverse campus. We have to be able to feel there is equal participation, equal involvement and a real sense of belonging at the university. That we have not achieved at all.”

Dorsey’s comments are a little more restrained. “You never want to celebrate too early,” he says. “There’s always something we could be doing better.”