African American Student Programs vs. Diversity
As more student groups scramble to get a share of the diversity pie, is the African American slice shrinking?
A $46,000 annual budget may seem reasonable in these economic times for a campus organization of 1,200 students. But when that student group happens to be African American and other minority groups on the same campus receive just $400 each, someone is likely to object.
Someone did. Last summer, a student senator at the University of North Florida challenged the proposed budget of the African American Student Union, and in the fall UNF’s campus court went even further, and voted to dissolve the Black student organization.
Although the campus judiciary later reversed itself, after being advised that it had overstepped its bounds, some members of the student senate continue their fight to get the AASU’s budget reduced. They contend that the other minority groups collectively make up 10 percent of the student body — and should be funded accordingly. The reason for the dispute, according to one student senator: equality.
The purported goal of recognizing all minorities and dividing resources equitably at the expense of African Americans is not unique to UNF. The issue just happens to have erupted into enough of a controversy on that campus to garner major media coverage.
“UNF Students Have Culture Clash,” the headline read in the Sept. 26, Jacksonville Times-Union, followed by a lengthy story which explained that some members of the student senate wanted to replace the Black organization with a Minority Student Association that would be more inclusive.
LaShawn Woodburn, director of the African American Student Association, called the proposal “a racist idea — putting us all together is like saying, ‘OK, you minorities do your thing.'”
As it turned out, the other minority groups at UNF did not support the umbrella concept, and it was tabled, but only after protest rallies, television cameras and three attorneys weighed in.
Still, it may not be over. The Black student union goes before the student senate on Feb. 11, to present its budget for next year. Clarey Walker, an African American member of the student senate, says the Black organization “will be requesting even more money for next year.”
A Wider Focus …
The same issue has arisen in various forms on other campuses. “It has become politically expedient to finance the activities of other historically [neglected] groups at the expense of African American organizations,” says Earl Ingram, vice president and university equity officer at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. The result, he observes, is the kind of friction that developed at North Florida.
“The more diverse an institution becomes, the more opportunity there is for conflict in this area,” Ingram contends.
At Yale University last year, during Black History Month, The Yale Daily News ran a survey on race that yielded criticism from some students about the influential Black Student Alliance. According to the survey, some students believe the organization “fosters exclusive African American cliques, as evidenced by the so-called ‘Black tables’ in the dining halls.”
While there was no call for eliminating or de-funding the organization as there was in Florida, the sentiment was much the same — African American organizations are not necessary or should become more inclusive, although their events are typically open to all students.
Chon Glover, director of multicultural programs at the College of William and Mary, says the trend is definitely toward inclusion and away from separate programs for African Americans or any other individual racial groups. “We used to be called the Office of Minority Affairs, and at that time we focused on African American students because they were the largest minority group and because we weren’t into the whole multicultural facet at that time,” Glover says.
But now, she says, the other groups are not only growing in numbers, but are becoming more active and organized, so the emphasis is no longer on any one racial group. Black and Asian student organizations at the College of William and Mary receive about the same funding, although Asian American enrollment is 7.5 percent and African American enrollment is 5.6 percent. The reason, Glover says, is because budget allocations are based on “past history of what the organization has done and the Black Student Organization is the oldest and has the longest track record.”
Glover says the process has not caused problems because of the efforts to broaden the scope of the office to become more inclusive.
Or a Lack of Concern?
The broadening concept has spread to the areas of orientation and retention. Many institutions have lumped African American programs in with other minority activities, or have eliminated them altogether in favor of programs aimed at the entire student body.
The September 1998 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that minority orientation programs, common at many predominantly White institutions, were being dismantled or combined with general orientation for all new students. Some administrators of the programs reasoned that today’s African American and Hispanic students are better prepared and less in need of such assistance than their predecessors. But to supporters of the programs, their demise symbolized a growing rejection of the concerns of students of color.
Beth Wilson, president of the American Association for Affirmative Action who also is the associate provost for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action at Columbia University, acknowledges the trend is spreading, but says Columbia “has continued its commitment to diversity” while continuing its support for African American programs.”
Caroll Hardy, a former administrator at the College of William and Mary and founder of the Black Student Leadership Conference, foresees a bleak future for African American programs and services on predominantly White campuses based on the comments she hears at the annual student gathering. For that reason, she encourages more African Americans to sit on the decision-making and funding boards at their colleges and universities.
Hardy and others in the field believe the recent court decisions against affirmative action have emboldened critics to challenge any efforts aimed at supporting students of color, thus the uproar at North Florida.
So when the African American Student Union at North Florida goes before the student government in February — Black History Month — seeking to increase its budget, the outcome will have far-reaching significance.
“I would like to think it won’t be difficult, after what we went through this year,” Walker says. “We’ve proven to the students, the community and the whole country how committed we are to keeping the AASU alive.” But he admits he isn’t sure of the outcome because of the strong opposition of his fellow senators.
Hardy says such controversies are to be expected as the diversity pie is being divided into more and more pieces. “But that doesn’t have to be detrimental. You just have to increase the size of the pie.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com