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Coming to Terms With the “R” Word

Coming to Terms With the “R” Word
Colleges may boast diversity, but what does that really mean for campus climate?

By Natalie Y. Moore

When classes resume in August, first-year students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City will read a book intended to open their minds on social justice. They can expect many campuswide conversations about the complications of immigration as related in Enrique’s Journey, by journalist Sonia Nazario.

“We hope [students] come away with critical-thinking skills … that this is one of the first things that starts them on that journey,” says Dr. Karen Dace, UMKC’s deputy chancellor for diversity, access and equity.

Broadening perceptions among the student body through required reading dovetails with a broader diversity mission that UMKC officials are putting in place.

UMKC has drawn internal and external ire for the campus’s historically chilly environment for Black students. The NAACP Kansas City chapter and the university signed a memorandum of understanding, mediated by the U.S. Department of Justice, last month that pledges to beef up the underfunded and understaffed Black studies program. The university also promised to recruit and retain Black faculty and students and to provide diversity training that extends beyond the Black population.

“I’m not about food, festival and fun,” says Dace of the oft-used diversity touch points. Her diversity czar position is a result of new inclusion initiatives. “For a lot of people, if that’s all diversity is, that’s OK. Everybody loves to eat and watch folks dance.

For us to do anything that’s going to have an impact and work at social justice … we might have to have some difficult conversations.”

Blacks comprise 12 percent of the student population at the urban university, which abuts Black neighborhoods. Yet there are only three Black full professors, compared with 111 White full professors, and there are eight Black associate professors but 150 White ones.

Back in October 2005, UMKC hired an outside scholar to do a study about the campus racial environment. The study revealed high levels of Black student dissatisfaction, much of it concentrated on several themes, including:

– Too few Black professors
– Culture of low expectations
– Race-based stereotypes from faculty
– Lack of space/funds for Black student and multicultural organizations
– Lackluster academic advising for minorities
– Not enough cross-racial conversations

Pennsylvania State University higher education professor Shaun R. Harper, the author of the report, wrote that there is “a tremendous disconnect between espoused and enacted institutional values — perceived as rhetoric by White and minority students alike.” It went on to say that “institutional bragging is unwarranted — ‘The most diverse UM campus’ — what does that mean for climate?”

The local NAACP branch stepped in after Harper published his findings.
Branch president Anita L. Russell says perception is reality on the campus, as many Black students have historically felt that the school is an unwelcoming institution.

“We will be able to break down the perception, those barriers, and be able to make the university more user-friendly for African-Americans,” Russell says of the 17-page, five-year renewable memorandum. “People will feel more comfortable going there. It is a very good school.”

NAACP and university leaders will meet quarterly to discuss diversity progress. The concerns at UMKC are reminiscent of protestations from Black students in the 1960s about inclusion at majority-White campuses. But Russell says she is confident that the university is committed to diversity.

“We call it a living document,” she says. “This is to get started. This is the beginning, not the end of it.”

As part of the memorandum, all academic search committees will be expected to aggressively seek qualified candidates from underrepresented minority groups for any vacant positions. Also, the career services center will be more accessible to minority students and there will be a more structured process to investigate discrimination complaints.

The provost has also formed a commission to strengthen the Black studies program.

Dace says the goal is to ensure that “diversity is a defining characteristic at UMKC, so if it were a pie, every time you slice it there are several aspects of diversity.”

Mandatory diversity training for all tenure-track faculty appointments will begin next year. Dace says staffers who are on the front line interacting with students will have separate training as well.

“It might be a little uncomfortable — nobody wants to address their own
biases,” Dace says. “Guilt doesn’t do anybody any good and it really stops folks from working. We are afraid of the r-word. You just can’t say racism. But it is a reality.”

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