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Diversity Debate Shakes Up Quiet Liberal Arts Campus


Nooses on a poster advertising a Halloween singing concert set off two weeks of debate and protest at Denison University, a largely White liberal arts campus.

The college choir, which had invited students to “come hang with us,” removed the posters, canceled the concert and turned the event into a forum on discrimination.

But some students say the ad was the last straw and exposed an ugly side to this expensive university situated in a quaint central Ohio town.

“It was like enough is enough,” said Romero Huffstead, a senior and chief minister of the Black Student Union.

Black students complained about ongoing cases of racial slurs and graffiti and racially tinged harassment. Gay and lesbian students complained of slurs and anti-gay graffiti.

The controversy followed the discovery of nooses elsewhere around the country, including the University of Maryland and Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.

The same week the flier appeared at Denison, student complaints at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, prompted police to take down a student art display consisting of seven nooses and a tire swing hung from a tree. University officials said the artists apparently did not intend to be racist.

The Denison campus of about 2,100 students has about 100 Black students and smaller numbers of Hispanic and Asian students. Tuition and room and board at the private school run about $42,000 a year.

Controversy over the poster, which offended some Black students with its echo of lynchings, led administrators to arrange an all-campus forum Nov. 7. Scheduled for two hours, the discussion eventually stretched to nine as hundreds of students showed up and wanted to be heard.

“This situation might have interrupted your day, but this situation interrupts my life daily,” junior Darrin Collins told the crowd, as reported in The Denisonian, the college newspaper.

A planned rally the following day grew in numbers to about 200 after a Black student reported that earlier in the week someone had slipped a flier under his door with a swastika and the words “stop causing trouble.”

Administrators say they were troubled by the incidents and the feelings expressed by minority and gay students.

“No one wants students on their campus to feel threatened or unwelcome,” said provost Bradley Bateman. “No one wants them subject to denigration or dehumanization because they’re Black or gay or lesbian or Asian.”

In the student union the week after the height of the protests, handwritten fliers encouraging diversity are everywhere. “I love my open mind,” reads one. “I have the right to feel safe,” says another. “Yay gay,” reads a third.

Huffstead said that after Black students met with University President Dale Knobel about the choir poster, they were initially offended by his suggestion that they “choose their battles wisely.”

“It was kind of a nonchalant attitude,” Huffstead said.

In an interview, Knobel said he wanted them to look beyond the poster to the bigger problem created by a “drip, drip, drip” of small incidents.

“From a student perspective, there is a sense that you’re saying, ‘This isn’t important,’” he said. “I’m saying, ‘No, this is important but it’s important in the context of all of these things.”

Some White students said they hadn’t been aware there was a problem.

“Because I’m a straight White woman a lot of these issues don’t affect me directly,” said Lisa Fry, 21, a senior from Los Alamos, N.M. “If anything it’s my own fault for not talking to minority students as much as I maybe should and learning about their experiences.”

Huddie Williams, a senior who is Black, wasn’t all that bothered by the Hilltoppers poster but knew some would be offended. He thought the nine-hour forum helped address some concerns but in other ways was pointless.

“It kind of just reinforced people saying, ‘We’re supporting you,’ but the people that we really needed to talk to, the ones that are doing everything, it didn’t really contact them,” said Williams, 21, an economics and art history major from Morristown, N.J.

In response to the debates, the university fixed problems that made it hard for students and staff to see an internal Web site devoted to publicizing acts of discrimination.

Denison is also looking at ways to include information about diversity in course work and will hold a January forum for faculty on teaching in diverse classrooms. On Sunday a student group will hold a festival to focus on respect for people who are different.

The university’s swift reaction and plans for long-term change are key to improving diversity on a campus, said Diana Cordova, director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education’s Center for the Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity.

The next step is incorporating the importance of diversity into students’ education. Part of that is getting students to understand the educational benefit of diversity, Cordova said.

“If you look at what employers want nowadays in a global economy, they want future employees who are going to be able to work as part of diverse teams, not only in terms of domestic diversity but also international diversity,” she said.

Student Jack Twyman, who is White, said the forum helped set the record straight on the importance of diversity.

“It’s the year 2007. These issues shouldn’t be anywhere in this country right now,” the sophomore from Rye, N.Y., said.


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