Temple University’s Commitment to Diversity Questioned

When budgetary cuts become necessary at a college, the programs and departments most vulnerable are often the least fundamental to a school’s central mission. But when an institution has been ranked as the most diverse student body in higher education, it can be difficult to explain why an office that caters to multicultural students was downsized dramatically.

Rhonda Brown, the first associate vice president of multicultural affairs and director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMCA) at Temple University, said sweeping cuts to her department have crippled her operation, reducing her staff of 10 to five and relocating the program to a smaller, inaccessible office. Worst of all, Brown said, she wasn’t consulted about the deep cuts.

“There are budget crises going on everywhere and we were required to take a budget cut that was supposedly across the board — and we did,” said Brown, who lost clerical staff when she did initial cost-trimming. “Our budget was cut a second time by people above and beyond me. I found out just a few days before they were made and I was not consulted or made aware until later.”

Temple University has undergone a transformation in recent years under a new president and administration that have made clear their goals to enhance academic rigor while preserving the tradition of diversity as the school’s North Philadelphia neighborhood undergoes revitalization.

But in the aftermath of a $40 million shortfall, the school scrambled to downsize quickly and evade a sharp tuition hike for Temple’s 30,000-plus students, said Ray Betzner, assistant vice president for Communications.

“We knew that for our students and their families it was a very difficult fiscal year so we had to make sure we are as accessible as possible and cut the budget to make tuition affordable,” Betzner said, adding a bus shuttle line for students was also eliminated. “The impact has been felt across the campus in every way possible to preserve the educational experience.”

Tuition rose just 2.9 percent this year, the lowest uptick in 13 years, said Betzner, whose department lost three staff members to budget cuts. He noted, as an example of Temple’s dedication to diversity, the opening of a new academic center focused on research in diversity named ACCORD, that is slated to facilitate intergroup dialogue, among other things. As of now it’s still unfunded and has no office.

But some students and staff said starving OMCA of resources was disproportionate compared with other university sectors and casts doubts on the institutional commitment to diversity.

“Things critical to your mission, you fund. You don’t harm them even if you can’t fund it,” Brown said. “I was okay losing one person but my losses should not be in the kind of percentages that they are.”

The office, established in 2005, is responsible for three main diversity initiatives including minority faculty recruitment and retention, minority business recruitment and multicultural student support services. Before the reduction, the student services component hired two new staff members specializing in multicultural education and reorganized under a new name, the Center for Social Justice and Multicultural Education, to mentor and assist Temple’s culturally based student organizations.

During the first round of adjustments, Brown said she avoided losing essential personnel and assured her staff the worst was over until Temple Vice President for Operations William Bergman did his own reorganization.

The student services section of Brown’s office was decimated when the two new recruits were offered new positions elsewhere in the university.

“We had to make some serious moves around the university and start using our money for other things,” Bergman said. “The people who were assisting there could execute the same type of program by referring students to different departments. This small amount of change we think will enable us to save money to do some other things. It forces some people to work harder and be more creative to do business in a different way.”

This is not the first time the Multicultural Affairs office has experienced a reshuffling. When it was inaugurated, Brown reported directly to the university president as a member of the Cabinet, but no longer.

Most of OMCA’s student-centered programming is expected to be absorbed by the Office of Student Activities, which manages more than 200 student organizations and oversees event planning for student entertainment, including concerts and shows.

But some students say the mentoring, peer education and assistance the Multicultural Affairs office provided will be lost in the re-administration. Both Black and Latino heritage month activities, planned predominantly by students, were affected by OMCA’s cutbacks. Moving the staff from their spacious, newly renovated space on the ground floor to a smaller, third-floor office will remove OMCA as a meeting place for students.

Jessica Reed, president of Temple’s Progressive NAACP, participated in OMCA’s leadership retreat during the past summer and was preparing to be a part of a new mentorship program for first-year students.

“OMCA provided a plethora of different things and it was a nice balance that allowed us to get specialized support as a culturally based organization,” Reed said, adding the office serviced more than 3,000 students in 2008. “It educated us on how to celebrate ourselves and at the same time become more competent about other cultural groups. The office taught us how to be more secure about who we were and how we go out and educate others about ourselves.”

Reed organized a meeting with other student leaders last week to inform them and devise an action plan to tackle their frustration with the scaling back of student serves at OMCA.

“Sitting by idly is not an option for us. I’m disappointed, displeased and dissatisfied with the actions of the administration,” Reed said. “I believe OMCA and [its student services section] are a staple of our education and it spoke volumes to Temple providing a well-rounded education …. Having that office there not only complemented our learning but raised the stakes even higher in what Temple packages for its students — true diversity.”

Temple students aren’t shy about denouncing administrative moves they feel took place at the expense of students’ needs. In the 1990s, they were vocal dissenters of administrative policies under President David Adamany when minority student enrollment declined slightly and skirmishes erupted between Black students and White fraternity members on campus.

“They were a great resource for bringing organizations of different backgrounds together to bolster the claim that we are a ‘diversity university,’” said junior journalism and women’s studies major Josh Fernandez, who published a column in the student newspaper calling on students to act in OMCA’s defense.

Temple Student Government President Kylie Patterson said the relative newness of the office limited its reach and is optimistic the Office of Student Activities can meet the needs of multicultural students.

“I think the majority of students are all just looking at the bottom line — saving money —especially considering how many students on our campus knew about the [Office of Multicultural Affairs] and accessed its services,” Patterson said.

Nevertheless, Patterson acknowledged some breakdown in Temple’s administrative transparency when during the summer a new dean of students was appointed without the participation of students — a break with tradition.

Reed and Brown said they believe the same kind of disenfranchisement and neglect occurred with the budget decisions in OMCA and the dissolution of some of its services.

“Its not that we don’t understand budget cuts, but students weren’t included nor given any justification in the decision-making process. It makes me wonder why?” Reed said. “There was no real communication and administration sent nothing to students. A contributing factor to our education has been taken away and we didn’t know about it.”