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One in five students at the University of Michigan — and 43.8 percent of all underrepresented minority undergraduates, defined as non-white and non-Asian — reported experiencing a discriminatory event in the last year.
These metrics and more were released Thursday afternoon in results of a campus-wide climate survey on diversity, equity and inclusion.
While a majority of campus –– 72 percent of students, faculty and staff –– reported overall satisfaction with the campus climate with respect to diversity, minority students are much more likely to feel dissatisfied and experience discrimination.
34.8 percent of Asian students and 7.5 percent of white students said they had experienced racial discrimination. Among undergraduates, 37.1 percent of women, 29.3 percent of LGBTQ students, 28.1 percent of international students and 47.7 percent of disabled students reported experiencing at least one incident of discrimination in the past 12 months.
Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion, said the primary utility of the survey was to target further Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan efforts.
The questionnaire sought demographic information such as sexual orientation, disability status and racial or ethnic identity — including a category for Middle Eastern or North African students. The group has not been tracked at the University in the past; the DEI survey found the group makes up less than 4 percent of the student body.
“(The survey) also allows us to effectively look at certain populations separately from other populations, recognizing the nuance with respect to experiences,” Sellers said. “Historically, (MENA students) have … been forced to either identify as 'White' or 'other.' By being able to include them in the survey, we have a more accurate assessment of, first and foremost, how many folks are actually here, and then to be able to look at their experiences separately. That also reaffirms our sense that they are an important community in and of themselves.”
University President Mark Schlissel noted the data was collected during Fall Semester last year –– before many of the recent incidents of racism and hate speech that are now the focus of student action.
“Whatever the context was in people's minds last fall was the context in which they answered those questions,” Schlissel said at the announcement of the survey results in the Michigan Union.
The survey designed by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion received responses from 2,065 students, 2,583 staff members and 1,061 faculty members, at response rates of 59 percent, 73.8 percent and 70.7 percent, respectively.
Responding to the 7.5 percent of white undergraduates reporting racial discrimination, William Axinn, professor of survey research, said he encountered surprises like this in almost all the surveys he has conducted.
“My experience conducting surveys on all topics, and with this topic, is you discover the full diversity of what's out there when you take a survey that samples from the general population in a scientific way, you will discover people with experiences and opinions you might not have expected ahead of time,” he said. “I am no longer ever surprised to find a percentage, often a small percentage, who have an experience you're not expecting to see.”
The most commonly reported reason for discrimination among all students, undergrad and grad, was political orientation, which accounted for 21 percent of the reports of discrimination, followed by race and gender at 20 percent each.
Sellers said he wasn't expecting so many students to report discrimination based on their political orientation.
“One of the things that was surprising was the finding that undergraduate students, a high number of them report relatively fewer opportunities to interact across political orientation and higher frequencies of discrimination around political orientation than I personally would have predicted,” he said.
As a result, Sellers said, the University is organizing and hosting a series of symposia centered around free speech during the winter semester, focusing specifically on differences in political backgrounds. Other action items more broadly include a streamlined bias response process — with boosted student awareness — the Inclusive Teaching Initiative and incorporating DEI efforts into faculty and staff performance reviews.
The survey also included data on the disabled community on campus. Making up 5 percent of the student body, students with a disability are 287 percent more likely to experience discrimination and 145 percent more likely to report feeling neutral, unsatisfied or very unsatisfied with the University. The words “disability” and "disabilities" are mentioned a total of five times in the 40-plus page campuswide strategic plan.
Sellers pointed to other programs, such as the Inclusive Teaching Initiative, that implicitly cater to disabled students.
“Nowhere in that initiative as it's described is it described as a disability-focused initiative, but the benefits will be accrued by students with disabilities,” he said.
Underrepresented minorities on campus are also less likely to perceive a strong institutional commitment to diversity on the part of the University. Asked to rate the University's “strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion” on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being strongly disagree and 5 being strongly agree, underrepresented minority undergraduates on average gave a 3.2, while white undergraduates gave a 3.5. The average ratings from graduate students were lower, at 3.2 from white students and 3.0 from underrepresented minorities.
“African American/Black students are less likely than all other racial groups to report feeling that they are valued and belong at U-M,” the study further reads.
Part of the reason for the discrepancy in perceptions, Sellers guessed, was due to societal skepticism built up over time in marginalized communities.
“I would say that there's a history that each of those communities have felt not only with the University, but also with larger society, and as a result of that, there is a skepticism that they have historically been poorly treated,” he said. “And that is, again, also not surprising. I see that as our challenge to earn that trust back. It means that our efforts have to be as manifest as possible in terms of having impacts on their particular lives before that trust changes.”
The survey provides the University and the public with demographic data on the University's composition that was previously unknown, such as religious affiliation. Among undergraduates, the survey found the largest category, comprising 36.3 percent, are agnostic, atheist or unaffiliated. 22.4 percent are Catholic, 8.9 percent are Jewish, 3.9 percent are Hindu, and 2.5 percent are Muslim.