By Sam Gringlas, Daily News Editor
Published January 16, 2014
After students and supporters around the world logged more than 10,000 tweets during the #BBUM campaign last semester to shed light on the experiences of Black University students, University Provost Martha Pollack announced a host of initiatives Thursday night designed to address diversity issues on campus.
In an e-mail sent to University students and faculty, Pollack promised to initiate improvements at the Trotter Multicultural Center and the creation of an administrative leadership position dedicated to increasing minority recruitment and retention, as well as implement a residence hall program to foster inclusion and understand across many campus constituencies.
“This commitment is longstanding and fundamental to who we are as an institution,” Pollack wrote. “And yet, there are times we have not lived up to our highest aspirations.”
The University’s minority enrollment has fallen sharply since the passage of Proposal 2 — the 2006 ballot initiative that banned the consideration of race in college admissions, among other factors. In fall 2013, the University’s Black students made up 4.65 percent of the undergraduate population, compared to 7 percent in fall 2006.
In November, the BBUM campaign called attention to feelings of isolation and discrimination faced by Black students on campus. E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, signed up for Twitter after the campaign launched to participate in the discussion.
“Got on Twitter to hear and support your voices,” she tweeted in November. “Proud of our students.”
The campaign arrived on the heels of several controversial incidents related to race, including a planned fraternity party that was branded with racialized words and images.
Since the BBUM campaign launched in November, several administrators and regents have vowed to address the campus climate related to issues of race, diversity and inclusion.
“We’re as frustrated as the students, but we’re very committed to these topics,” said Regent Denise Ilitch (D) in December.
However, the University has largely refrained from offering up specific initiatives or programs until Thursday’s message.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily on Tuesday, University President Mary Sue Coleman said students could soon expect to hear more about the University’s progress on the issue. She also said diversity was a significant topic in conversations with students.
“It was very good to get the issues out on the table, talk about how students felt, talk about what they thought should be done and that work will continue,” Coleman said.
She added that institutions will never finish striving toward more diverse and inclusive campuses and must constantly work to improve.
“It’s always something we need to be aware of and I hope we can make some good progress rapidly,” Coleman said.
Stemming from conversations with regents, administrators, faculty and students, Pollack and Harper have identified three key areas requiring immediate attention. They include improving the campus climate, increasing minority enrollment and addressing issues at the Trotter Multicultural Center.
Though Pollack cited the BBUM campaign as a major factor in influencing the University’s approach to the issues, LSA senior Tyrell Collier, speaker of the Black Student Union, said the University did not work with the group to plan potential initiatives.
Collier said he plans to review Pollack’s recommendations over the weekend, since the Thursday e-mail message was the first he had heard from the administration on the new initiatives.
However, students have previously voiced concerns over the location and the condition of the Trotter Multicultural Center for several years. At an April 2012 fireside chat with Coleman and Harper, students asked about relocating the center to be closer to campus.
“I think that this issue of space and a multicultural center closer in itself isn’t a bad idea,” Harper said at the chat. “But it’s a continual struggle around space and priorities and what gets put in the space.”
In the e-mail, Pollack said students, faculty and staff have reported Trotter “needs a fundamental rethinking and ideally should be moved closer to the central campus.”
By the end of the semester, Pollack said she hopes to prepare a renovation plan that will include input from students in planning and design. The University hopes to prepare Trotter’s infrastructure and make the space more comfortable and inviting. In the long-term, Pollack said the University will also examine the possibility of relocating the center.
In an October 2013 interview before the Theta Xi incident and BBUM campaign, Coleman said there had not been conversations to relocate the Trotter Center. She said she and her husband personally donated funds to the Trotter Center for renovations early in her career.
Coleman added that the center is “basically across the street” and there is often strength in having multicultural offices spread across campus to provide multiple access points for students to engage in challenging topics.
“It’s important for every group to see the University as a place where you can expound on ideas, you can talk about your experiences, you can bring all of these to the fore,” Coleman said. “We work hard at this, but we’re not perfect. I understand that.”
However, Coleman said simple conversation alone will not resolve the challenges of inclusion.
“I don’t think it’s enough to just bring people together who have had different life experiences and expect everything to be fine,” Coleman said. “You have to find ways for people to talk to each other, ways for people to engage in difficult dialogues.”
In the fall, Harper hopes to launch an inclusion-focused program in each of the University’s residence halls. A pilot of the program was completed this fall in the Couzens and East Quad Residence Halls. In those programs, students took part in discussions focused on identity, bystander intervention and inclusive leadership.
Pollack said she also plans to create a new administrative post to focus on advancing minority recruitment and retention goals.
“We know, for instance, that some prospective underrepresented minority students who are accepted by the university choose to enroll elsewhere, and we recognize that we need to take action, within the law, to encourage those students to enroll here,” Pollack wrote.
On Tuesday, Coleman said though applications and acceptances of minority students are increasing, the challenge is convincing students to attend, especially since Proposal 2 prevents the University from offering scholarships earmarked for minority applicants.
“We have to work very hard and we need to consistently work on how do we get students to come to Michigan,” Coleman said. “We also want to make sure that once students come here they have a good experience and we have an inclusive, welcoming environment and that’s the piece students were telling us we need to work on.”
When Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs, steps down from the position to return to teaching this summer, Pollack plans to appoint his successor to the role of vice provost for educational equity and inclusion. The administrator will be responsible for creating a strategy related to expanding academic programs to “prepare students for success in a diverse world,” recruiting and retaining diverse faculty, and ensuring increased access for minority students.
To generate further steps for improvement, Pollack said a group of associate deans has already been organized to evaluate and provide recommendations for expanding current programs that focus on diversity. Pollack said their work should be completed in time for the 2014-2015 budget process, which is presented in June.
In order to include input from students, faculty and staff, Pollack will create a committee to develop additional programs and policy changes. She said the committee will develop short-term actions that can be implemented within one to two years, and longer proposals that could come to fruition in three to five years.
Pollack wrote that it is imperative that the University lead on issues like the ones raised by the BBUM campaign.
“Michigan has a proud history of fighting for social justice, including taking the fight to promote diversity all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Pollack wrote. “We must honor that legacy and push ourselves to take the lead on issues of equity and diversity along all dimensions, setting the example for public institutions across the country.”