Cydney Gardner-Brown, a recently accepted applicant to the University of Michigan, is having difficulty deciding whether she wants to be a Wolverine. The debate does not center around the price of admission or housing, nor is she concerned about leaving home for the first time. Gardner-Brown is more concerned about her safety as a Black student.
In an op-ed published in the RHS Stentor — Renaissance High School’s student news publication — titled “Should I fear attending the University of Michigan?” Gardner-Brown investigates the emotional cost in adjusting from a predominantly Black high school to a predominantly white campus — a transition she describes as “going off to spaces without guarantee of our safety.”
The Stentor is part of Dialogue, a quarterly publication that incorporates student contributions from several Detroit high schools. It is jointly supported by Crain Communications, a Detroit-based publishing conglomerate, and the Michigan State University School of Journalism.
In the article, Gardner-Brown cites recent events including the hacking of Computer Science Prof. J. Alex Halderman’s email, from which racist messages were sent to computer science and engineering undergraduate students. The emails sparked protests across campus in the following weeks, with many Black students decrying a pattern of inflammatory racist incidents.
“I grew up being taught that the skin I am in is beautiful, and that I am capable of success,” the op-ed reads. “The thought that I will soon be confronted by people espousing the opposite messages terrifies me.”
Gardner-Brown recognizes while events of this nature do not reflect the values of the University campus, they are happening there nonetheless.
“In short, for them, being Black at a PWI (predominantly white institution) is getting worse,” she wrote.
Gardner-Brown said in a phone interview she had initially planned on another topic for her Dialogue piece, but after coming across the emails on Twitter, she changed her mind.
“I felt I need to write something about this,” Gardner-Brown said. “I was happy I got it out of my system, but at the same time I was hesitant to show the world, to write something so critical of the University before I even got a chance on campus.”
Alone in the Crowd
Affirmative action was dissolved at the University in 2006, when Gardner-Brown was still in elementary school. It was then she became aware of the prevalence of racial tension at the University, even among students for whom acceptance was a dream come true. When speaking with Black students on campus for her piece, she learned it was a complicated dynamic.
“Now don’t get me wrong, they love the campus, they love the educational experience,” Gardner-Brown said. “However, when put in terms of the culture in terms of the segregation on campus, I have not met a single Black person or a single person of color who has told me they were able to feel safe all of the time. Their classmates are ignorant of issues that Black people are subject to. They are positive about campus as a whole, but not the racial tension.”
Engineering graduate student Aeriel Murphy is a member of Movement of Under-represented Sisters in Engineering and Science. Her high school and undergraduate experiences at the University of Alabama, she said, were very different than those Gardner-Brown experienced.
“I think that her points are valid, but I just want her to know, if you go to Michigan State it’s still going to be a very similar story,” Murphy said. “Really, no matter where you go there’s going to be this feeling of uncertainty, a feeling of weariness. In Alabama, you didn’t have it in emails, you had it in people screaming at you on your way to the football games.”
When selecting a college, she advises, it is important for incoming minority students to do their homework in person.
“When students are visiting schools, ask if you can chat with students of color,” she said. “If the school is like, we don’t really have any, that’s a sign,” she said. “If you go to school, and you have a tour guide, more than likely they won’t be of your race.”
Elizabeth James, faculty adviser for the Black Student Union, said as an alum and current employee at the University, she believes the mental health of Black students on campus is a crucial issue.
“When I read the article, the first thing that popped in my head was the more things change the more they stay the same,” she said. “No matter where you are in the country you’re going to be combatting some of these issues.”
Trelawny Boynton, director of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, wrote in an email interview she appreciates when current or prospective students share their concerns about the University as well as their hopes.
“The transition to a new community, especially a college community, can be challenging for students,” Boynton wrote. “It can be academic, social and/or personal, and it will show up differently for each of us.”
James echoed these sentiments, and said she related to what Gardner-Brown wrote.
“That’s showing she has all the makings of a true academic,” she said. “She is doing the type of critical thinking that shows she has what it takes to make it here.”
Numbers Don’t Lie
Racial inequalities at the University are well-documented, especially since the #BBUM Twitter campaign garnered national attention in Nov. 2013. In 2015, the ratio of Black to white students across the University measured 1,801 to 24,517, according to the Office of the Registrar.
That disparity — the difference of 4.1 percent against 56.2 — is difficult to conceptualize. In LSA, the largest college at the University with 19,338 students, the ratio was 961 to 11,649 — not even one Black student to every 10 white. Broken down, there were 607 Black female students listed to 6,355 white female students. For men, the ratio decreases to 354 to 5,294 white male students.
This fall, the University boasted bolstered enrollment numbers, which in turn affected diversity numbers. The University indicated in a press release it had reviewed and processed 55,500 applications for the current freshman class, a 7-percent increase from the last class’s 51,761. Black enrollment, however, still dropped from 5.1 percent in 2015 to 4.6 percent for the class of 2020.
It has been found that simply increasing the number of students who enter the University cannot solve the problem of inequity and can, in fact, create new problems. In 2014, the University overshot the targeted freshman class size of 6,000 by a margin of 505 that overburdened housing and instructional resources.
The Board of Regents crafted a plan to curb enrollment, such as reducing early admissions offers, hiring its first associate vice president for enrollment management and increased use of wait-listing. As a result, the number of freshmen entering campus decreased to 6,071 the following year.
“I believe that diversifying those primarily white campuses is crucial,” Gardner-Brown said. “That’s a part of the reason why I was so excited. Even the fact that I’m going to be one of the people that help change the campus. Honestly, people think the civil rights era was so long ago but it really wasn’t.”
Outside Ivory Towers
James said while recent events at the University were heartbreaking, she believed students responded with resilience. Though she does not believe the recent racially charged events were perpetrated by members of the campus community, she feels they are an unfortunate but necessary method of character building for Black students.
“You can’t escape outside,” she said. “It’s going to be there when you leave these ivory towers,” she said. “But when you leave Michigan, you have more in your portfolio that will assist you. It strengthens your spirit and your perspective so that you can say in any workplace in America, ‘I’m enough.’ Because you’ve had to first say it here.”
James said her mother, who attended the University during the height of the Jim Crow era, furnished her with advice that continues to be relevant today. Though she experienced more covert racism in the southern institutions she attended previously, James’s mother was met with a different type of discrimination that ultimately prepared her for the larger community.
Boynton said her advice for incoming students from minority backgrounds should avail themselves to the support systems at the University, such as a resident adviser in the residence hall, various student organizations and offices like MESA to support their transition.
“We are thrilled that she’s been accepted and look forward to meeting her and the incoming class,” Boynton wrote.
Frontline Diversity Work
Gardner-Brown, who aims to pursue a global health major while at the University, said though she still has anxieties she is excited to matriculate with the class of 2021.
“I don’t think that people should not have opinions,” she said. “I just think that every opinion should be valued and I just don’t think that’s the case on campus and I would like to be part of changing that.”
James calls the phenomenon frontline diversity work — closing the space between differing groups increases the potential for progress. She referenced the success of a joint Shabbat dinner between Hillel and the Black Student Union.
“I was really proud of them,” she said. “That’s stepping out of your comfort zone, and really taking a look at another culture. We have to find a way to reach out and talk to one another. You can’t do it if everybody in the room is the same — you just can’t.”
Murphy said regardless of how much preparation incoming students have when transferring to a predominantly white institution, there will always be culture shock.
“The environment of support is going to be completely different,” she said. “As a student, as she goes out into the real world — you’re not going to meet people who look like you. You are going to work in an environment in which people are racist.”
Correction appended: This article has been corrected to state the ratio of Black to white students in LSA was 961 to 11,649 — not even one Black student to every 10 white. The previous version of this article stated the ratio was less than one Black student to every 1,000 white.