The recent election of Donald Trump as president-elect of the United States has re-opened a discourse on the state of race and racism in our country. Instances of police brutality continue to dominate television headlines, online news outlets and social media feeds. This fall, racist messages appeared on the campuses of Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan. And, very specific to the experiences of Latina/o individuals, our president-elect has vowed to deport millions of undocumented people and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — plans that don’t seem all that outrageous considering the 2012 Arizona v. United States ruling that allowed for racial profiling and plans that have prompted concerned students to urge the University to declare itself a “sanctuary campus.”
The University, and the state of Michigan as a whole, has a predominantly Black-white narrative when it comes to race. However, Latina/o communities have grown at the University since the late 20th century. Though the Latina/o student population at the University of Michigan has increased over the past 20 years, it still rests at just more than 5 percent. As this population continues to grow — both at the University and across the country — we need to broaden our conversations about race and campus climate to include a more diverse group of people.
Qualitative data from the 2014 Latina/o Campus Climate Survey revealed that a majority of Latina/o University students experience racism on our campus. In fact, 59.3 percent of Latina/o respondents reported negative experiences based on their identity. One student wrote: “The hostility and unwelcoming behaviors I experienced is something I do not wish upon anyone. It is already hard enough having moved away from home, and when all I wanted to do is make friends and meet people, these experiences are among those that made me question whether I will ever fit in.”
Latina/o respondents said they most commonly experienced microaggressions, followed by racism and isolation. Thirty-one percent of all those surveyed felt these negative experiences had affected their ability to continue in their academic program. Seven percent explicitly stated having had serious thoughts about terminating their studies. Importantly, students reported negative comments and experiences from faculty, staff and other students. If the University wants to improve the campus climate for Latina/o students, the administration should commit to making some serious changes.
Perhaps some of the issues experienced by Latina/o students at the University would be resolved if the number of Latina/o students, faculty and staff were to increase. Unfortunately, due to the 2003 Supreme Court case Gratz v. Bollinger, the University is prohibited from using affirmative action in its admissions decisions. Even so, there are alternative mechanisms that the University could use to improve the campus climate for Latina/o students and other students of color. At St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, for example, students, faculty and staff are encouraged to take advantage of diversity training opportunities on campus.
Although the University has a number of student groups available for Latina/o students, the 2014 study suggested that many students were not aware of these groups or the events they put on.
Visibility for these groups may create more feelings of inclusion on campus. Through access to student demographic information from the Office of Admissions, the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives and Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs are at a strategic position to assist incoming Hispanic students and the various student groups by channeling information on organizations, events and programs during orientation events, to faculty advisers and to students directly.
The University could also take steps to improve its accessibility for Latina/o students. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students with a family income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line are guaranteed enough scholarships and grants (possibly supplemented by work-study) that they are able to graduate from college debt-free. By adopting a tuition structure of this nature, the University would likely attract and retain a more diverse student population. Further, the University has extended in-state tuition benefits to undocumented undergraduate students. Extending these tuition benefits to all undocumented graduate students would help to ease the financial burden experienced by some Latina/o graduate students.
We are at (another) pivotal moment in the University’s history. Twenty-seven years ago, a strategic initiative called The Michigan Mandate (brought about by heightened racial tension and student protests sparked by hate crimes including racist fliers posted around campus) attempted to recruit and support a more diverse student body, faculty and staff. Since then, Supreme Court cases like Gratz v. Bollinger have detracted from improvements brought about by The Michigan Mandate and made race-targeted admissions practices illegal in the state. At the same time, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin affirms the fact that striving for a diverse student body and seeking the educational benefits associated with that diversity should remain a priority in our country.
Last fall, under University President Mark Schlissel, a new strategic initiative was launched. While this initiative incorporates some of the suggestions from other universities, uncertainty remains. Will it be effective? Is another strategic initiative what we need, or is it a Band-Aid that will fall off in another 20 years?
Organizational and Community Multicultural Praxis Lab, University of Michigan
Lorraine M. Gutiérrez, University of Michigan Alumna, MA, Ph.D., Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Social Work, Psychology, and Latino Studies
Fernando Mora Covos
Bryan Montano Maceda