The University has taken greater steps to improve diversity on campus since the Black Student Union started the #BBUM campaign in fall of 2013. However, minority students from many backgrounds on campus say that despite increased minority enrollment rates in 2015, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. And this isn’t a problem that can be looked at by numbers alone; rather, it must be looked at within the context of the history of diversity on campus.
These issues are being discussed in a historical context at the Diversity Summit, a nine-day conference from Nov. 4 to Nov. 13 that invites students, faculty and staff to attend panels, workshops and presentations. There, students and faculty have been discussing groups that need attention. One such example is the Native American community, which has a largely unrecognized presence on campus.
The year 2017 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Native American Land Gift. In 1817, about 640 acres of land were gifted by the Native American Ojibwe, Odawa and Bodewadimi tribes to the founders of the University “to be retained or sold, as the rector and corporation may judge expedient,” as the treaty stated.
The University of Michigania, as it was called then, chose to sell the Detroit land after 20 years to buy the land on which the University currently stands. The tribal elders at the time gifted the Detroit land in the hopes that future generations of Native Americans could attend the University. Only recently, in 2002, was this land gift recognized and celebrated with a plaque.
With only 92 Native American students on campus, it’s difficult to create a presence on campus. I personally knew very little about this community until very recently, so I went to a Native American Student Association meeting to get some background information. In that short time, I saw the effort that these eight students put in to try to establish themselves on campus as they planned events for Native Heritage Month to bring awareness to the community. I can see how despite the fact that this group is organized and trying its best, it can be easy for it to slip through the cracks.
Though there’s no formal agreement that says the University is obligated to help the Native American community, it should feel an obligation to support them. As of right now, this isn’t happening — a plaque doesn’t solve the real issues this community faces.
I sat down with the student leaders of NASA, Isa Gaillard and Michon Johnson, and they shared with me how disappointed they are in the University’s lack of effort in taking the initiative to support them. With the Diversity Summit currently ongoing, the Native American leaders asked the University to keep their requests in mind: “Although we as a multicultural student organization value the opportunity to express our concerns and hopes at the diversity summit and plan to do so, we hope that the University administrators will initiate an additional process of consultation with our organization in a way that allows us to be students and planners of Native American Heritage Month.”
In 2013, Gaillard gave a speech to the University’s Board of Regents addressing Native American community issues, which still have not improved. “The low student enrollment is also made clear and further perpetuated by the lack of Native faculty and administrative support that NASA and the Native students on this campus receive. Therefore, NASA recommends that the University hire a full-time adviser for the Native American Student Association or at least for Native students. This adviser could help with recruitment initiatives, Native Heritage Month, powwow planning and many other areas to support the Native students and community,” Gaillard said.
Gaillard also reflected on his experiences recently in his meetings with the regents in 2013 about diversity: “So from these three meetings, the feeling I got was that the University was happy and willing to work with us on these issues, but that the initiative for any tangible results to come from this, we as students needed to be at the forefront.”
The University should take the history of this community and its concerns into account in its considerations about campus diversity in order to make lasting change. It isn’t enough to make empty statements of change or to start a conversation and not follow up. These students have been trying to get their voices heard, and it’s up to the University to listen and act.
Rabab Jafri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.