University implements new process for individuals to designate extended ethnicity

Wednesday, September 11, 2019 - 4:36pm

Individuals can now voluntarily update ethnicity designations beyond standard federal definitions on Wolverine Access.

Individuals can now voluntarily update ethnicity designations beyond standard federal definitions on Wolverine Access. Buy this photo
Kelsey Pease/Daily

Individuals can now voluntarily update ethnicity designations beyond standard federal definitions on Wolverine Access, University of Michigan administration announced in an email sent out to all students, staff and faculty in late August.

To do so, individuals access the newly created “Extended Ethnicity” tab within the Campus Personal Information section of Wolverine Access, where they can add, delete or update ethnicity information.

On Aug. 28, an email, signed by Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion; Kedra Ishop, vice provost for enrollment management; and Richard Holcomb Jr., associate vice president for human resources, explained the highlights and the University’s commitment to “fostering an environment of inclusiveness.” 

According to the email, the ethnicity designations of individuals will not be published. However, the data may be used for statistical reports and approved research as well as for Student Life, Human Resource and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programming.

Among the ethnicity designations available is the Middle Eastern/North African identity option. In 2017, ME/NA-identifying students formed the #WeExist campaign, asking the University to add the ME/NA identity category to University documents. 

At the time, the University followed the U.S. Census, which does not have a ME/NA identity category. Thus, ME/NA-identifying individuals can only mark themselves as white or other, which many — including Public Policy senior Arwa Gayar, co-present of the Arab Student Association — feel do not accurately represent their identity. 

“There was something uneasy about putting white, and I didn’t want to put African American because I don’t want to co-opt the experience of Black Americans,” Gayar said. “So I always put ‘other’ and always felt like my identity was forgotten and overlooked.”

Though the Common Application and the Coalition Application — the only applications used by the University for undergraduate admissions — include a ME/NA identity option, it falls under the white racial category. Accordingly, ME/NA identity data has historically been reported under white identity data.

Since its inception, the campaign has succeeded in moving the University to disaggregate ME/NA identity data from white identity data on internal University documents, such as on surveys, undergraduate admissions applications and Rackham Graduate School admissions applications.

The email explained some students may find the extended ethnicity data they shared during the admissions process already entered in Wolverine Access. The email also noted the new process gives students “greater flexibility in their identification.”

University alum Jad Elharake, a founder of the #WeExist campaign, said using admissions applications to collect ethnicity data is the most efficient and effective, as every student at the University must fill out the form. He expressed excitement for the new extended ethnicity process on Wolverine Access, which he sees as a means to collect potentially useful supplemental data on the student population. 

To Elharake, however, the new ethnicity designation process is also critical for better understanding the University’s faculty and staff population, for which there is no mechanism such as admissions applications to collect ethnicity data. 

“It’s great that this collects extended ethnicity data for students, but the more important takeaway is this process collects this data for faculty and staff,” Elharake said. “This was a big push for us early on … We wanted to know how faculty members and staff identify as ME/NA.”

With this data, Elharake said, statistical analysis could be done on a variety of topics, such as potential racial discrimination in hiring and trends on promotions and appointments. The data could also illuminate issues of representation, such as how many staff and faculty of a given identity there are across different units, and if the makeup of faculty and staff reflects the student population. 

“If you don’t have data, you can’t defend your needs and the issues of your community,” Elharake said. “You might not even know some of the issues that are happening.”

LSA senior Silan Fadlallah, founding sister and president of Epsilon Alpha Sigma, the first Arab sorority in the United States, was also a leader in the #WeExist campaign. She noted the data could help the University better understand how to fund ME/NA groups on campus. 

“It gives the University an idea of how many of us there are, and how they should allot their resources,” Fadlallah said. “If you see there is this racial category not being accounted for, once you do account for us, you’ll further be able to assess where your funding should go, and how you should support these students.” 

Gayar also expressed excitement for the process and said she hopes to see the data used to better understand the disparities between various University communities. However, she worried about the possibility of the data being misused. 

“I think the Arab and Muslim community has had a history of being surveilled by security institutions and political institutions,” Gayar said. “While it’s difficult to imagine U-M using their data like that, I still think we should be cautionary and make sure data on our population is treated like data from any other population.”

With the new extended ethnicity process, the information could be useful for other ethnicity groups as well. LSA senior Dim Mang, co-chair of United Asian American Organizations, said she would like to see extended ethnicity data address the needs of underrepresented Asian American ethnicity groups who, according to Mang, are often overshadowed by larger groups in analysis of general Asian-Pacific Islander American identity data. 

“There’s this inclination to serve the needs of really big groups, like Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, which is really important, but I feel like there’s lots of smaller subsets of Asian Americans who often really feel neglected in conversations about their own communities,” Mang said. “I hope they try to use this data to figure out what those communities need while looking at what our community needs as a whole at the same time.”

However, Mang noted the process is voluntary. She speculated this may lead to data not reflective of the entire student population. 

“I think it’s interesting that it’s voluntary, because then how emblematic of the student body are your results actually going to be?” Mang said. “So I don’t know how effective it will be, but I do think it’s important for the University to do something.”

Overall, while Fadlallah said she finds the extended ethnicity process a good start, she said she hopes the University continues making efforts to increase the visibility and representation of ME/NA-identifying students. 

“At this point I feel like the University is just now starting to understand we are here,” Fadlallah said. “It’s about time that they do, and that they start moving forward and talking with the students on campus to see what they need.”