Complicated but polite: Comparing campus climate and administrative response in Midwestern schools
The University of Michigan has seen countless acts of hate targeted against people of color and other marginalized communities in recent years. The University administration has responded to such acts in a variety of ways. In October 2016, the University launched its five-year Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan to foster a welcoming and inclusive campus. However, the plan has been criticized for failing to put a stop to racist attacks.
These issues are not unique to the University of Michigan. Across the country, university administrations and campus communities have struggled to address issues of diversity, acts of hate and negative campus climates.
This article is part two of a series in which The Michigan Daily looks at colleges similar to the University of Michigan on the issue of reacting in a tense campus climate. As the University administration and students face their own numerous bias incidents, The Daily will look at other schools to compare and contrast incidents, administration response and student activism, whether it is a difference in religion, culture, politics or policies. This article will feature schools from the Midwestern region including University of Wisconsin-Madison, Northwestern University and Indiana University.
There is a theory that prominent, progressive schools are targets for bias incidents — the University of Michigan among them, as Washtenaw is a blue county in a newly turned red state. In an earlier interview with The Daily, University President Mark Schlissel said there might not be a way to mitigate the target on the University's back.
“I think that part of being a prominent university, taking clear positions on things, having large numbers of very successful graduates out there in the world, being on TV all the time, being in the media all the time means that what happens here gets noticed,” he said. “That’s the sort of other side of this double-edged sword of being famous and prominent.”
According to enrollment data from University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Office of the Registrar, approximately 2.9 percent of its student population is African American as of fall 2017. Kevin Helmkamp, the assistant vice provost and associate dean of students at UW, explained how the demographics of the state lead to this.
“I think every institution is the same in these regards, I think every institution is different as well with that,” he said. “We all have our thing with that. I think Michigan … (has) a broader number of cities and communities with a strong African American population than what Wisconsin does, which really is kind of Milwaukee. You have to look at Milwaukee Public Schools and issues that exist there, that’s all part of our dynamic.”
Though Donald Trump won Wisconsin in the 2016 election, 71.4 percent of voters in Dane County, where UW is located, voted for former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
According to the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau, the state of Wisconsin has a 6.7 percent Hispanic or Latino population, a 6.6 percent Black or African American population and a 2.8 percent Asian population.
Helmkamp said he also believes that with schools such as the University of Michigan, UW and even the University of California, Berkeley — which have large student populations and differences in diversity across the student body — there are efforts to bring a lot of communities together; he noted though he expects attempts to build community, there are also case-by-case scenarios that need to be considered given differences among people.
“In (the University of Michigan’s) case (there are) probably some conversations along the lines of, ‘We’re all Wolverines,’ and trying to build that sort of community with thousands of students, some of whom are extroverts, some of whom are introverts, some of whom are rural, some of whom are urban, racial differences, orientation differences, international students — it’s quite a little experiment,” he said. “Each challenge is different.”
Proactive and reactive measures
According to Helmkamp, UW takes a variety of proactive measures against bias incidents, with the intent of fostering a better campus community.
The most significant effort, he explained, is the Our Wisconsin program, which has just completed its second year. It consists of several workshops that feature structured dialogue and activities, according to its website.
“The focus is on incoming new students residing in university residence halls, which here at Madison is about 95 percent of the incoming freshman class,” he said. “It is essentially an ‘understand yourself and the broader community, the roles of identity’ (program). It’s a community-building program, we build it around the various housing floor communities.”
Earlier this month, the school hosted its 19th annual diversity forum, which consists of notable speakers and breakout sessions, through which attendees can learn about inclusion, microaggressions and a variety of other topics.
“(The forum) is a campus-wide coming together, reviewing a lot of the efforts of the previous year,” he said.
On the reactive end, Helmkamp explained there are several other efforts used for bias incidents. Among them, he explained, are the student conduct code and administrative reports and criminal reports.
He explained the university has a bias reporting system similar to the University of Michigan's, but has been handling bias reporting in a more formal way since fall 2011.
“Over the last year, we’ve kind of upped our game with this where we now have an up-to-date, accessible log of the all the incidents that are reported to us,” he said. “Last February we hired a full-time staff member to act as our bias response and advocacy coordinator, and she responds to the reports that come in. We respond individually to all reports. We offer support to individuals.”
He explained UW addresses and tries to reach resolutions in situations where it is able to identify all of the parties and people, and these people are willing to come together to work things out.
Instances that involve potential criminal activity, he explained, are referred to the UW-Madison Police Department. If it is a potential violation of the student conduct code, it is referred to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards.
“Interestingly enough, and I don’t know how this would slot in with other institutions, this past spring semester, we received just over 90 bias reports for, I believe it was, 72 separate incidents,” he said. “Of those incidents, only two of them were referred on for either (the) conduct (process) or law enforcement action. The great bulk of what we see is really incidents between two people, whether it’s microaggressions or any number of things, but they tend to be more interpersonal as opposed to conduct or criminal.”
Helmkamp also explained UW does not identify any incident as a “hate crime.”
“In our world of student affairs here at Madison we kind of look at it and say, we don’t do crime,” he said. “If the police think it’s a hate crime, we will let them label it. Even in our processes, we don’t have categories for people to say, ‘This was a hate crime.’ In fact, we really talk a whole lot more about bias incidents than we do about hate. We keep open the idea that some of the incidents could certainly elevate to where it really is hate-motivated, but we really focus a whole lot more on those things that so frequently happen between two people that have more of a bias flavor to it.”
The University of Michigan does declare “hate crimes” on campus. It describes them, using the U.S. Department of Justice’s definition, as crimes or threats motivated by an offender’s bias against a certain social identity.
In such incidents, Helmkamp explained, the bias advocacy and response coordinator might get involved, sit with the individuals and work through receptions, issues and concerns. He explained the great majority of the university’s bias response efforts are about improving the campus community from an education perspective, much more than a punitive perspective.
Comparatively, according to 2017 enrollment data from Indiana University, 4.4 percent of the student body is African American, 5.6 percent is Hispanic or Latino, 5.4 percent is Asian, and 66.3 percent is white. According to the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau, the state of Indiana has a 9.7 percent Black or African American population, a 6.8 percent Hispanic or Latino population, a 2.2 percent Asian population and a 79.6 percent white population.
Additionally, though Trump won the state of Indiana in the 2016 election, 59.3 percent of voters in Monroe County, where IU is located, voted for Clinton.
In an email to The Daily, April Toler, a news and media specialist at Indiana University, provided a statement from the Nasser H. Paydar, the university’s chancellor, regarding bias incidents.
“(Indiana University) is committed to providing forums for the free expression and exchange of ideas, including those we may not condone. Even when we vehemently disagree, we must strive to do so with mutual respect and civility,” the statement reads. “Open dialogue is central to academic freedom and our educational mission. The university abhors all forms of racism, bigotry and discrimination, including discrimination based on religious beliefs or political views.”
Stella Shaffer, a transgender woman, graduated from IU in spring 2017. She described IU’s campus climate as complicated but “polite.” As a result, she said a lot of people end up saying nothing.
“I think a lot of people are supportive and don’t know how to actually engage with that,” she said.
She said she thinks people who are hostile toward trans people and the LGBTQ community don’t necessarily want to say anything because they don’t want to be labeled as bigots.
“I feel like what happens is — with this culture of silence — I was walking through a campus where people actively either stared at me when they thought I wasn’t looking or actively tried to avoid eye contact or engaging with me in any sort of meaningful way,” she said.
In a later email, Shaffer explained, IU has taken some measures to make the campus more welcoming for LGBTQ students. Specifically, they’ve opened an LGBTQ housing space that she said she assumes would be friendly to transgender students and their housing needs.
“As new buildings are being built, they're also doing a pretty good job of adding in some gender neutral bathroom spaces, which, of course, impact trans people enormously,” she wrote. “Not only do plenty of binary trans people not feel comfortable using the bathroom sometimes, but a binary bathroom system completely excludes non-binary folks.”
She also spoke on IU’s approval of an update to the undergraduate curriculum that includes a social justice component — something she is very pleased with. It would require students to take a certain number of classes pertaining to race and ethnicity or gender and sexuality.
Though Shaffer wrote she was not fully aware of the details, she explained IU had been slow to implement the new classes.
“As far as I'm aware, the administration specifically has been dragging its feet for a few years on implementing this new policy, despite the fact that it was introduced and approved by the most powerful and influential board of IU faculty on campus,” she wrote.
Lindsay Ewell is a senior at Northwestern University’s School of Communication. In an email, Ewell wrote certain groups feel marginalized on the Northwestern campus; however, she noted an emphasis on academic performance.
“The NU campus climate is very isolated, in part because of the pressure to perform well academically,” she wrote. “Some POC groups are close knit because of a mutual appreciation for NU's struggles, but there's still a clear differentiation between groups. I can certainly say that a lot of POCs and POC groups feel marginalized on campus.”
According to 2016 enrollment data for the class of 2020 at Northwestern, 8.5 percent of the student population is Black or African American, 13.6 percent is Hispanic or Latino, 20 percent is Asian and 46 percent is white. Comparatively, according to the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau, the state of Illinois has a 14.7 percent Black or African American population, a 17 percent Hispanic or Latino population, a 5.5 percent Asian population and a 61.7 percent white population.
In the 2016 election, Clinton won the state of Illinois; Cook County, where Northwestern is located, voted 74.4 percent for Clinton.
Furthermore, with regard to bias incidents on campus, Ewell explained there is pressure put on the administration to take more action.
“Northwestern has to be poked and prodded quite a bit to make any kind of significant change or large statement,” she wrote. “They like to keep it close to the belt, which doesn't do the community any good.”
Increase in bias incidents
Helmkamp said since the 2016 presidential election, there has been an increase in reported bias incidents at UW; he explained it was unclear to what extent that was caused by the election. He explained many of the university’s efforts to improve its bias reporting process and to be more transparent and public about reporting such incidents that occurred amid the election.
“As far as we know, we’re just really good marketers,” he said. “That being said, I think it is fair to look at our bias reporting process and also to understand the circumstances on campus, and I would be pretty comfortable in saying, yeah, the election and the way that election played out, had a negative impact in the campus climate.”
Helmkamp said one huge challenge with regard to bias reports is the role of social media.
“The way that social media plays out, the influence on climate, on attitude, the influence on how people deal with each other — that’s been a growth area in our bias reporting,” he said. “In fact, online incidents from the spring semester were our most frequent type of incident. … A little under half of our reports had that element to it.”
Relationship between students and the administration
According to Helmkamp, the UW’s student government — Associated Students of Madison — and other student leaders were essential in the development of the Our Wisconsin programs. However, he explained there have been protests and demands targeting the administration.
“We saw quite a bit of activity in the spring of 2016, and really since then in the way of, whether it be demands or protests — that’s all part of the dialogue,” he said. “I think we worked closely with student leaders and staff to open a Black Cultural Center here on campus in February of 2017.”
The Black Cultural Center provides opportunities in academic and social support, co-curricular programming and community building for the Black student community.
Helmkamp said he knows there are students who feel the administration has not done enough, while there are also students who are appreciative of what the administration has tried to do.
“Certainly there’s always a hope that our efforts would lead to fewer incidents,” he said. “I tend to look at it slightly different in that my real hope here would be that with our efforts … where we really will begin to see that things are getting better isn’t necessarily that we have fewer reported incidents but that what we will end up having is more reported incidents where students themselves challenge their peers and didn’t wait for a university process or an official one.”
He described a hypothetical circumstance in which students would be sitting together late at night, and would challenge each other when one of them says something foolish in regards to race, for instance.
The Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement and the UW Survey Center administered a campus climate survey in fall 2016.
The survey found majority students generally reported a positive campus climate, whereas students from underrepresented groups reported less positive views. Though 81 percent of students overall felt welcome on campus, only 69 percent of LGBQ students, 50 percent of transgender or nonbinary students, 67 percent of students with a disability, and 65 percent of students of color felt welcome.
Though students generally felt professors respect their views in the classroom, only 65 percent felt other students respect their views. Twenty-five percent of students felt expected to “represent their identity in class at some point in the semester” — an experience that was described as negative by most LGBQ students, students with a disability, transgender or nonbinary students and students of color.
“I think it’s got the elements where we can look at it and go, ‘There’s some good things here and there’s areas where we need to improve,’” Helmkamp said. “I don’t know that it was necessarily a surprise to anybody that students of color or LGBTQ students were not scoring at the same satisfaction rate or safety, sense of belonging, that our majority students would score. That gives us an area to improve and work on.”
Shaffer said she feels there is a lack of commitment on the part of the IU administration in terms of engaging marginalized groups that are not represented among the administration.
Shaffer explained she was a student at The Media School at IU and she was asked to be on a diversity board, where she would serve as an intermediary between the administration and students.
One thing she noticed was that there were hardly any faculty of color at the school.
“You could kind of see how the administration representative at that group was really tense and uncomfortable,” she said.
Shaffer explained she thinks a lot of different marginalized groups find when they’re in a diverse setting it falls on them to perform the educational labor, such as informing the rest of the community on their experiences and values.
“I don’t think I was ever explicitly asked to do that sort of labor, I just think as you’re navigating a certain classroom setting or campus setting, the only one who is even thinking about that labor is you,” she said. “I was the only person to think about how trans people might respond to this sort of (role). So if I wanted to have a moment about trans issues, I had to bring it up, I had to make my thoughts the center of that moment.”