E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, sat down with a group of students Wednesday evening from all parts of campus to discuss diversity and the role administrators can play in facilitating it.
According to Jackie Simpson, director of the Trotter Multicultural Center, the conversation, titled “Keepin’ It Real with VP Harper,” is part of a new effort by the Trotter Center and the Office of Multi-Ethnic Affairs to engage students and administrators personally. The initiative is meant to facilitate the discussion of and to combat issues of equity and inclusion on campus.
The group discussed a variety of topics related to issues of diversity on campus, including methods for fostering a welcoming campus climate, the drawbacks of the race and ethnicity requirement and the recent racial controversy at the University of Oklahoma.
Royster said promoting an accepting campus climate is an important factor in preventing issues related to discrimination. However, she said that because “campus climate” is a nebulous word, it can be hard to measure.
“How do you measure this feeling that’s almost like air,” Harper said. “It’s there, but it’s hard to describe and you know when it isn’t there. That’s one of the challenges around climate.”
She added that a welcoming campus climate can include using pipeline programs, where universities begin recruiting in high school, to encourage lower-income and minority students to attend the University.
Harper also noted that it is difficult to teach about racial differences and micro-aggressions in the first place, as many times people become desensitized to these conflicts.
“The question is how do we respond in light of the way many of us have been raised and socialized and taught to believe that it’s OK?” she said.
To build a positive climate on campus, LSA junior Micah Griggs said students shouldn’t depend on others to take action.
“We can’t just wait for the next class and hope they want to make change,” Griggs said.
LSA sophomore Steven Halperin, the Make Michigan vice presidential candidate in the upcoming Central Student Government elections, spoke about how the classes that fulfill the University’s race and ethnicity requirement do not adequately teaching students about the challenges faced by minorities today because they largely focus on the past.
“A lot of the time with these short conversations, it’s easy to take out of it a message,” Halperin said. “But you’re not really getting deep into the topic.”
Simpson asked students if they felt the president of the University of Oklahoma was right in expelling the fraternity leaders of that university’s SAE chapter responsible for a racist chant.
Responding to the argument that students were expressing their right to free speech, Rackham student Portia Hemphill said she believes OU’s president handled the situation well, as the idea of free speech is conditional and should not impede the civil liberties of others. Furthermore, she said because the president was an older white man from a southern state, he set the tone for how future situations of this nature should be handled.
Other students felt, though these particular students were expelled, the measure may have been ineffective at getting at the larger problem of racism within the OU community.
LSA senior Joshua Thurman said the video should be a call for all college students to address the issue of racial prejudice on campuses, even if it does not feel pressing because the instance only occurred at OU.
“It’s about making the connection of how that video relates to our campus climate,” he said, “And even though we don’t have people on video right now singing songs like that, there are other instances and other manifestations of the same thing happening here.”
A racially insensitive party theme created by the University Theta Xi chapter played a role in spurring the Black Student Union’s Black Student Union’s #BBUM Twitter campaign, which launched a campuswide conversation about race on campus.
When asked about what a diverse campus community means to her, Harper said it is a community that fosters a sense that the people around you matter. She said both communities and individuals lose when people do not learn from those with different backgrounds.
“The gift is to yourself, because I better understand me when I’m trying to understand you,” Harper said.