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Students push University of Delaware to commit to diversity efforts

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Students push University of Delaware to commit to diversity efforts

Natalia Alamdari
Delaware News Journal
Published 1:57 PM EDT Jun 17, 2020

Across the country, protests against police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have sparked conversations about racism and how Black people are treated in America.

Confronting this history of racism has also forced a spotlight on higher education, and whether university commitments to diversity ring true. At the University of Delaware, students are being vocal about needing to hold campus administrators accountable.

“Without a doubt, the University of Delaware can and must do more to expand diversity and promote inclusion and equity in our community,” university President Dennis Assanis said in a letter to students and faculty following a week of protests across the state. “I am committed … to redoubling our efforts to increase minority representation among our students, faculty and staff.”

University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis speaks to the media about how the coronavirus has impacted operations at the University of Delaware Wednesday at the Carvel State Building.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

For some students, the letter seemed like an empty promise.

Days later, a group of students wrote their own letter to the UD administration demanding action against racism.

“Because of our love for UD and our commitment to making it a safe place for all, we speak up not to shame UD, but to implore it to take action,” the letter reads. “Please listen. Please take action for the Black community, for minority students and for the sake of diversity, inclusion and respect. Don’t be on the wrong side of history.”

Their demands include:

By Friday afternoon, more than 3,700 students, faculty and alumni had signed.

“UD claims to hold values of diversity, inclusion and respect,” the students wrote. “These are commendable values — but not if there is nothing substantial to show for them.”

Only 5% of undergraduate students at UD’s main Newark campus are Black, while 68% are white. The university lists a total enrollment of more than 24,000.

A person walks along the green at the University of Delaware next to Main Street in Newark.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

The percentage of Black students has hovered around 5% for the past five years despite the university’s commitment to improving diversity on campus. And while the school’s share of Black Delawareans has increased since 2016, Black students on campus still feel the social isolation of being at a predominately white institution.

“Though UD may be desegregated, these demographics demonstrate that our campus is far from integrated,” the open letter from students reads.

FOR SUBSCRIBERS: Will the Delaware General Assembly grant protesters’ wishes to change policing laws?

Waves of diversity efforts

Colleges across the country have put out statements of solidarity with their Black students as protests and calls for anti-racist actions continue. At the same time, administrators have begun the hard work of revisiting diversity action plans.

At the University of Georgia, 150 faculty members signed onto a letter demanding that the school commit to a greater push for diversity. Community college presidents across California recently banded together to combat campus racism. Forums to discuss race are being proposed at all levels of education, including at UD.

Moving forward, the school’s commitment has to be split between listening to students and taking action, said Jose-Luis Riera, vice president for student life.

“Obviously, we need to bring more students of color to our campus. We all recognize that,” Riera said. “The reality is that that is a slow process. It takes years to recruit and change a campus culture. The thing we can do right now is address the gap in graduation and retention between white students and nonwhite students.”

The University of Delaware hosts it’s 170th commencement ceremonies for approximately 6,200 graduates at Delaware Stadium Saturday.
Jerry Habraken, The News Journal

This year, the university piloted online diversity, equity and inclusion training with about 3,000 students, and plans to require it for all students next year. In his letter to students, Assanis said administrators are planning a series of forums in the upcoming year to gain student input and determine next steps.

Department-level committees have also started reexamining diversity action plans.

But the question remains: Will this be the moment in history that pushes the campus culture of UD to shift? Or will it be forgotten with the news cycle?

“That’s privilege, the fact that white people can forget about it and move on,” said Lindsay Hoffman, associate professor of communication. “When Black folks are having to live this day in and day out, whether it’s in the news or not. Nothing is going to change, unless we begin to think about racism on a regular basis, not just when it’s in the news.”

OPINION: Tackling issues of social injustice can be powerful — and effective

Yasser Payne, associate professor of sociology and Africana studies, has seen many diversity action plans come and go in his time at the university. The process is always the same, he said: They start with fanfare, posters and mugs celebrating diversity on campus. But after a few years, as students cycle through and graduate, awareness drops – until another event brings race to the forefront of people’s minds again.

But for Black students and faculty, he said, that awareness never goes away.

“We’re always having these conversations and experiences,” Payne said. “Maybe something big or major occurs that gets the attention of larger Delaware, but if you’re actually experiencing it every day, you are reminded every day that less than 5% of the faculty and students at UD are Black.”

In its nearly 300 years as an institution, UD has only recently allowed Black students to attend.

Quiet scenes across campus at the University of Delaware as the coronavirus has brought regular life in the state to a halt.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

In 1948, the board of trustees allowed the admission of African American students only if they were applying for programs available nowhere else in the state.

For many students, Delaware State University, the state’s only historically Black university, was a safer and more viable option.

In 1950, 10 Black students sued UD for denying admission solely on the basis of race. But even after UD began admitting Black students, few attended. From 1951 to 1969, only 37 Black students graduated with undergraduate degrees, according to a 2016 university report.

In his 14 years on campus, Payne has watched as racist incidents have moved diversity efforts in and out of focus.

In 2007, a student found a noose on campus — one of many that appeared at schools across the country that year.

Then, in 2015, another noose-like object was found on campus, the day after students held a Black Lives Matter protest.

PAST COVERAGE: ‘Noose’ incident stirs emotion at UD

While it was eventually ruled that the rope hanging from a tree was actually remnants of paper lanterns, it still sent waves through the community at a time when colleges nationally were confronting racism.

The following year, the university released a revamped diversity action plan, with the goals of improving recruitment and retention of minority students and improving campus culture. That same year, the school made SAT scores optional for Delawareans applying, a move meant to lower the barrier of entry to UD.

In 2017, the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion was created, with a focus on advising student organizations, offering supports to minority students and furthering training and education on campus.

But for some students, it still feels as if not much has changed. Black students say they still face microaggressions and are often the only person of color in a classroom. For some, it seems like white students live in a bubble, unaware of what their peers face every day.

“You can hear [commitments to change] for 14 years, and the needle not budge a blip. And if you don’t catch yourself, you could explode,” Payne said. “That’s what it means to be Black at a predominately white institution like UD.”

Hundreds gather on The Green at University of Delaware for a discussion after the discovery of three hanging objects, initially described as nooses and a hate crime, before UD officials concluded they were remnants of paper lanterns left from a previous event.
SUCHAT PEDERSON/THE NEWS JOURNAL

Fighting perceptions

Most UD alumni of color have a story of racism on campus, said Georgina Class-Peters. She graduated with a master’s degree in 2017.

The overall experience of attending UD is fine for the most part, current and former Black students told Delaware Online/The News Journal. They’ve met friends and gained experiences they wouldn’t have elsewhere.

But the microaggressions and feelings of exclusion still linger, they say.

It isn’t unusual to be the only Black person in a class or dorm, said George Class-Peters, Georgina’s brother, who is a rising junior.

Class-Peters said he’s always smiling.

“I’m generally a happy person. But it’s also to disarm people who might think, ‘He might be dangerous; he’s a large African American man.”

Georgina Class-Peters was involved in campus activism when she attended. To see her brother have to deal with the same issues of race that she faced is painful, she said.

The University of Delaware hosts it’s 170th commencement ceremonies for approximately 6,200 graduates at Delaware Stadium Saturday.
Jerry Habraken, The News Journal

Courtney Kenner, who graduated in 2019, said that as a freshman, she would be denied entrance to fraternity parties, only to see a large group of white students be let in right afterward.

When she was a student, she often spoke with high-schoolers interested in attending UD. Often, students of color were hesitant, worrying that they wouldn’t have a good college experience at a place where so few faces looked like theirs.

Changing that perception and improving campus culture is the biggest challenge for UD, Riera said. Prospective students continuing to pass up UD because of its lack of diversity puts the school in a cycle of failed recruitment efforts. And for many Black students, UD isn’t the only school competing for their admission.

“That’s the billion-dollar question. I think if there’s a place that we certainly need to grow, it’s in campus climate and improving the day-to-day lived experiences of our students,” Riera said. “Some of this comes down to trust. Obviously there are trust issues between the university and residents in Delaware. And there’s more of a fracture with communities of color.”

In 2016, a review of campus culture found that minority students have more negative experiences on campus than white students and a weaker belief in UD’s commitment to diversity. They also feel more excluded by their white peers, and less welcome in student spaces.

Black students often feel they have to seek out other Black students for support, Georgina Class-Peters said. They’ve also carved out their own spaces on campus — whether it’s in the Center for Black Culture, or digitally, in a campuswide group text conversation among Black students, her brother said.

People socially distance as they relax on the green at the University of Delaware Thursday, May 21, 2020.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

Students have also taken to social media to share their experiences. Two weeks ago, an anonymous group of students launched the Instagram account “speakup_delaware,” where marginalized students can anonymously share their stories. Already, the account has gained more than 1,600 followers and 150 submissions, the students who run the page said.

They wished to remain anonymous but said in an email that the outpouring of response is telling.

“It shows how little the University of Delaware supports their own students, that they feel like their only avenue to be heard is through an anonymous Instagram account,” the students who run the account said. “We want this account to not only finally share stories that our peers and administration should have listened to a while ago, but also tell the university that we want to see actual change on campus.”

But change shouldn’t only come from hearing a flood of student stories, Hoffman said.

“I’d like us to reach a point where we don’t need our Black students and colleagues to tell us what they’ve been through,” Hoffman said. “We just need to know that it’s happened, it is happening. I hesitate to ask them to share those stories, that’s asking more from them. We as white people need to do the work right now.”

Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or nalamdari@delawareonline.com.

This content was originally published here.

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