UNL’s collaborative efforts toward racial diversity: Are they enough?

Multimedia story by Jack Housenga, Alexa Horn, Evan Hummel and Mekenzie Kerr, NewsNetNebraska

The movement

The Black Lives Matter activist movement catalyzed in 2013 in the African-American community. It began as the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to campaign and protest against racial profiling, police brutality and other forms of systemic racism toward the black community.

BLM has continued to gain recognition throughout the United States through their protests and active community engagement, including participation and protests on college campuses like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The movement has also pushed UNL students and faculty to analyze whether the campus itself is racially diverse and inclusive. Although the university has made efforts to become more diverse, has it been enough for students and faculty of all racial backgrounds?

A homogenous campus

Located in Lincoln, Nebraska, UNL boasts an enrollment of about 25,000 students. Of these students, there is an overwhelmingly white presence; About 77.8 percent of the student body is white.

 

Although ranked at number 65 on Forbes’ List of top public colleges, there is still a need for racial diversification to bridge this disparity in numbers of white to minority students according to Charlie Foster, Interim Director of the Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services (OASIS) and Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center. The issue of diversity is about much more than increasing minority attendance at UNL. Many students believe that it is about creating an atmosphere of community and acceptance among students of all races.

UNL’s diversity statement reads: “All Student Affairs staff members must help create an environment in which all members of the university community will find support for their individual growth and development,” according to the Student Affairs website.

Efforts from all fronts

UNL hosted the campus’ first BLM protest on Nov. 19, 2015 outside of the City Campus Student Union. Started by undergraduate Trevor Obermueller, an advertising and public relations major, the rally drew in not only students but also community members from the surrounding area. The event was planned in correlation with the #NotAtUNL campaign that was seeking to spread awareness of race-related issues occurring on the campus by having students share their stories on social media.

There were myriad responses from faculty and staff at the university, including UNL President Hank Bounds e-mail to every one of UNL’s employees and students stating that “when one of us is mistreated, we all suffer.” Former chancellor Harvey Perlman sent out a follow-up e-mail in February of 2015 as a response to suggestions and ideas spawned from the initial BLM event.

There were six recommendations brought forth by the event’s organizers that covered areas of improvement to requesting an acknowledgement of the racial-issues and racism on the campus to ways to combat or rid the campus of it. Chancellor Perlman included pledges and ways the university was committed to meeting these requests and creating an atmosphere of inclusivity.

A more diverse campus

Throughout the four-page letter Perlman expressed adamant support from the university to create a more diverse campus without racism, reiterating UNL’s desire to fully embrace all members. “It is impossible to deny that we have experienced racism and racist acts on our campus. In this respect we are no different than the community at large,” the letter read. “And we will make every effort to take appropriate and effective measures against them.”

Due to a need to continue putting the spotlight on racial issues and the success of the first event, the second BLM event was held in the same location outside of the Union on Oct. 21, 2016 drawing over 200 students. A few speakers shared their insights at the rally, including Professor Michael Combs, who teaches political science at UNL.

Although the spotlight and protests for the nation-wide BLM movement have seemed to dim in the newsroom spotlight, some questions remain for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Were the efforts made enough and what still needs to be done? For predominantly Black and African-American students, but students and staff of all races: was it enough?

UNL’s response

Chancellor Perlman wrote a four-paged letter sent out as an e-mail that began with Perlman wanting to “congratulate you on holding the Black Lives Matter event” as a “powerful and appropriate…outlet for voices that needed to be heard, and reflected the kinds of conversations that should occur at a major university.” The goal of the letter was to respond to the students’ suggestions of how “the university might take further steps to advance toward a community that full embraces the value of all its members.”

Perlman’s letter included pledges as a response to six major requests from students, these pledges included: “to confront racism and racist acts whenever necessary,” “to explore diversity workshops for incoming students,” “to encourage deans and faculty to constantly assess Achievement-Centered Education courses that would fulfill diversity requirements” and “to employ the Division of Student Affairs to catalog units and programs that conduct multicultural programming, and connect them with students of color.”

The university launched “Not Here, Not Now,” a campaign that began in 2013. The campaign made commitments to encourage and enhance diversity efforts through different implementations including: adopting the TIPS reporting system to facilitate reports of racial bias or harassment, creating diversity officers in Academic Affairs, Student Affairs and Human Resources, more engagement with the international student body and working with Halualani & Associates, a firm that works specifically with diversity practices to increase more diverse programming lineups.

A new multicultural center

In 2010, the university opened up the doors of the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center that offers a range of programs for students. One of the programs provided out of the Multicultural Center is the Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services’ Student Success Program, or OASIS. The program’s goal is to enrich and enhance student success “by promoting academic excellence, diversity awareness, and social engagement.” OASIS works closely with students and focuses specifically on the needs of ethnic minority students or those receiving Diversity Enhancement Scholarships. They hope to create a culturally sensitive academic support team by encouraging students to attend diversity events as part of their enrollment.

The university also has the Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of People of Color to advise the chancellor on concerns and issues in regards to specific concerns of students, faculty and staff who are people of color attending or working at the university. With 26 members on the Commission, the group is divided up into three Councils: The Council of Faculty, the Council of Staff and the Council of Students.

Its goal is to have each Council be diverse to better represent the racial issues across the university when they hold private dialogues with the Chancellor. The Commission’s responsibilities include advising on policies relating to people of color, advise other members of campus as the Chancellor sees appropriate and to communicate perspectives and issues that should be addressed as part of the campus administrative agenda, policies and decisions. Through continued efforts by the university administration and faculty, the overall goal rings true to not only working on bridging gaps in racial diversity and inclusion but speaking on the issues that exist.

What more can be done?

While there have been previous efforts to increase diversity and enhance inclusivity, along with the initial responses from UNL to the BLM event, there is still progress to be made in the eyes of many students. Dani Young, junior journalism major at the university, co-creator of #NotAtUNL, planner and guest speaker at the BLM events, acknowledges and appreciates what has been done so far by the university.

Dani Young

#NotAtUNL founder Dani Young said students have an important role in promoting diversity.

“I think the initial response was great, it was nice to see that people were listening to us,” Young said. “A few things have changed like freshmen having to talk about these issues, but that’s for the Buffett scholarship students.”
Young feels that though some changes have been made, it is not widespread enough to affect the entire campus population. Rather than certain scholarship recipients talking about racial issues, Young said things like the discussion of these issues “should be mandatory” and “that there should be a curriculum of this sort of topic.”

Leemah Nasrati, senior political science and global studies major, believes programming efforts are of first and foremost importance in increasing racial diversity and inclusion, including discussing the issue themselves.

“…You get diverse people to a campus and they have no interaction with each other and there’s no opportunity to learn from each other,” Nasrati said. “So I think a lot of it comes down to creating opportunities for cross-cultural activities and understanding.”

Leemah Nasrati

Nasrati said she believes campus diversity should be about more than numbers.

Nasrati also said that UNL needs to expand beyond its “normal scope because we’re not that diverse of a state.” While she said the state and school are “pretty representative,” she believes that it is vital for the university to go beyond that and not using it as “a seal on how good you can be” when more can be done.

“We get a lot of students from smaller cities that don’t know [about these issues], so I don’t want them to continue to be ignorant,” Young said. “I think that more transparency should be in place. If there is more being done, students should know.”

Keeping momentum

There can be difficulties after major events or university-sponsored campaigns as the spotlight on racial issues dims down. Because of loss of momentum in acknowledging racial issues and implementing ways to intervene, Young feels frustrated knowing there is still work to be done. She does not feel that the university has provided adequate support to black students, especially after the string of deaths of the three black men in 2013. The support from the university that speaks the loudest, according to Young, is from the “people who understand,” people like Hank Bounds among some others.

“I think whether you’re black and you care about these things or even if you don’t this takes a toll on you,” Young said about the stressors of racial issues.

Other areas the university should focus on, according to Nasrati, are making sure that cross-cultural opportunities are available to students. Although an increase in racial diversity is a strong starting point, there needs to be ways for those diverse students to interact in order to foster learning and understanding. “For example, an increased proportion in black students is awesome for the sake of having black students at UNL, but what can we, as a non-black community at UNL, gain from having their presence?” Nasrati said. “What can we, as a people, gain from interacting more? There’s what a lot of it comes down to.”

Steven Mah, a junior broadcasting journalism major, shares a similar opinion that cross-cultural interaction is key and appreciates all the opportunities the university has provided. Mah’s fraternity hosted an inter-cultural activity with international students to give them time to talk about where they were from and to compare and contrast their lives.

Steven Mah

Mah said we should remember to accommodate for international students at UNL.

“I really encourage students to try and engage themselves in diversity, you wouldn’t really see it if you don’t engage in it,” Mah said. “Like if you try to go to a couple events here and there or say hi to an international student, it is cool to understand where they’re all from.”

Mah, who works heavily with international students, was born in America to a Chinese family. He has a “soft spot for international students” because he is able to understand their culture, and feels it is important to try and learn to identify with them even “if just a little bit.”

While UNL’s efforts have assisted in the progress, each student expresses the focus on students to increase racial diversity and inclusion. Young says it is important to acknowledge that while UNL’s efforts are important to shedding light on racial issues and making strides towards progression, the “purer standpoint” comes from students.

As students Young says they are the “grassroots part of what is happening and what is driving it,” and without them what “the university is doing it [diversity efforts] as an obligatory action.”

“I feel like students give the most power and the most drive because this is something that we live with on a daily basis,” Young said. “It’s our lives literally.”

There can be difficulties in getting the student population to understand what their “role” is in racial diversity issues, according to Nasrati, because while students have opinions they may not take action. Nasrati, through work on ASUN, Committee for Diversity and Inclusion and the Chancellor’s Diversity Council, is surrounded in meetings and classes by students who want to make a change in racial diversity, but says there are still those who don’t see it as a priority and that is something to be worked on.

“I’m insulated in situations with other people who care about diversity and inclusion,” Nasrati said. “It is jarring to go outside of that and kind of be slapped in the face with the fact of the matter that a lot of students just don’t care…it’s frustrating that there is so many students that couldn’t care less or are just thoroughly unaware.”

Each student feels that there is still a disparity in where UNL is and should be as a campus with racial diversity and inclusion to be bridged. Through university efforts offered, students have a call-to-action as well to play a role in further interacting and understanding the racial and ethnic backgrounds represented at UNL.

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