In the midst of many different conversations about race, racism, equity, and disparities across the campus community, top University of Wisconsin officials have created or bolstered 10 specific initiatives to foster a more welcoming environment in which students from underserved communities can thrive — everything from starting new cultural centers to commissioning a deep dive into the history of the KKK on campus.
Most of these initiatives have been longstanding programs that are getting a renewed commitment of resources, but many are new. The entire suite comes, at least in part, as an intentional and coordinated response to the results of the fall 2016 Campus Climate Survey, which asked students a range of questions including whether or not they truly felt welcome on campus.
“It was interesting to see how positive certain things were,” says the UW’s chief diversity officer Patrick Sims. “Eighty-two percent of the overall student population felt favorably that they were welcomed on campus. But obviously, when you dug deeper and desegregated the data, you saw differences among particular groups. Students of color, individuals with disabilities, LGB and the transgender community, said they have markedly different experiences.”
Sims says it was encouraging to find that a strong majority of all students felt a commitment to diversity was important — but it was somewhat discouraging to find that fewer people felt UW had actually demonstrated such a commitment.
“The one thing I was really excited about was that over 70 percent of our students said having a commitment to diversity was significant and important to them,” Sims says. “Fifty percent of our students thought we were committed to diversity, and another 50 percent thought it was all hogwash. Well, I want to get the 50 percent that think it's hogwash closer to the 70 percent that think having a commitment is fundamentally important for educational experiences, to see some growth in that.”
Whether or not those numbers have moved won’t be known until the next Campus Climate Survey in the fall of 2020, but there’s a concerted effort underway to demonstrate the university’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity. Additionally, independent of the survey, enrollment numbers show growing diversity, which speaks to both the success of current efforts and the need for more programs and support for an increasingly diverse student population. For example, 10 years ago, students of color represented 12 percent of the student body; today that number is 16 percent and growing. More than 20 percent of faculty members are people of color, up from 17 percent in 2008. And both retention rates (that is, the number of students who stay after their first year) and graduation rates are rapidly approaching equality between white students and students of color.
Sims, along with Interim Dean of Students Argyle Wade and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor, outlined new and ongoing efforts to support diverse student populations.
Native Nations Working Group
In what Sims calls “a grassroots effort,” a number of UW groups — including the Office of the Provost, the Nelson Institute, the School of Human Ecology, and UW–Extension — have created a multilateral partnership with Native American tribal communities to help better understand how the university can work and engage with the area’s Indigenous nations and their people.
“We took a trip to the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation, and we were embedded for a day and a half, and got to learn all about Native ways of being. It was fascinating,” Sims says. “It's just this really nice sort of beginning of understanding the cultural nuances for engaging Native American communities and shedding whatever misperceptions that were present and getting corrected on some of those things. We're hoping this will pay dividends for us as we think about ways in which we support our Native students and engage in scholarship around Native issues and Native communities.”
One tangible result of that work has been the instituting of a Native elder-in-residence in Cole Hall, which began in the fall 2018 semester. The post was filled by one of Wisconsin’s best-known and most accomplished Native American leaders: Ada Deer ’57.
In 1992, Deer — a member of the Menominee Nation — became the first Native American to win a major-party Congress nomination in Wisconsin. She served as the assistant secretary of Indian affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior and led the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1993 to 1997. Later, she directed the UW’s American Indian Studies Program.
“We have an apartment there for Ada. She’ll come in, and spend time there, and be in community with students,” says Wade. “It's a pilot. We're trying to see, 'Is that going to meet a need? Is having that presence there going to be significant for the community?'” Wade says the details of the Elder-in-Residence program will take shape in the coming years, and could shift from year to year.
Bias Incident Response
For several years, the university has had a system in place to report incidents of hate and bias, but not enough people have known about it, says Reesor, who joined the UW this past summer from Indiana University–Bloomington. “We're always trying to get the word out. Because, for students, somebody says something or does something that feels bad, and a student thinks, ‘I don't know where to go, I don't know what to do, and then what are you going to do about it? Why should I tell you?’”
One reason to report, beyond the immediate response and support for those affected by hate and bias incidents, is to help the institution better understand and address issues. “It tells us what our cultures and our climate is like,” Reesor says. “Some people think that some places like Madison, are liberal and open, and we would never have these problems, and so we need data to show that we do have our challenges, just like every place in this world.”
To better respond to incidents and collect that data, a new, full-time position has been added to handle the incoming incident reports, as well as proactively work to make the campus community more aware that the reporting system is available.
DACA Implications for Students
A number of students on campus operate under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which offers legal status to otherwise-undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. This population faces specific challenges — not the least of which is uncertainty under the current White House.
“It's a kind of evolving landscape, federally,” Wade says. “One of the things we had heard was, students just didn’t know where to go, or who to start with. At the same time, we have to be careful about how we handle it, because we don't want to expose them to any kind of risks. We can't necessarily take away all of the challenges of being a student in that situation, but there are a lot more resources on campus [than] I think people are aware of. And then the Multicultural Student Center, I think, has some of the on-the-ground credibility, and kind of ear of the campus.”
To that end, the Dean of Students Office has taken on the responsibility to be the first point of contact — in close partnership with the Multicultural Student Center — with a dedicated staff member for DACA students.
Chancellor’s Study Group
Sometimes it’s important to candidly address uncomfortable chapters of our own history.
In the spring of 2018, an ad hoc study group released a report examining the history of Ku Klux Klan on campus. The study group looked specifically into student organizations in the 1920s that shared the name of or were possibly affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan, and then considered the broader implications of this history for underrepresented groups on campus. Out of this report emerged two recommendations: a history project that identifies and gives voice to those who experienced and challenged prejudice on campus and a further commitment to current programs designed to increase diversity and create a more equitable campus community.
One thing that became clear in this report is that two important spaces at Memorial Union — the Fredric March Play Circle and the Porter Butts Gallery — bore the names of men who, during their time as students, were members of groups called the Ku Klux Klan. While the report did not recommend the removal of the names, the Wisconsin Union Council ultimately decided to do so just before the fall semester started.
“From my vantage point, it was useful to have a conversation about this legacy, because it could've been really easy — just remove the names,” Sims says. “And I think people kind of took issue with the fact the initial committee didn't give a formal recommendation. You named your organization this, you know what that affiliation represents, so in some way, you are tacitly, or intentionally or unintentionally making that endorsement. But if we had just stripped the names away without doing the deeper dive, we potentially miss some nuances, and the chances to learn, and I would say, chances to grow from this.”
The rooms are now called the Play Circle and the Main Gallery, but Porter Butts remains recognized in a historical kiosk explaining his legacy as the founder of the Wisconsin Union (and, indeed, the student union movement nationwide) but also his membership in an interfraternity council called the Ku Klux Klan.
“I want to interrogate the entire culture that said [naming a campus group after the Ku Klux Klan] was okay,” Sims adds. “I want to find out, what are the legacies or sort of what was just the status quo, in terms of how we carry ourselves, how we went about our daily enterprise, and how that affected people who look like me, or people who were of different faiths, or other races, that were not of European ancestry. So I feel like we scratched the surface, which is why I'm excited to see this next iteration of this historical archive piece. That gets at some of that nuance to sort of talk about that, and then think more intentionally, ‘Well, what do we have as a legacy from that era? And, what are we doing to ensure that this never happens again, moving forward?’”
The 18th annual Diversity Forum, to be held on October 31 and November 1, will feature Jess Stoval ’07, whose Chicago classroom is currently being featured on the Starz show America to Me. Stoval is now pursuing her PhD at Stanford. Additionally, the Diversity Forum keynote will come from Talithia Williams of Harvey Mudd College. “Her research, in particular, is on women of color in STEM and communities of color in STEM disciplines,” Sims says. “She's got a fun sort of ‘black girl magic’ story that we really want to highlight and celebrate. Particularly coming off of last year's forum, which has pretty much ground in the data relating to climate service, so she's got another empirical angle on some analysis that we think would be valid to advance the conversation.”
New Cultural Center Startups
Following the success of the Black Cultural Center that opened in 2017, the Multicultural Student Center has set aside two spaces in the Red Gym for new startup cultural centers: the Latinx Student Center and APIDA (Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi American) Student Center, which have been a long time coming. “I mean, I've been here 11 years, and every year we've been here, I think we've been talking about it,” says Wade. “So we're all really excited about it. We'll be looking forward to seeing how the students kind of help us continue to evolve it.”
The Big Picture
These and other efforts represent a significant shift for the UW, which Reesor says is consistent with higher education nationwide.
“Across higher education, the intentionality [to address diversity and inclusion] is stronger. The collaboration is stronger,” Reesor says. “I think that by increasing efforts and increasing people who represent different populations, I think that has a cumulative effect of changing the overall culture of the whole institution, and I think those are really positive efforts.”
That doesn’t mean it’s time to rest on their laurels, though. “We have a lot of work to do,” says Reesor. “We have a lot of work to do in our country, and we're just a microcosm of our society. But we, I think, in higher education, believe we have a higher responsibility to address that, and to make a difference so that students will go out in society and make that impact. So they need to learn those things, and experience those things here, and then take those great skills and lessons out and try to change the world in other places, too.”