When senior speech communications major Bradlee Johnson started at the University of La Verne in fall 2012, she was the only black student in her FLEX group.
“That wasn’t necessarily an issue, until the professor pointed out that I was,” she said. She recalled being singled out when her professor started talking about his experiences in Watts, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles. “And he kept looking at me, and I’m like, I’m not from Watts, just ‘cause I’m black,” Johnson said. “Like, are we kidding? Are we kidding?”
Johnson, frustrated, told her mother about the situation. “And she’s like, ‘Yeah, babe, that’s what you have to deal with sometimes at institutions of higher learning,’” she said.
Four years later, Johnson is set to graduate this spring, and she has been heavily involved on campus as a student ambassador, homecoming queen, a Spirit of La Verne service award honoree – to name a few — and she is now the president of Black Student Union. “Without BSU, I definitely would not have been as involved as I am with other things,” she said. “Yeah, I’m happy, as a student at La Verne. But when we break it down and you get into demographics — as a black student at La Verne, I don’t really feel represented, and I feel like my club is the only way I can feel culturally comfortable and accepted.”
Johnson speaks for many minority students — not only at the University, but at many universities across the nation — who have felt their school did not have the support structure, programming, or commitment to meaningfully support minority students, who combined at La Verne, actually make up the majority.
In fall 2015, nearly 65 percent of students at the University of La Verne — including its main and regional campuses — were students of color, according to the University factbook for 2011-15. Out of 8,334 students across all campuses, 3,640 students, or 43.7 percent, identified as Hispanic or Latino; 487 students or 5.8 percent, were black or African American; and 398 students, or 4.8 percent, identified as Asian. American Indians/Alaskan Natives and native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander groups each claim 0.4 percent — or 30 students each — of the population.
Though the University values diversity and inclusivity in its mission statement, students have been speaking out on its lack of diversity in resources, services and curriculum.
According to a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, millennials are the most diverse generation — 47 percent of them are more tolerant of races and groups, versus older generations’ 19 percent, and 45 percent believe in preferential treatment to improve the position of minorities.
“I think students today are more anxious about who they are in their multiple identities,” said Lawrence Potter, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “There is less of, ‘I’m going to hide who I am.’”
In an effort that Potter described as “more intentional and more deliberate” than what the University has offered in the past, he and other administration started conversations with students from various multicultural clubs and organizations during November and December of 2015. In those meetings, the Provost’s Office and Academic and Student Affairs were able to identify a few areas where students were concerned about the lack of diversity: in people, specifically within faculty; and in places and the lack of spaces for diverse students at the University.
According to the University’s 2011-2015 factbook, out of the 747 full-time and part-time faculty members in 2015, only 70 are Hispanic or Latino, 52 are Asian or Pacific Islander and 31 are African-American. White people make up the majority, with 376 members, or nearly 50 percent of University faculty.
Potter said students were concerned with the lack of cultural competence among faculty and staff. “(Students) may be Asian, Jewish, gay or bisexual, or non-gender identifying — and who are we as an institution or as a society to try to suggest that you should be dealing with only one piece of your identity?” he said.
In response, the Center of Advancement for Faculty Excellence, or CAFE, partnered with the Office of Diversity and Inclusivity to launch a new series “On Diversity in Higher Education” this spring. The series — which will comprise of lectures, seminars, guest speakers, panel discussions and more — will be offered each semester, and two of its inaugural sessions were held this spring.
On April 4, Professor of Education Cleveland Hayes facilitated a workshop titled “Unhooking From Whiteness,” where he discussed with faculty, staff and administrators on how to dispel whiteness and challenge racism.
“How do you integrate issues of gender, race and problems into a conversation that just emerges?” Potter said. “A lot of our colleagues don’t have the necessary tools, and if you don’t have the tools, you tend to run away or hide from those kinds of conversations. Or if you decide that you want to engage without the tools, training or knowledge, sometimes you make a misstep.”
Vice provost Beatriz Gonzalez, who was recently promoted as the University’s chief diversity and inclusivity officer from her previous interim position, said everyone needs to develop an understanding of the global world. “If we require it, it means that everyone would be in conversation — that doesn’t mean everyone would be a convert, but it does mean that we’re all in the conversation,” she said.
As a part of her senior project, senior communications major Jasmine Marchbanks created a mentorship program with members of BSU and black faculty and staff on campus. “I think (the program) is much needed, especially on campus. I think African Americans are definitely underrepresented,” she said. Currently, the program has around 22 members. Marchbanks matches students with faculty and staff members that have similar interests.
Marchbanks said the goal of the program is to have students interact socially and professionally. “There’s not a lot of support for black students at ULV, and hopefully this mentorship program will be something that has longevity and supports students throughout their time at La Verne,” she said.
The University has also developed new hiring protocols in diversifying the faculty to have it more closely align with the student body. Gonzalez said in the old model of faculty hiring committees, there was only one faculty diversity representative whose responsibility was to make sure the search was running in an equitable manner and to ensure there was a diverse candidate pool. “The (old) training itself was antiquated and overly focused on thoughts and feelings, but ultimately what we’re trying to do is change behavior,” she said.
Gonzalez said prioritizing hires that can contribute to the diverse makeup of the students should not be only one person’s responsibility, but the entire committee’s responsibility. The training, which launched last fall, was developed alongside Human Resources and is now mandatory for all members of faculty search committees. “Students, when they walk into a classroom, should at least be able to see someone who looks like them or someone who is different so they don’t feel that they’re lonely in the space,” Potter said.
In its diversity initiatives, the University is also looking into moving the Office of Multicultural Affairs in a bigger space. The Campus Safety department will move out of the Sports Science and Athletics Pavilion and into the parking structure in fall 2016, and the Office of Multicultural Affairs is set to take over the space.
Students are also pushing for more art on campus that reflects different cultures. Carlos Yanes, senior English major, is pushing for a mural on campus that is multicultural and representative of all kinds of students. “We want this mural to engage the community and elicit dialogue, whether it be social, political, cultural, religious,” Yanes said. The mural is in the planning stages with a relatively new on-campus arts council. Led by Associate Professor of Art History Jon Leaver, the arts council is broadly composed of students and aims to install art on campus that reflects the cultures of students and to inspire students to critically reflect on culture and intersectionality. “We need to acknowledge that we as students, we are relevant. What we’re doing here is relevant and it is powerful,” Yanes said. “Something has to change, something has to be ignited. Something has to be presented.”
Brewing student activism
In November 2015, around the time administration started reaching out to students for meetings on diversity, several flyers were anonymously posted around campus that stated several statistics regarding the state of diversity at La Verne. “Did you know that ULV has only TWO black members and ONE Latina member on the Board of Trustees, but we are a Hispanic Serving Institution?” one read. The flyers also encouraged students to demand transparency from administration regarding tuition, listed statistics of the ethnic makeup of faculty, and called for students to go straight to administration to demand change. It is unknown whether these flyers triggered action from administration, but Gonzalez said she was completely supportive of the action. “That’s part of what the college experience is about, to find your voice, to use it in an organized, strategic manner,” she said.
In the same month the flyers were posted, students from Occidental College staged a days-long demonstration protesting the way the college handled issues of diversity. The week before, the dean at Claremont McKenna College resigned after student protests and hunger strikes over her email to a Latina student that said she would work to serve those “who don’t fit our CMC mold.”
Protests and demonstrations are not common to see in La Verne — Marchbanks and Yanes said part of it may be fear on students’ part. “There’s lack of experience. There’s a lack of student voice and support,” Yanes said. Marchbanks said she also thinks it has a lot to do with complacency among students. “Usually they’re fine with where they are because they’re going to be out in a few years,” she said.
Johnson noted that if La Verne students organized a demonstration that is more radical, the city would have an issue, not administration. “From my experience, faculty and staff have been like, ‘it’s up to you guys.’ A lot of the pressure is on us as students.” For Johnson, she said she feels the most effective way to make change is to go straight to the source. “It’s just simply sit down and have a meeting,” she said.
If protests were to happen, Potter said students have the right to do so as long as it is done in a constructive, civil way. “I think if students do that, it’s their natural-born freedom,” he said. For Yanes, he said he likes to reference President Obama when it comes to college students and making a difference. “Encourage debate,” he said. “This is the environment to do it. No where else will you be able to go to a place and argue with someone educationally and academically and have the platform for it. At the end of the day, you don’t have to agree with them, you don’t have to change your way of thinking, but educate yourself. Understand why people think certain ways.”
Kristina Bugante can be reached at email@example.com.
Special Report: Living the Diversity Mission