On the "diversity" page of its website, the University of Maryland, College Park features an almost four-minute long video of campus members from different backgrounds working together. In one scene a smiling black student in a hijab wraps her arm around her smiling Asian friend, who is wearing athletic shorts. In another scene, students of various ethnicities sit chatting in a circle. In another shot, an African-American professor offers guidance to two white students in front of their computers. Throughout the video, Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice-President, speaks about the school's diversity goals.
In one part she outlines the university's commitment to an inclusive culture. "[W]e collectively rise above bias and stereotypes, prejudice, and inequity," she says.
Trey Huff, who is studying biochemistry at College Park, says that the university has a diverse student body, but there are still issues. "You have a lot of cultures up here," he says, "but they don't understand each other." Despite the different cultures, he says, "we don't have the collaboration."
Huff, who is African-American, refers to a controversial email sent by a Kappa Sigma fraternity member that gained national attention last year. The email (originally sent in January 2014) read, in part, "Don't invite any nigger gals or curry monsters or slanted eye chinks, unless they're hot."
College Park President Dr. Wallace D. Loh sent two emails to campus members about the incident, and its Vice President for Student Affairs, Dr. Linda Clement, sent one.
In part of the president's initial email he wrote, "As there is no exact moment between night and day, a thin, gray line separates free speech from hate speech. Our assessment of this case will call for careful judgment, taking into account the circumstances, intent, and time of this email and its impact over the past 15 months. We are also mindful of First Amendment jurisprudence, which recognizes that no right is so absolute as to trump all other rights."
A portion of Loh's second email, from April 1, 2015, reads: "The investigators interviewed many individuals and reviewed other information. They focused not only on the content of the message but also on the factual circumstances of time, place, manner, and effects of the message. They found no subsequent conduct by anyone that raised safety concerns. They concluded that this private email, while hateful and reprehensible, did not violate University policies and is protected by the First Amendment."
This follow-up email highlighted the unnamed student's remorse for sending the email. Loh also reminded the community that the student and the university mutually agreed that he would not return to campus that semester. Next, he invoked quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and asked the campus community to forgive the student.
"If we had more avenues [for learning about different cultures], that could have been prevented," says Huff.
Being a minority student at a largely white institution is often a challenging experience because in addition to dealing with academic challenges, students must also navigate cultural differences that often present themselves in unpleasant ways. While universities point to their diversity as they persuade minority students to enroll, many of these students find that their on-campus environments don't reflect the ideals promoted in the admissions process.
Last fall at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a video circulated on campus showing a student with a dark acne medication mask exclaiming, "I'm finally black!" Black students on campus were upset about the incident, and drew comparisons to blackface.
The incident sparked an on-campus protest led by the school's Black Student Union, and the creation of the hashtag #therealUMBC. This hashtag was used by students on social media to voice their frustrations.
Some posts on Yik-Yak, which were screenshot and uploaded to Twitter, questioned the purpose of the protest. Student posted messages like, "Diversity as in… more blacks? latinos, asians?? You all need a clearer message. This school already seems pretty diverse, to me" and "Diversity= no whites."
After this incident, UMBC President Dr. Freeman Hrabowski and Provost Dr. Philip J. Rous sent a brief three-paragraph email to the campus community about the video. The message referred to it in a general sense, and mainly discussed campus expectations. The second paragraph starts, "Our university community does not support or condone hurtful, racist or offensive language, imagery, or actions in any form."
Universities themselves seem to share the sentiment expressed in the Yik-Yak post about representation equaling diversity. They see diversity as simply the enrollment of students from various minority groups. These institutions boast statistics about the large number of countries of origin, ethnic backgrounds, and religions that are represented by their student bodies. By these measures, many institutions are diverse indeed.
The problem is that these schools use representative diversity to imply that their campuses are progressive, safe spaces that promote collaboration between different cultures.
These institutions celebrate the presence of difference without providing education about these qualities. Because of this, they usually fail at creating a campus environment that lives up to the standards they promote to prospective students.
There are online programs employed by many universities like AlcoholEDU (which aims to prevent alcohol abuse) and Haven (a program for sexual assault prevention) that are mandatory for all incoming freshmen, and similar programs focused on teaching students cultural sensitivity exist at schools like the University of Missouri and University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Universities can show they're truly committed to promoting diverse and inclusive campus climates by spearheading similar programs to educate their students about the cultural differences that make up their communities, and by being stronger in denouncing any instances of cultural insensitivity.