University of Maryland needs to do better at becoming a safe place for black students

Why would an African American student attend the University of Maryland at College Park?

When a student chooses a school they want a place where they feel wanted and supported. Parents want to know they’re sending their daughters and sons to a safe environment — not a place where they might become a victim of a hate crime.

And recently, black families have had too many reasons to question whether the University of Maryland is that place.

The number of hate incidents the university reported to Maryland State Police has more than doubled from 12 in 2016 to 28 in 2017. That included the highly publicized campus killing last year of black Bowie State University student Richard W. Collins III, allegedly by a white former University of Maryland student.

And as Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman recently reported, black students are choosing to go elsewhere. Freshman enrollment for black students is at an eight-year low at the state’s flagship university. Just 7.3 percent of the new freshman class, or about 340 out of 4,700 students, is black.

The university has acknowledged that hate incidents probably played a role and said they need to beef up efforts to attract black students.

It is hard to take the pronouncements seriously when the university has done little for close to a decade. Racist environments are nurtured when top leaders don’t actively counter them, or worse turn a blind eye. Too many black students at College Park have gotten the message that the university doesn’t truly care what they are experiencing.

Who can blame a black student for not coming when university officials have allowed a racist environment to fester and grow? As the campus Black Student Union put it in a petition it circulated shortly after Collins’ death, the university needed to become “more safe for Black students and less of a safe haven for neo-nazis, and white supremacists.”

In the last year, President Wallace Loh has taken a defensive stance, blaming everything from institutional racism to the competition from historically black colleges who take the cream of the crop students. To be fair, he also established a chief diversity cabinet level position and hired a firm to take campus climate surveys every two years. The university also plans to hire a coordinator of admission and diversity initiatives to enhance recruitment efforts and increase financial aid offerings. At a meeting with The Sun’s editorial board early this year, he ticked off how many millions he has budgeted for it all.

But clearly the response has not been felt where it most counts. Some faculty said the administration response has been too slow and reactive. The preliminary report on campus climate found that 33 percent of students and 30 percent of administrators said response to hate-bias incidents needs improving.

Roger Worthington, who was until recently interim chief diversity officer, lasted about a year on the job and has indicated he was in effect censored by the university’s communications shop. During a meeting of the Black Faculty Association this summer, Mr. Worthington said he didn’t get enough support from leadership and that he had more of a voice as a faculty member, according to a report in the student newspaper The Diamondback.

The recent death of football player Jordan McNair, who died after suffering heatstroke during a team workout, and the University System’s bungled initial response to it, will only make matters worse. A young black man died in circumstances that were entirely preventable, and the white leadership of the university system comes out months later extolling the virtues of the white coach who was in charge? You can bet black women all over the state felt the pain of a mom devastated by loss and the implication that athletics is more important than the life of a young black man.

The apology this week by the new regents chairwoman, Linda Gooden, who is African-American, is welcome, but it’s going to take a lot to undo the damage. Black students have already said McNair’s death is indicative of a culture where black students and their concerns are undervalued.

Students have pointed to other racial incidents on campus over the years, including when police broke up a predominantly black party using pepper spray and when white supremacist flyers were found around campus. A noose was also found at Nyumburu Cultural Center.

The flagship university is supposed to set the example for the rest of the schools in the system. But Mr. Loh and other campus officials should look to some of their sister schools as an example. They could take a page from The University of Maryland Baltimore County, which has a reputation for attracting top black students.

At the least, university officials need to take a much stronger stance and make sure faculty and students feel as if their voices are being heard. When minority students feel supported, respected and safe, more will come.

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