Op-ed: 2017 Student Union diversity report

Diversity Affairs Council

In the fall of 2016, it was brought to our attention that several years had passed since data had been collected on the demographics of the students that make up our Student Union. In an effort to be as transparent as possible with our student body, we issued a Demographic Survey, which eventually led to make up our first official Student Union Diversity Report. After issuing our secnd annual survey in November 2017, not only did participation increase from 75 percent to 88 percent of SU members submitting responses, but we were able to track the progress SU had made in the past year and the areas that still need improvement. This year, the Diversity Affairs Council (DAC) modified and broadened many of the categories on the Diversity Survey to be more inclusive of a wider array of identities. We know that by no means are these categories comprehensive or all-encompassing, but we hope that they make more students feel represented by the statistics compiled in this report. The data is based on a total of 204 responses.

The racial/ethnic composition of SU did not change radically from 2016 to 2017. In 2016, 1.40 percent of SU identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native, 27.27 percent identified as Asian/Pacific Islander, 6.99 percent identified as Black or African-American, 8.39 percent identified as Hispanic/Latino(a), 50.35 percent identified as White/Caucasian, 4.20 percent identified as biracial/multiracial, 0.70 percent identified as Middle Eastern and 0.70 percent identified as Jewish. Some of the racial/ethnic identity categories were modified in 2017. “South Asian/Desi American” (4.44 percent) and “Arab” (.44 percent) were added to the survey. White/Caucasian students made up 56 percent, Asian/Pacific Islander made up 16.44 percent, Black or African-American made up 7.56 percent, Hispanic or Latin(x) made up 7.11 percent, Biracial/Multiracial made up 5.33 percent, American Indian or Alaskan Native made up .89 percent and 1.78 percent “preferred not to answer”.

Diversity ChartCourtesy of the Diversity Affairs Council

As compared to the 2016 Diversity Survey, which broke down SU’s gender composition by male (45.90 percent) and female (54.10 percent), the 2017 Diversity Survey showed that 59.41 percent of SU members identify as female, 36.63 percent identify as male, 0.5 percent identify as trans, 0.5 percent identify as gender non-conforming and genderqueer, 0.99 percent identify as gender non-binary and 1.49 percent preferred not to answer. We identified a significant majority gender shift in Senate; 52 percent identified as a “woman” compared to 36.36 percent in 2016 and 48 percent identified as a “man” compared to 63.63 percent in 2016. In Treasury, we saw an opposite shift with 46.43 percent identifying as a “woman” compared to 63.63 percent in 2016, and 50 percent identifying as a “man” compared to 36.36 percent in 2016. Looking at SU as a whole, we identified women as the dominant gender identity at 59.41 percent, “White/Caucasian” as the dominant race/ethnicity at 56 percent, straight as the dominant sexual identity at 69.72 percent, “upper middle” as the dominant socioeconomic status at 39.70 percent and “able bodied” as the dominant ability status at 86.76 percent.

This year, the DAC added “upper-middle class” to the socioeconomic category because its absence in last year’s diversity report skewed the data, as 52.46 percent of SU identified as “high class,” 35.25 percent identified as “middle class,” 9.02 percent identified as “low class” and 3.28 percent “preferred not to answer.” Comparatively, this year, 29.65 percent of SU identified as “high class,” 39.70 percent identified as “upper middle class,”, 20.60 percent identified as “middle class,” 7.54 percent identified as “lower class” and 2.51 percent “preferred not to answer.” As the group responsible for allocating money to student groups, it is important to bring attention to the socioeconomic breakdown within Treasury. In 2017, 28.57 percent identified as “high class,” 32,14 percent identified as “upper middle class,” 28.57 percent identified as “middle class,” and 7.14 percent identified as “lower class” (3.57 percent preferred not to answer). In 2016, “high class” and “middle class” identifications made up 95.72 percent of Treasury with 0 percent identifying as “lower class.”

SocioEconoic ChartCourtesy of the Diversity Affairs Council

Senate and Treasury, the “advocacy” and “allocating” branches of Washington University’s student government gather for weekly meetings every Tuesday night. It is evident by reviewing the DAC’s findings that the demographics of these individual groups fail to meet the same demographic breakdown that is represented by the undergraduate population. As an organization that was created to elevate the voices of the student body, its capabilities are hindered by the lack of perspectives and identities represented. The most notable outcomes of this are the inability to accurately represent the experiences and identities that students have had on this campus. A primary example would be the controversy over fall WILD 2017 and the lack of representation that minority students felt by the selection of Lil Dicky as the headliner.

In 2017, 71.43 percent of the members on Social Programming Board identified as “White/Caucasian,” 28.57 percent identified as “Asian/Pacific Islander” and 7.14 percent identified as “Biracial/Multiethnic.” In the socioeconomic status category, 50 percent identified as “high class” and 50 percent identified as “upper middle class.” After this incident, it was decided that the SPB’s surveys would be reviewed by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the DAC as extra steps before its release to the student body. Although this was a good intervention, we would like to see an increase in the saliency within groups like SPB so outside intervention isn’t necessary; and this can be achieved by further diversifying the body. If the members of SU were better informed and equipped to address such topics, less pressure would be put students in the middle of stressful situations.

Current member of Treasury, junior Rory Mather, described SU’s difficulties with attaining diversity and his future optimism for the group as well: “The main reason that I decided to join Treasury was that at the time, I felt as though my identity as an LGBTQIA* member of the Asian community wasn’t being fully represented by the Treasury body. I wanted to ensure that my experiences and the experiences of the communities I am a part of were taken into account when money was being allocated. And who better to give that perspective than someone who had already been on SU for more than two years?” That being said, it is important that the students in SU that represent marginalized groups don’t become tokens within their entities. In order to achieve this, each member of SU has to personally commit to become more salient about the issues that affect marginalized groups on this campus and take the time to educate themselves in order to alleviate some of that burden on marginalized groups.

Just like the University, it is inevitable that Student Union will struggle with its adequate representation within. The information gathered from the DAC’s Diversity Report produces more awareness on the topic and an opportunity to educate the undergraduate population on Student Union and its needs. For Wash. U.’s student government to become more successful fulfill its mission: to advocate, allocate and program on behalf of the student body, it requires a wider variety of perspectives within the organization.

There is no simple explanation for the lack of diversity in SU. SU members themselves, on a 100-point scale (1 being no diversity and 100 being extremely diverse), rated the perceived diversity of SU as 47.3. It is clear that the members of SU can recognize that a problem exists, but identifying the causes and implementing solutions requires more of a commitment. In evaluating the causes of such a profound gap in diversity, it is important to look at the diversity statistics of the Wash. U. student body and compare these numbers to the representation in SU. The overall socioeconomic representation within SU presents a striking contrast to numbers in the United States as a whole. The Pew Research Center in 2015 revealed that 9 percent of Americans are considered high socioeconomic status, 12 percent upper middle, 50 percent middle and 20 percent low. These numbers do not align with those represented in our Student Union, and it is clear that low and middle class individuals are strikingly underrepresented in Student Union. In terms of diversity, when looking at the student body, close to 53 percent of students are white, 10 percent African-American and 7.5 percent Hispanic or Latinx. In terms of SU, about 56 percent of members are White/Caucasian, while about 7.5 percent are African-American and 7 percent Hispanic or Latino.

A question that clearly must be addressed is what limits diversity as a whole on the Wash. U. campus, as that represents the first structural barrier to garnering a more diverse group of students in SU. In evaluating this, it is important to look at the faculty diversity at Wash. U., as these numbers represent a larger structural barrier to diversifying the Wash. U. student body. It is difficult to attract a diverse student body when those who represent the most esteemed members of the University community do not reflect this same diversity. On a tenured track on the Danforth Campus according to 2016 statistics, 77 percent of professors are white while only 6 percent are African-American. On the medical campus, the gap is even more profound, with “underrepresented” minorities making up a total of 6 percent of full-time faculty. These numbers are astounding and need to be addressed in order to move forward in creating a more inclusive student body.  

We cannot simply sit back with this data and do nothing. In doing so, SU will be complicit in sustaining its own faults, and will ultimately limit itself from reaching its full potential as an elected body. It is imperative that we utilize this data to implement solutions that ensure SU’s commitment to becoming an inclusive entity that represents and advocates for all students. Representatives of SU must be more proactive in encouraging students to run for office. The majority of representatives in Senate and Treasury are long-time incumbents who often run uncontested. This, paired with the lack of students running for office, results in an extremely limited list of candidates. When discussing shortages in potential candidates, we also need to pay greater attention to the smaller branches in SU and example their election/appointment process as we do with the major branches.

It is not widely known that the smaller branches, which include class councils and Social Programming Board, actually have a substantial amount of influence on programming and initiatives that affect the student body. The irresponsible actions of the Social Programming Board surrounding the 2017 fall WILD artist selection resulted in a greater distrust of SU among underrepresented students. It is important to note that there are not many students running or applying for positions in the smaller entities, which can likely be attributed to a lack of promotion from SU Exec. ALL SU entities need to include in ALL SU conversations. When we fail to provide a broader range of candidate choices for these positions, we force the student body to settle for officers who lack the ability to properly represent their constituency and the courage to openly advocate for positive changes on our campus.  

For many years, there has been a clear pipeline connecting aspiring first-year students to officer positions in SU: LEAD WashU. Students who go through this Student Union pre-orientation program have a much higher chance at successfully campaigning for office, and are much more likely to become incumbents. A glaring issue with this system is that the only students who can utilize this resource are those whose can afford it. This highlights a very serious issue that persists not only among SU representatives but also among our student body in general: Students of a higher socioeconomic status are awarded advantages in the form of special programming and resources that are not available to all students. It is our hope that the new changes to pre-orientation programs will provide more opportunities for low and middle income students to learn more about SU and ultimately become empowered to run for office.

In comparing SU during the 2017-18 school year to that of the 2016-17 school year, current SU representatives perceived the elected body to be less diverse this year than last. SU is becoming more cognizant of its lack in diversity, and it is beginning to see racial and socioeconomic uniformity as a barrier to their ability to accurately represent students on our campus. Despite the rise in awareness of the problem, there does not seem to be much emphasis on utilizing this awareness to actually change the exclusive culture within SU. SU representatives have failed to actively encourage low represented groups to run or apply for positions. This complacent attitude among SU is no longer acceptable.

We do not need to be afraid of diversity and inclusion. It is not a punishment for toxic uniformity or a “euphemism for discrimination” of a majority group. We strive towards a more inclusive Wash. U., and an SU that is properly representative of our student body because it makes our community stronger. When we allow more perspectives to be heard in SU, we can implement stronger programs and initiatives that reach our entire student body and leave no one behind.

Thus, we are calling on SU to do better because our student body deserves better. Because imagine this…That our Student Union was so diverse that its population had representation of ALL the identities that make up our student body. Increasing representation in Student Union means that we can bring advocacy and the amplification of student voices INSIDE our Student Union. Let’s stop talking about “voices” like our students aren’t ready and willing to speak for themselves and on behalf of their own communities.

Notes: The general statistics collected from this survey will be available through the Student Union website shortly. We cannot release the individual entity response breakdowns because that data could potentially violate the privacy of students.