Invisible on campus: Dialogues on diversity, activism and the future of campus inclusion

and | Senior Editors

Invisible on Campus is an investigative series that takes a multifaceted look at the past, present and future of black oppression on campus. In its first four installments, we looked at the current climate of diversity and inclusion on campus, the history of black student activism at Washington University and efforts to boost black representation through undergraduate admissions and faculty recruitment. Today, we wrap up the series with a look at the rhetoric surrounding dialogue on diversity, changing strategies in activism and remaining challenges the University faces.

Thus far in this series, we have focused predominantly on the quantitative aspects of the black experience on campus, by way of the numbers of students and percentages of professors who call Washington University home. But bettering the racial makeup is just the first step towards cultivating a more welcoming and inclusive campus environment, members of the Wash. U. community stressed—doing so can naturally facilitate a more accepting culture, but the University must improve tolerance alongside increasing numbers.

As black sophomore Kielah Harbert said in a representative quote, “You can have all the black people you want, but if they don’t feel comfortable here, if they don’t feel safe, it’s not going to be a successful environment for them.”

Or as Joe Madison, a 1971 graduate of the University and current host of the SiriusXM radio show “Joe Madison-The Black Eagle,” summarized, “Diversity is about counting people. Inclusion is about making people count.”

The University has had to grapple with such distinctions more directly since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. in August 2014, which sparked renewed protest actions on campus. Community members credited the events in nearby Ferguson—just a 10-mile drive from campus—with providing campus leaders with a sense of urgency around these topics and generating new conversations about how race affects the experiences of those on the Danforth Campus.

But black students on campus said those conversations are still lacking, and they bristle at some of the University’s attempts to develop dialogues and induce change. From moving slowly with broad panels and pilot programs to seemingly resisting change on a deep, institutional level, Wash. U. still has a ways to go with its efforts in the realm of diversity and inclusion, critical community members suggested.

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For some students, the initial problem stems from administrators not providing a strong acknowledgement that issues surrounding race affect black people on campus.

A number of students interviewed for this story expressed frustration that Chancellor Mark Wrighton, who is white, didn’t send a school-wide email addressing the protests at the University of Missouri last semester. Lori White, the black vice chancellor for students, instead sent a short message informing students about the support services available to them, but students said they viewed Wrighton’s silence on the matter as an institutional decision to ignore the racial turmoil two hours west of the Danforth Campus.


This anecdote fit in with what students said they already saw as an overreliance on black students to talk about black issues, with discourse being generated by the students who might be most affected by the problems rather than administrators. They pointed to one of Wrighton’s mass emails last year, when he wrote that the Ferguson unrest had “not affected our campuses,” as evidence of the administration effectively whitewashing how the broader societal problems around race penetrate the Washington University grounds.

Some suggested that part of the problem with a larger, school-wide recognition of these recurring issues extends from their subtlety. That’s different from a half-century ago, when students wrote the initial Black Manifesto and “there were explicit barriers to black people coming into college,” 2015 alumnus and black activist Reuben Riggs explained. “Now, a lot of the stuff that we’re fighting against, it’s not as explicit. For people that want to ignore it, it’s easier to rationalize away the issues that are present.”

The largest institutional effort to spread communication about these matters has come via the Day of Diversity, whose inaugural event came last year as a series of panel discussions addressing various issues of diversity and inclusion and drew an audience from all levels of the University community. Administrators involved with the day’s organization said they received overwhelmingly positive feedback from attendees, and they came away from this year’s Day of Diversity—held just last week—with similarly glowing assessments.

But the fear with workshops is that they are “preaching to the choir,” several students quipped—the community members who attend these events are the ones who are already interested in and care about that work. Such a perception arose after last week’s event, too, when students countered the administrators’ rave reviews with notes of caution. Students who attended the Day of Diversity discussions contested that, through the event, the University was paying lip service to issues of inclusion, but they think administrators need to go further with more tangible efforts.

“We need to educate the people who don’t care,” Kielah Harbert said in an interview last semester. “So even if you have programs for us, set up programs for the students who don’t understand it, who don’t know anything about it, who don’t want to be in the conversation about it.”

Students also worry that, while the University deliberates and holds forums, the experiences of black students already here are being ignored in the meantime.

“We need change immediately, and they’re just talking about things,” sophomore Mimi Borders said.

That’s a legacy that informs the actions of current activists despite the emotional repercussions that can ensue, Borders, who is black, added. “There are going to be black girls coming to this school when I leave, and they’re going to feel s—ty and feel like they might not be treated as they should be treated,” she said, “so if I can spend my time at this school making it better for them, and as long as I’m still whole as a human when I’m doing that, then let me do that.”

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Joe Madison, who is black, transferred to Wash. U. in fall 1969, just a few months after student activists wrote the first Black Manifesto amid the Brookings Hall sit-in. He has spent his life since as an activist himself, as a former executive director of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP and a radio talk show host.

Madison visited his alma mater last week to host a panel during the Day of Diversity, during which time he spoke with Student Life about his views of racial disparities on campus and the Invisible on Campus series. For Madison, many of the issues developed in the series’ first four installments stem from unconscious biases, which he believes hits the hiring process hardest.

“In America, we are culturally conditioned to believe that white is superior and black is inferior, and the manifestation of that cultural conditioning is that black people are undervalued, underestimated and marginalized,” Madison said.

“Those in charge and responsible for recruiting [have] a boatload of excuses,” he added. “‘Well, there are not enough people in the pipeline. There are not enough students who are starting undergraduate work in the STEM categories.’ The excuse that, ‘Well, someone with an undergraduate degree [who] is an engineer in science can make more money.’ And I thought to myself that those excuses don’t apply to white people.”

Madison suggested that a simple way to address these biases would be through a series of steps mirroring the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for an open head coaching position.

Additionally, Madison suggested that the University could boost its recruitment efforts at historically black colleges and universities.

“They teach engineering at these schools. And you’ll find that these individuals are as smart, if not smarter than, many of the white professors that you have here,” Madison said.

Once on campus, these unconscious biases move from the quantitative to the interpersonal. Members of the campus community need to be made aware that how they act and what they say can affect their peers from minority groups, Denise DeCou, the director of diversity and inclusion in human resources, said. DeCou, who is black, hopes that by providing education in this area, the school can begin to feel more welcoming for all its members.

Under DeCou’s direction, all faculty and staff on the Danforth Campus will receive four hours of diversity and inclusion training by the end of the school year, continuing a program that reached hundreds of faculty on the University’s medical campus.

In the Olin Business School, similarly, the newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Committee hosted more than 1,000 students at a diversity expo event in August, and the first-year Master of Business Administration class is receiving training sessions throughout the year.

At the undergraduate level, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion is piloting an intergroup dialogue program this semester, for which the center has formed small groups of students from different backgrounds to share their experiences. The first topic for the program is racial identity, but as a pilot, the discussion groups remain small in scale, organizers said.

But such institutional trainings only go so far, students and faculty responded, because the problems don’t have easy solutions; rather, they infiltrate all corners of campus, from the predominantly white faces peering out from portraits on walls to the predominantly white names lurking in textbooks and on whiteboards.

“I am so tired of students having to find brown and black faces in the professorate in order to get the curriculum that reflects the diversity within our society,” black Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) professor Jeffrey McCune said, offering as an example an introductory philosophy course that ignores the contributions of contemporary black philosophers. “What does it say to [black students] that they come into an introductory classroom and… the material is all white? It’s institutional racism at its worst.”

“Certainly when my parents were in school, history was kings and military history,” Rafia Zafar, a black professor of various humanities courses, concurred. “But then, where is the history of the working class; where is the history of slaves?…Where are their voices? Where are their histories? They’re a part of history, too.”

University officials worry that much of the racial bias in classrooms is unintentional, Jen Smith, the white undergraduate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, said, meaning instructors aren’t aware of how their actions are impacting their students. Department chairs “have been thinking a lot about how they could work with their faculty to remove that from our classrooms,” Smith added. “We’re looking for ways to do that. I don’t know how much we’ve really done at this point.”

To help judge such bias on an individual level, last semester’s course evaluations included a new question asking to what extent “the instructor promoted an inclusive learning environment with regard to student personal backgrounds and identities.” The question’s wording hasn’t been completely finalized—last semester’s results will serve to inform the development of that wording, not to reflect on instructors yet—but Smith said she hopes the new item can inform professors about their classroom environments.

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A broader classroom directive is also under construction. Spurred in part by the demands of the Wash. U. branch of the activist group Students in Solidarity (SIS) last spring, the College of Arts & Sciences is in the first of a three-year pilot program of a freshman seminar focusing on issues of diversity and identity. The SIS demands asked for a course that functions similar to College Writing I—a mandatory, three-credit class—while the current pilot includes 150 students and was optional.

Students and faculty gather together outside the Danforth University Center on Nov. 12, 2015 to show support for the students at the University of Missouri during that school’s protests against racism. A number of black students said they were frustrated that Chancellor Mark Wrighton did not send a school-wide email acknowledging the unrest at Mizzou, which they viewed as indicative of Wash. U.’s approach to conversations around race.Justin Ho | Student Life

Students and faculty gather together outside the Danforth University Center on Nov. 12, 2015 to show support for the students at the University of Missouri during that school’s protests against racism. A number of black students said they were frustrated that Chancellor Mark Wrighton did not send a school-wide email acknowledging the unrest at Mizzou, which they viewed as indicative of Wash. U.’s approach to conversations around race.

Provost Holden Thorp, who is white, noted that when the participating freshmen were selected at random for the program, nobody opted out, and he voiced his hope that Wash. U. can become a national leader by virtue of this course.

“It’s something that a lot of other universities are watching because they’re all dealing with a lot of these same things,” Thorp said. “I think it’s a very clever idea.”

Individual school deans, whose approval would be needed to add a requirement to their students’ curricular demands, were split in their thoughts about the course.

In the School of Engineering & Applied Science, Chris Kroeger and Chris Ramsay—engineering’s associate dean for students and assistant dean, respectively, both of whom are white—said that a one-credit course would fit in students’ schedules without a problem, and a three-credit class would work if offered in both the fall and spring semesters.

In Arts & Sciences, however, Smith was resistant to the idea because it would pose an obstacle to students pursuing other interests outside their major. Arts & Sciences already requires its students to take at least three “social differentiation” credits, whose definition is in the process of being revised to better reflect the goals for the course.

“As far as I’m concerned, we already have a three-credit requirement,” Smith said. “It’s just not specified to the freshman year.”

Students said they hope the piloted diversity course is made mandatory so that its messages reach those freshmen who might need them the most but would be less likely to take the course on their own accord.

A similar program already exists in the Brown School of Social Work, whose national accrediting board mandates that students receive instruction on issues of diversity and social justice. From her experience helping organize the Brown School’s response to this requirement, Tonya Edmond, the school’s associate dean of diversity, suggested that the deans of the undergraduate schools should adopt a three-credit course for all freshmen.

“In our discipline, that’s critically important that they get that training,” Edmond, who is white, said. “I think a case could be made that as human beings, this is critically important.”

And while a one-credit offering can provide an introduction to the issues, Edmond added, “The work requires, I think, much more time, energy and effort than can be achieved in one credit…I think we have to decide that it’s that important.”

* * *

Elsewhere in the curriculum, around a dozen faculty and administrators connected to the African and African-American Studies (AFAS) program, created in response to the 1968 Black Manifesto, spoke unanimously in favor of its transition into a department and argued that such a change would pose a powerful statement about the University’s support of its black population.

Many faculty members voiced their irritation that the program has been stuck in what they see as second-tier status for so long. This frustration dates back to the early 1970s, when Robert Williams, a black faculty member and then-director of the program, wrote letters to leaders in the College of Arts & Sciences asking for AFAS—then called the Black Studies program—to become a department. Among the reasons they gave for wanting the change were the additional prestige nominally conferred on a department, the independent hiring power held by a department and the commitment to black scholarship that such a transition would signal on the part of the University.

Until recently, programs could not hire faculty by themselves but rather needed to partner with official departments to secure new instructors. Garrett Duncan, who directed the AFAS program from 2009–2012, said he didn’t always trust the chairs of faculty searches to make hiring decisions with the best interests of his program in mind.

“I [had] to rely on others to shape our program—those who may not be interested in AFAS, who wonder whether or not black studies is a legitimate area of scholarship,” Duncan, who is black, said.

That’s a sentiment shared by Zafar, who chaired the AFAS program from 1999–2003. Zafar spent her time with the program advocating for its conversion into a department, but “the University doesn’t necessarily do everything right,” she said, and staying a program for so long has “stifled growth.”

Zafar expressed hope that a variety of signs—an external review last year, the hiring of a post-doctoral fellow exclusively in the program and the ongoing search for a new AFAS director—point to AFAS being next in line to become a department; while acknowledging her optimism, she predicted that the change would be announced within the year.

Barbara Schaal, the white dean of faculty for Arts & Sciences, said that although the program is on the path to departmental status, it’s too far out to forecast a time for the change, and she doesn’t expect it to occur within the next two years. The transition of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies—which Zafar noted began at the University four years after AFAS—from program to department, announced last semester, has no bearing on AFAS, Schaal added.

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Administrators and faculty, however, are not the only ones still debating the best ways to create a more inclusive community. Among the student body, there exist a number of viewpoints on how dialogue can expand beyond panels and protests. Students involved in a variety of activist work advocated for increased academic and community engagement, as well as broader campus involvement.

For Reuben Riggs, who helped organize for WashU Students in Solidarity last year, that means the University should take on a more direct role in encouraging inter-student dialogue.

“What if the administration had said, ‘Hey, we want to find a way to help you make space in your schedule to go and have one-on-one conversations with everyone in this dorm?’” Riggs said. “What if they had set aside a certain number of meal points or something to compensate students for canvassing?”

Other students felt that the walkouts, die-ins and similarly oriented protests that populated campus last year veered into a sort of monoculture and peer-pressured activism. Instead, they used several different means to contribute to campus conversations.

Junior Andie Berry is a Mellon Mays scholar and has cowritten Black Anthology each of the last two years. For Berry, writing the dramatic production is a means of chronicling the experiences of black students on campus as they deal with issues of activism and inclusion.Ariel Vasser | Student Life

Junior Andie Berry is a Mellon Mays scholar and has cowritten Black Anthology each of the last two years. For Berry, writing the dramatic production is a means of chronicling the experiences of black students on campus as they deal with issues of activism and inclusion.

Andie Berry, a black junior, co-wrote both this and last year’s Black Anthology production. Last year’s show, titled “The Six,” chronicled the lives of six black students on campus in the wake of the Ferguson protests and dealt with “how to build community in a moment where community in a lot of ways was breaking down,” Berry said. For her, writing the script was in part a way to address the experience of being black on campus outside more traditional means of direct activism.

Similarly, black junior Candace Borders, a member of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program along with Berry, said that she sees academic activism as an effective alternative in her own work. Borders’ project focuses on interviews with children who lived in St. Louis’ failed Pruitt-Igoe housing project in the mid-20th century.

“I can interview people who have basically been erased from the history of St. Louis, and I think that’s a form of activism, and I chose that deliberately with an intention of bringing voice to people that don’t have a voice,” Borders said.

Others on campus, such as junior Natasha Ceballos, who identifies as white and Latina, have found activist organizations such as Students in Solidarity to be increasingly less effective in creating an inclusive community. Ceballos is a former member of the group but now says that the group’s horizontal structure—meaning it has no official leadership—creates a groupthink mentality that can damage the group’s planning.

“They claim to be similarly horizontally structured but there are, in any situation, people who are going to rise up as leaders,” Ceballos said. “They pretend like no one person is in charge, but because someone is in charge, everyone is afraid to say something about it, and so everyone just follows along.”

Ceballos described the problem as stemming from a lack of succession planning. The organization, she said, had a strong group of senior leaders, who brought community organizing and activist experience to the group a year ago. When those seniors graduated, though, they “took their resources with them, not intentionally, but they are the ones who had the key contacts. And I say literal contacts in their phone,” Ceballos said.

Riggs, one of the senior leaders in the group last year, said he regretted not spending more time engaging the University at-large and creating a long-term plan for the group.

“We weren’t even thinking four years—we were thinking, ‘What are we going to do next year?’ So much of our leadership was seniors. Part of the problem is not just that students turn over every four years but that it takes a few years for students to kind of wake up,” Riggs said.

That four-year turnover is a problem for creating sustainable change across campus activism but one that, according to Ron Himes, a Wash. U. alumnus and current artist-in-residence, can be solved through detailed succession planning.

Ronald Himes, artist-in-residence, is the founder of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company. Himes graduated from the University in 1977 and both observed and participated in activist efforts throughout the campus' history.

Ronald Himes, artist-in-residence, is the founder of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company. Himes graduated from the University in 1977 and both observed and participated in activist efforts throughout the campus’ history.

Himes, who is black, founded the Black Repertory Theater while he was an undergraduate at Wash. U. The group is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, a feat Himes attributes to sustained leadership initiatives. Succession planning “is the remedy for continuity and for not starting over every four years and not having turnover—reinvention of the wheel, as it were—every four years,” Himes said.

Himes said that a sense of legacy is what ultimately will catalyze today’s activism. “I think that’s what the original manifesto was about,” Himes recalled. It was “a group of students creating or instigating an action that would have a legacy effect beyond them. And I think that that’s really what we need now.”

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Since this series launched two weeks ago, responses from campus figures have been mixed. On the one hand, Student Life has received email submissions accusing the “media” of perpetuating racism; on the other, students who were not initially interviewed for this series have reached out to add their perspectives and experiences to the throng.

Part of the aim behind this series was to bring issues of diversity facing black community members to the fore and attempt to uncover the University’s plans to address them in the coming years, for both the short-term and long-term. As has been expressed at length throughout the Invisible on Campus installments, those plans are varied in form, focus and predicted chance of success, and we found Wash. U.’s campus to be full of people who acknowledge that those efforts need to continue.

Part four of this series included lofty praise for Adrienne Davis, the black vice provost who has brought energy and enthusiasm to the sometimes-complacent pursuit of increased institutional diversity. In the words of some black faculty and administrators, if anyone can boost Wash. U.’s standing with its black community—both in numbers and more intangible measures of inclusivity—Davis will be the one to do it.

“Discrimination and bias—these are structural problems,” Davis said. “They’re structural problems in the United States, they’re structural problems in the workplace and they are really structural problems in universities. They’re deeply difficult to root out of universities.”

But the vice provost tasked with diversity work is hopeful about the future, and she offered a note of encouragement that was largely absent from our conversations with administrators.

“I’m optimistic about it,” Davis said. “It’s going to be challenging; it’s going to be hard, but that’s what we do as a university. Like, we literally cure cancer. We are literally rocket scientists. So diversity is one of the great challenges of the world, but we have the best minds here working on it.”

Read the rest of the “Invisible on Campus” series here.

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