From WILL - News Headlines -

Reports Examine Diversity at the University of Illinois

Two new reports released by the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society shed some light on the state of underrepresented minority students at the University of Illinois.

The first report, which looks at graduate education at the U of I, refers to campus data from the 2009 Strategic Plan Progress Report and population statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In the study, African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians groups in 2009 comprised a little more than 30 percent of the state's population. Meanwhile, the percent of those groups represented in the U of I's graduate school was significantly lower at around seven percent.

"The University has a persistent problem of inequity," said U of I African American studies Professor Jennifer Hamer, who helped write the study. "This is a public university, a flagship public land-grant university, and we don't have a population that represents the state, let alone the nation."

The report also found that in fall 2009, there were no Hispanic, African American, and American Indian students enrolled in many graduate level programs.

University spokeswoman Robin Kaler issued a statement saying the university is committed to diversity in higher education, including graduate education.

"We have worked for many years to attract the best and brightest minority students to campus," Kaler said.

Hamer said she has been encouraged by conversations with the university's administrators about diversifying the campus.

"They clearly see diversity as a value to the campus," Hamer said. "Now, the question is how do they respond to that? Well, I think once you define something as a value, you set policy and practices that emphasize it."

Kaler noted some examples of campus-wide initiatives dedicated to attracting minority students to Illinois:

"Many initiatives across campus are dedicated to bringing excellent minority students to Illinois. For example, the Young Scholars Program in ACES, LAMP (LIS Access Midwest Program) in GSLIS, SURGE (Support for Under-Represented Groups in Engineering) and SROP (Summer Research Opportunities Program) and the Graduate College Fellows program in the Graduate College. Recently, the P&G Science Diversity Summit, a collaborative event among the College of ACES, College of Engineering, College of LAS and the Graduate College, brought partners from minority serving institutions to campus to create new partnerships and initiatives to support diversity in graduate programs at Illinois."

The second report released involved 11 focus groups with 82 minority students who were interviewed about their reactions to 'racial microaggressions' made in the residence halls (elevators, chalkboards, dorm room doors) and elsewhere on campus.

The report defined racial microaggressions as "race-related encounters that happen between individuals. Individual level encounters can be verbal, nonverbal, or behavioral exchanges between people. Microaggressions can also occur on the environmental level, which are race-related messages that individuals receive from their environment."

The report is coauthored by Drs. Stacy A. Harwood who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning; Ruby Mendenhall, an Assistant Professor in the departments of Sociology, African American Studies, and Urban and Regional Planning; and Margaret Browne Huntt, the Research Specialist at the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society.

Hunt said students who were interviewed perceived racial slurs negatively, even comments that were considered harmless.

"What we were finding is that the students were receiving the various forms of racism to be as hostile, derogatory," Huntt said. "Some students actually contemplated leaving the university because of these forms of racism that take place."

Students in the study that saw racial slurs written in dormitory elevators stated that they were more upset about the slurs not being removed immediately.

"I went to the front desk and I told them about it and it was a Caucasian girl there and she was just like, we've been hearing about it all day, and she kind of blew it off," one student said. "Then my floor had a meeting about the whole situation and my RA told me that nobody told them about the racial slurs on the elevator."

The report concluded that faculty and students should undergo training to help identify and stop racism, even when it is presented in an unintentional and subtle way.

"Some students won't speak up in class cause they feel like when they do say things, students won't believe their experience," Mendenhall said.

Huntt and Mendenhall said they are not sure if offensive racial comments at the U of I correlate with the number of underrepresented minority students as this was not part of their study.