Demanding Satisfaction: Minority Student Group's Lawsuit Threat to Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis for Neglecting Multicultural Students' Needs Compels Institution to Reform Its Administration, Community Partnerships and Curriculum

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It was the kind of crisis most universities dread.

In November 2006, a group of minority student leaders at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis threatened to sue the university if administrators did not heed demands that included providing more funding for multicultural student groups.

In a letter to university administrators, the leader of the university's Black Student Union also appealed for the hiring of more African-American faculty and administrators. The demands came on the heels of several concerns expressed by minority students, including the fact that they did not feel welcome on campus and that requests for excursions by Black student groups were often rejected.

The mandate and threat of a lawsuit attracted the attention of community members and local and regional media. For the administration, the public revelation that an urban institution built in the center of Indianapolis' African-American community failed to meet the needs of its Black students made for some discomfort.

"Black students felt alienated and dispossessed and they believed that the concerns of other groups on campus were attended to as their own concerns were virtually ignored," says Dr. Chalmer Thompson, an associate professor in IUPUI's College of Education. "What the students did in strongly calling for change was necessary and important."

The outcome from that episode has produced some changes that intersect with other reforms at the university.

Among the changes:

* The university has created a cabinet-level position of assistant chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion. Dr. Ken Durgans, who holds this position, reports to university Chancellor Charles R. Bantz. Durgans oversees a staff of a little more than 30 that includes an associate vice chancellor and several directors who work in such areas as multicultural affairs, community partnerships and academic partnerships. Durgans says more than half of the positions under him are new.

* IUPUI in 2008 created a multicultural center that includes offices and meeting places for African-American, Latino, Asian, Native American and gay students. Ethnic minorities make up 15 percent of its approximately 30,000 students. The multicultural center includes a success center that focuses on mentoring, retention and a variety of academic and nonacademic programming. The center will move into newly renovated offices this fall.

* More professors of color are on tenure-track; 23 percent of professors in tenure-track positions are minorities compared with 13 percent in 1998.

* The school now has a Department of Africana Studies that this fall will begin offering a bachelor's degree in Africana studies.

* IUPUI has expanded its community partnerships with local and national civic groups, such as 100 Black Men and the Society for African-American Brotherhood, in an attempt to provide additional mentoring and support for minority students. It has also broadened relationships with nearby school districts. The university credits its partnerships and initiatives as well as aggressive efforts to help minority students for the jump in its graduation rate, which has more than doubled for African-Americans in the last six years, rising from 11 percent in 2002 to 25 percent in 2008.

"We are an urban university," says Durgans. "To be an urban university means having a higher commitment to your community at an even higher level than other institutions. We are doing things that make sure we do our due diligence to the constituency we represent."

Proceeding With Caution

Dominic Dorsey, the former Black Student Union president who wrote the letter outlining students' demands, has noticed the changes. But he tempers his optimism with caution.

"Things are much different than in 2006," says Dorsey, a graduate student in higher education student affairs at IUPUI. …