Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Toxic Campus Climates: It's Been a Dismal Year for Racial Harmony on Campus, but Some Scholars Say Conflict Can Serve as a Learning Experience for the Entire Community

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Toxic Campus Climates: It's Been a Dismal Year for Racial Harmony on Campus, but Some Scholars Say Conflict Can Serve as a Learning Experience for the Entire Community

Article excerpt

The rings and robes have been ordered and there's both joy and uncertainty in the air as campuses go through the annual rite of graduation. But, across the nation, there are also pockets of administrators who can't wait to close the books on the 2005-2006 academic year.

If the headlines are any measure, it's been a dismal year for racial harmony on campus, with these controversies erupting:

* Boulder, Colo., where threatening e-mails to campus athletes and a female student leader--"You will die if you run for student government"--have rattled Black and Hispanic students and embarrassed the administration.

* Chicago, where a "straight thuggin' party"--attended by White University of Chicago students wearing chains, baggy clothing and handcuffs as they guzzled alcohol and listened to 50 Cent and Notorious B.I.G.--has offended the Southside neighborhoods surrounding the campus while roiling the tranquil waters of affluent Hyde Park.

* And, of course, Durham, N.C., where allegations of underage drinking, racial slurs and gang rape have tarred, perhaps permanently, Duke University's squeaky clean reputation in athletics.

"Unfortunately, it always seems to take a crisis" to focus attention on the stresses and strains of students' daily interactions with each other, says Dr. Jesus Trevino, associate provost and head of the Center for Multicultural Excellence at the University of Denver. But instead of commissions, head-shaking and hand-wringing, he says "what we really need is a different model for engaging the entire [academic] community."

It's a sentiment others have drawn as well. "The crisis at Duke, while certainly painful and traumatic for them, is not particular to that one campus," says Dr. William B. Harvey, who left the American Council on Education last year to become vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity at the University of Virginia.

"The real import of this situation is that it [creates a conversation that] challenges those of us in higher education who haven't personally experienced a crisis of this magnitude as to what our processes and attitudes and actions would be" Harvey says.

Adding to the debate is a growing body of research and a growing consensus among practitioners and key decision-makers that real progress in achieving equity can't be made until discussions move beyond the quantities of students on a given campus to embrace the quality of the experiences that they have once they're there. In other words, the "campus climate."

A Failure of Faculty?

Toxic campus climates are not born; they're made. They arise out of the very metaphors campuses use to talk about diversity, Trevino says. "Are the messages shaped around the 'deficit model' that says: 'You're disadvantaged, less than, broken; I'm going to bring you in to my program and fix you?'" he asks. "Or are they shaped around the 'success model' that says: 'You're wanted here; you bring tremendous value and contributions to our campus?'"

While student behavior is often scrutinized and criticized by their professors, "In fact, [students] can be the victims of the faculty culture and faculty incompetence," says Dr. Ximena Zuniga, assistant professor of social justice education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. "I see White students and students of color as victims of a system created by faculty and administration."

Students deserve a great deal of credit for their contributions, says Dr. Patricia Gurin, acting director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan and the Nancy Cantor Distinguished University Professor, Emerita, of psychology and women's studies.

"Historically, the programs that have developed and even the increases in students, faculty and staff have mostly come through the mobilization of students--students of color, women and so on," Gurin says. …

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