Thursday, July 19th, 2018

Students confront racial tension

Posted on April 22, 2002 in News
By Steve Peoples

Racial problems at USM are not new. Many of the faculty, staff, community members and students who attended last week’s forum to discuss racial issues at USM said they’ve been aware of the issue for some time. Most of the people of color who attended the forum expressed their frustration – and sometimes their outrage – that the University hasn’t done more to address their concerns.

“You’ve had this goddamned information for 20 years. It’s about students not having to spend more of their time in this discussion that’s 20 years old,” said Portland community member Rachel Talbot Ross. “It’s a little insulting to have to hear the response ‘Let’s talk about it,’ when it’s already been spelled out. To say learning takes place from now on is crap.”

Members of the administration acknowledge a problem exists.

“We’ve had this conversation before and each time there’s been a particular level of anger or frustration,” said Vice President for Student Development Craig Hutchinson, who attended the forum. “That there’s discriminatory type behavior at the worst and an unpleasant community environment at best is something that’s not new (at USM) and something that’s not going to disappear completely for some time.”

But Hutchinson said the University has been working to address the issue and that part of the problem is a lack of communication between the administration and the student body that turns over every four or five years.

In recent years the number of full-time faculty and staff of color has seen a dramatic increase, from seven in 1997 to 25 this year.

This past fall the administration also added an assistant director of admissions who is responsible for the recruitment of multicultural students. Admissions currently has 197 applications from people who identify themselves as people of color, a 42 percent increase over the 139 applicants in the previous year. There are currently 330 students of color at USM.

The forum was prompted by the recent controversy regarding Associate Professor of Psychology John Broida, who is accused of making racist and homophobic comments in videotaped lectures circulated to students in introductory psychology classes.

In one of the tapes he said “Do you know that on average blacks have a lower IQ than whites? Yes, have you noticed that? It’s true.”

He then explained how psychologists attribute the IQ difference to different factors.

“Nativists will say blacks are racially inferior. They’re just stupid, because of their inheritance,” Broida said.

University officials said Broida intentionally uses provocative statements to engage his classes. Broida would not comment.

Most of the participants said that, though the forum was prompted by Broida’s comments, the issue is much broader.

One of the student organizers, Eric Anderson, read a list of concerns at the beginning of the meeting that included expanding cultural studies into USM’s curriculum, attracting more students and faculty members of color, and improving resources for USM’s Multicultural Center.

Frustration prevalent

Much of the meeting, however, was defined by the frustration of the students of color and their supporters from the community.

“The University can say over and over they’re making efforts, but overall we’re struggling as students or else we wouldn’t be here,” said student-organized Kia Tour?.

Tour? said she’s often the only student of color in her classes. She said sometimes students and faculty members will direct questions to her regarding multiculturalism, expecting her to know the answer simply because of her skin color.

Other students of color said they’re tired of feeling like it’s their responsibility to educate students and faculty members about multiculturalism.

“I’m a student. My purpose it to learn, not teach you,” said graduate student Lori Jenkins. “If they need a diversity counselor, pay me . My patience is about up.”

Rachel Morales, the student who came forward to complain about Broida’s comments, shared an experience in which she felt very uncomfortable in another class.

At the beginning of a class about Hispanic culture, the professor told students “to leave their anglo faces at the door and pretend to be Ricky Martin or Jennifer Lopez,” said Morales.

“I was irate. I sat down to decide what to do, if I should raise my hand or confront the professor. I decided not to act out then, but to take the class with somebody else,” she said.

Morales went to the admissions office and found her schedule didn’t allow her to take the class at another time, so she decided to confront the professor.

She was prepared to drop the class if the confrontation didn’t go well, but the professor said she hadn’t realized her comments were perpetuating a stereotype and thanked Morales for coming forward.

“That day I decided to educate her,” said Morales. “But I was worried for the rest of the year. I was worried because of the power differential.”

Morales said at the conclusion of the class the professor took her aside and thanked her for helping to educate her.

“Was it a learning experience for me? I hated it,” said Morales. “I saw it as something she should have known . I have a choice whether I want to educate a professor or not. It’s not a responsibility.”

University solutions

A new University policy requires all new staff members to attend a multicultural sensitivity training session. Faculty members are not mandated, but “strongly encouraged” to take the training, according to Judy Ryan, executive assistant to the President.

She said there has been a significant increase in the number of faculty and staff members who have received the training in recent years.

In the 1998-99 academic year Ryan reported that 74 employees attended the training. This year there have been 163.

The USM fact book lists a total of 1,435 employees at the University, including full and part-time faculty, and professional and classified employees.

In the last five to six years the Office of Campus Diversity and Equity, which oversees the Multicultural Student Affairs Office, has increased its budget from $157,500 in 1996 to today’s budget of $278,000. The increase includes the hiring of Rebecca Sockbeson, the director of Multicultural Student Affairs and another staff member.

Many students at the forum said they’d like to see all students required to take a class in multiculturalism, as is done at some other universities.

Vice President for Academic Affairs Joe Wood, who also attended the forum, acknowledged there needs to be more diversity in the curriculum. He said inevitably the faculty is responsible for the content of the curriculum, and he can only try to push them in a direction. He said he’s already challenged the committee that develops CORE classes to increase diversity, but he can’t force students to take the classes.

Wood said he’d also like to see an increase in such classes in individual departments and pushed later in the curriculum, instead of only the CORE classes.

What’s next?

Anderson said there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. He said he’s glad there was an opportunity for students and community members to voice their concerns, but there needs to be some follow-through.

The group does plan to have another forum soon, he said, though he acknowledged the end of the semester is approaching and the timing will be difficult.

The administration is also uncertain as to how to proceed.

“The immediate plan is to do what the Student Development staff is doing already,” said Hutchinson. “That is to make sure that the students are engaged on a regular basis and are able to express their voice.”

He said his longer-term plan is to meet with his department heads and have a discussion about how to be more effective in dealing with these issues.

“And then I suspect some sort of plan of action may come out of that. It may be the same one or it may not be,” said Hutchinson.

He said a solution isn’t easy to find.

“The first time I heard someone say we shouldn’t expect the only black person in the room to be a regional expert on Africa was 1978,” he said. “The point is you can’t make that assumption but we still make the mistake, that’s what angers me . I can’t believe that’s still going on.”

Executive Editor Steve Peoples can be contacted at: stephen.peoples@maine.edu

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