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Campus Climate Working Group meeting

Wednesday, February 2, noon-1, Neilson Browsing Room

Read the minutes from the November 17 meeting here

Colleges Need to "Take Responsibility" in Diversity Matters, Simmons Urges

National Conference Begins Process of Identifying Principles for Respecting Race and Ethnicity -- On Campus and Beyond

Smith College President Ruth J. Simmons is calling upon colleges and universities to develop a set of principles for dealing with racial inequities inside their institutions and, by extension, within society as a whole. Like the Sullivan Principles articulated for corporations doing business in apartheid South Africa, they would hold institutions to a standard of conduct.

"We have to take responsibility for the whole," said Simmons, referring to the "rights and well being of the least privileged in our society." Topping her list of principles is preventing the development of an elite system of education that excludes poor students. "And that's where we're heading," she warns.

Simmons' call to action came at the end of a three-day conference at Smith November 4-6 which assembled activists, scholars, administrators, artists and students to talk about new ways of approaching and ending racial and ethnic injustice. Titled "What's Next? American Pluralism and the Civic Culture," the extended dialogue was organized by a team of faculty, students and staff under the guidance of Smith sociologist Peter Rose. Among conference participants were Harvard law professor Lani Guinier, chancellor of the New York City board of education Rudolph Crew, and "performance journalist" Anna Deavere Smith.

Referring to her "laundry list" of action items, Simmons called for more agility and innovation in "calcified" institutions of higher education. Put social activists on boards of trustees and internal committees, she urged. Make sure college policies are made by diverse, not homogeneous groups. Reward faculty members who go out into the community. Downplay standardized test scores in evaluating prospective students. Pressure higher education associations to back the efforts of colleges and universities who attempt to recruit minority students in the climate of legal ambiguity currently surrounding affirmative action.

The conference challenged participants to be creative and provocative in coming up with concepts and strategies. Sociologist Rubén Rumbaut documented vividly how false popular conceptions of new minorities are. Over the last thirty years, he said, the United States has become home to the most highly educated newcomers ever to come to American shores. Nearly half of African immigrants, for instance, have college degrees. Each of the country's five official racial categories obscures enormous diversity in terms of wealth, education, and other socioeconomic indexes, revealing how little these "one-size-fits-all" pigeonholes can tell us, he said.

Sharp differences within racial and ethnic groups also make tight group unity a shaky basis for political action, according to many panelists. Johnnetta Cole, a professor at Emory University and former president of Spelman College, admitted that at times she may have more in common with a white feminist who is anti-racist than with an African-American man who is sexist. Social class has split the African-American community, she said, and this is being reflected in popular films. "No longer can we assume that the person recoiling from the inner-city street kids will be white. That person is just as likely to be African-American," she observed.

Cole and others counseled students at Smith and other colleges to accept each other as group members-even allowing groups to keep to themselves when necessary-but then to meet each other in public spaces. To white students who asked if they were welcome at the black students' lunchroom table, Cole said "Don't ask that table to do everything." To black students she advised "Have the table, but be some other places also." Respect for the identities of others is essential in building unity, panelists said. "Don't force people to give up their identities," counseled NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund director Kathryn Rodgers, and "never undermine each other."

Mutual respect is assisted when all parties, including whites, have a chance to explore and claim their identities, several panelists noted. Bob Suzuki, president of California State Polytechnic University, recommended that courses in diversity examine how whites lost their ethnic cultures in oppressive Americanization drives early in this century. The resulting "social amnesia" means that many white students today believe they have no ethnicity, he said.

Political partners in ending racial and ethnic injustice need only to share particular goals, not to be identical in every way, panelists agreed. This means accepting difference, even allying with traditional foes. Keynoter Guinier pointed to a Texas policy of admitting students to college if they are in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Rural white legislators joined multiculturalists in supporting this bill, Guinier recounted, because they saw it would help rural students. It also raised the number of Mexican-American college students in Texas public institutions to an unprecedented high.

Bringing about a multi-ethnic democracy will not happen as a result of purely intellectual education, said panelists in theater and the arts. The arts are a powerful tool for expressing difference and engaging inter-group dialogue, but dominant arts institutions are too often closeted in elitism. "We in theater need to walk hand in hand with activists," said Deavere Smith.

A sense of urgency about ending racism and exclusion was evident among panelists and audience members. Longtime civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, former chairman of the NAACP, underscored the need to keep the struggle going when she declared, "racism is still alive in America." The conference was "born out of impatience" and a wish to see if something new could be tried, Simmons told the 350 people who turned out early on a Saturday morning for the final discussions. "I'm not tired of fighting," she challenged, "and I hope you aren't either."

Like many of the conference participants Simmons acknowledged that making change is uncomfortable for many. Echoing Guinier's opening remarks, she urged colleges and universities to go far beyond merely recruiting students from marginal groups. Instead, colleges themselves, she said, must end their own isolation from the broader society. They must "bring marginal ideas to the center," train community activists, and reward dissent. "What are we doing with our resources?" she asked. "The public needs to know what we stand for."

November 11, 1999


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