Diversity, hidden in plain sight, haunts higher education in America

College diversity — or the lack of it — has become a flash point at the University of Vermont, one of the whitest schools in the U.S. On Feb. 16 the school’s assistant director of student community relations began a hunger strike to draw attention to the issue, and college groups rallied at the administration building to demand the resignation of UVM’s top three administrators. John Mejia said he began the strike because of “the amount of anti-black racism that is rampant at the university.”

            White supremacist leaflets appeared again around the Burlington campus this winter, They were denounced by President Tom Sullivan. But Mejia and other students demanded more, including more faculty of color, schoolwide diversity training and the renaming of campus buildings.

            The hunger strike ended and talks between student groups and administrators led to measured steps toward diversity.

            College Factual ranks UVM 2,269th out of 2,718 schools for diversity.  Vermont, as a state, is the second whitest, nearly tied with Maine, with 93.9 percent Caucasian and non-Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census. The US News rankings list UVM near the bottom of national universities in racial and ethnic diversity, 0.22 on a scale of 1.0.     

                       A look at college ranking systems shows that diversity is a widely variable index, depending on the criteria used. Researchers must be careful when comparing school diversity.

            College Factual, for example, ranks Dartmouth, Brown and Yale as the top three diverse schools. U.S. News lists Andrews University, Rutgers, and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas at the top with a score of 0.75 on a scale of 1.0.

            According to Niche, Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. is the most diverse college in America, followed by the California College of the Arts and Lynn University. Niche looks at numbers, student reviews, and the “overall level of tolerance on campus,” as measured by various indexes.

            The Atlantic lists South Texas College, the University of Texas-Pan American, and Miami Dade College as its top three.

            According to Best College Reviews, Swarthmore College and the University of Hawaii, Harvey Mudd College, CUNY-City College and the University of Houston are the most diverse schools in the nation. Best College Reviews uses the following criteria: No race can have more than 45 percent representation, at least three races by over 12 percent, the percentage of total minorities graduated and the number of scholarships, clubs, organizations and associations that are available for ethnic groups.           

            The issue of diversity is not an academic one. According to Best College Reviews:

“Students educated in racially and ethnically diverse settings perform better academically and reap greater professional success than peers from more homogeneous learning environments. rankings.”

            According to Bloomberg, businesses are embracing diversity and inclusion not just for social reasons but financial ones, too. “Study after study confirms that companies with a diverse workforce and inclusive policies outperform ones without.”

            In one example of putting its money where its mouth is, Wells Fargo recently donated $350,000 to Clemson to increase the number of diverse teachers in South Carolina schools and support emerging scholars in poor counties of the state.

            In other college diversity news:

            Northwestern University reports that nearly $200,000 in grants and awards were given to faculty who promote equity and inclusion.

            The University of Wisconsin at Madison has hired a diversity director for student athletes. Jennifer Hunter, a lawyer, says there is a bias against athletes of color, “an assumption they were not there on academic merit but only on athletic merit.” Studies indicate that professors have discouraged some student-athletes from taking certain courses, particularly challenging ones, in their majors. That form of discrimination “tends to take a toll on a student’s academic identity and their academic confidence,” says Hunter.

            The diversity programs at the University of North Carolina are under scrutiny by a conservative legislature. A budget bill passed by the General Assembly ordered the UNC administration to study the “efficiency, effectiveness and transparency of the equal opportunity and diversity and inclusion services” at the system’s 17 schools. The study recommended better data collection and uniform standards, but the legislation was viewed by many as a threat to the programs.

            A new documentary, “Agents of Change,” looks back at two famous college diversity strikes 50 years ago. The San Francisco State strike by black students in 1968 and the 1969 takeover of Cornell University’s student union first brought national attention to the privileged, white “ivory tower” of higher education in the U.S. The Web site Cheddar, Inc. interviewed filmmakers Frank Dawson and Abby Ginzberg. “Today, over 45 years later, many of the same demands are surfacing in campus protests across the country, revealing how much work remains to be done,” according to the film’s Web site. It premieres Feb. 20 on America Reframed.