By Julia Withers
Dear President Glassner,
Your LA Times article, “Diversity on campus sparks protest? It’s a sign of progress,” sparked frustrating memories for me. You probably don’t know me. I’m an alumnus of Lewis & Clark College, Class of 2016.
I deeply respect much of the faculty and administration for working to make the campus more diverse. However, I found that you, President Glassner, refused to engage with students who needed change in order to feel safe in their own skin on the campus. I’m frustrated that you continue to use your platform and authority to dismiss students’ voices and actions, as you do in your article from August 25. This past year, what I needed was for you to simply hear what students had to say in the wake of yet another annual outburst of campus hate crimes. I understand you may not have had the words to resolve the complex issue of racism, especially in the face of understandably upset and fearful student demonstrators. My issue is that, at these demonstrations—for the precious little time you were present—you didn’t even take the time to listen.
This part of your article stuck out to me: “As college presidents ourselves, of course it is our preference that students collaborate with faculty and administrators rather than occupy offices, shut themselves off from fellow students with whom they disagree, or leave school.” We have more in common than I expected, because it’s also my preference as a former student that my president not shut himself off from his constituency.
The student occupation of your office would not have lasted almost a month if you had taken the time to listen to students who had literally come to your door with their concerns.
It may be difficult to understand the stakes that my friends had in occupying your office. My friends were afraid to be on campus at night by themselves or to walk to their dorms alone. In the classroom, they were afraid that the attacker responsible for a recent racially motivated violent assault could be sitting next to them. They were living and trying to learn in a place where “#bring back slavery” had appeared on Yik Yak, an anonymous forum app, and now loomed in the air. They felt unprotected because no substantive measure was taken following the hate crimes to encourage them that the institution cared about their well-being. These students are not the ones you portray in your article. You frame these students, fearful for their safety while suffering daily from your silence and neglect, as “self-segregating” quitters who refused to engage in meaningful change. I don’t think I need to describe to you how unfair this is, but in case I do: students left because it was unendurable for them. Why bother staying if nothing ever changed? Year after year, Black students’ safety was threatened on campus, and when they spoke out, camped out, sacrificed their sleep, emotional well-being, and valuable school time just to be heard, you ignored them.
You also say, “If this academic year is anything like the last, some students will proclaim loudly what a terrible job college administrations are doing to create an inclusive community and will demand change. Others will work with one another and with faculty and administrators to advance diversity and facilitate better mutual understanding.”
I have been part of student demonstrations and I have also attempted to talk with you about how the college could be more inclusive. Yet, you’ve avoided both of these conversations. Last year, I met with the provost and the chair of the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion after the racist assault to relay what Black students needed to feel safer. I was a part of the Ray Warren Symposium on Race & Ethnic Studies for four years, worked for the Department of Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement where I co-founded the social justice campus tour, and minored in Ethnic Studies. All of these, I would guess, are forms of advocating for change that you would approve of, according to your article. However, despite my unwavering commitment to create change within existing structures of the institution, nothing stuck. Once, I asked you at lunch in the cafeteria if you noticed the students occupying your office building. You responded by asking if I was planning on attending an upcoming dance. This helped me understand why so many of my efforts had been futile. Two ships passing each other in the night.
In perhaps from your position, it appears that “everyone is here, and everyone lives together.” That statement doesn’t ring true for me. When I came to college, no one looked like me, no one talked about people like me, and there were few role models like me. The student population was a far cry from “everyone;” a stark contrast to what I was used to, where as a half white and half Chinese woman walking down the street, people barely blinked an eye. The college stamped me with race; it made me stick out like I never had in my life. The only office committed to diversity was constantly understaffed, sometimes even without a director. It was clear that it wasn’t the college’s priority to make the campus welcoming to students of color.
Given the history of higher education, my experience of feeling out of place fits right in. Universities were founded on exclusionary principles: the University of Virginia, founded in 1819 as one of the first colleges, excluded most of the population from ever attending. Thomas Jefferson, the founder, included a class that studied American Indian tribes without the expectation that American Indians would ever study there. Women and Black people? Forget it.
If Lewis & Clark prides itself as “unafraid to discard conventional thinking, civic complacency, and outmoded preconceptions,” then it must be critical of how it excludes current and prospective students. While UVA even offered courses in American Indian studies, Lewis & Clark just recently began to offer one American Indian history course taught by an adjunct professor who has since left the college. The college offers five classes about Africa or African Americans out of the hundreds it boasts in its catalog. In 2015, 2.2% of Lewis & Clark students were Black. Across the country in 2013, 15% of all college students were Black. Many counter that this discrepancy is because the Pacific Northwest is an exceptionally homogenous region—but Reed College, another small private school just a quick bike ride to the other side of town, managed to enroll 7% Black students in 2015. If the college wishes to be a leading space of social experimentation like your article suggests, then it must at least catch up to its peers.
This institution offers valuable opportunities to its students, who represent a small slice of our world’s diversity—but all people deserve an education. We are all tied up in oppression together; none of us are free until we are all free. If universities supported marginalized students and helped all students learn to engage with difference, that would be true progress, President Glassner.