Missing faces: Few minority students, faculty at UNCA

“In the United States, we don’t talk about race well. People have a hard time talking about race,” says Deborah “Dee” James, a professor of literature and language. “And we get scared that somebody’s going to get mad, one way or the other. It’s a difficult conversation to have.”

“I think UNCA mirrors that,” she continues, and the numbers seem to bear that out. Last semester, minority students accounted for 11.9 percent of UNC Asheville’s total enrollment, according to statistics compiled by the school’s Office of Institutional Research. And though the numbers have fluctuated, recruiting and retaining minority students has been an ongoing problem for the school in recent years.

In 2009, only 43 of 603 incoming freshman (7.1 percent) were minority students. The percentage increased during the next two fall semesters — to 9.1 percent in 2010 and 11.8 percent in 2011 — but then started dropping again, to 10.7 percent in 2012 and 9.5 percent last year.

“We bring in a lot of people, but we aren’t able to retain people,” notes James. “I’m not sure why that’s happened. Some of it is isolation; some of it is frustration. There are some institutional obstacles.”

Neighboring UNC schools present a mixed picture. In 2009 and 2010, significantly higher percentages of incoming freshmen were minority students at both Western Carolina University (10.5 percent/11.1 percent) and Appalachian State University (7.4 percent/12 percent). Western continued that trend with 12.8 percent in 2012, before dropping to 12.5 percent last year.  Appalachian, on the other hand, saw a sharp drop to 7.1 percent in 2011 and then rose to 9.6 percent in 2012. (Note: The 2011 figure for Western and the 2013 figure for Appalachian State were not available.)

Deborah Miles, executive director of the Center for Diversity Education, says the current administration is working hard to get that conversation going. “I think that’s the trend line. There’s no way to go from zero to 60 in 10 seconds with recruitment and retention. It’s a trend, so it’s a slow, steady climb.”

But longtime political science professor Dwight Mullen says he remains unimpressed with the number of African-American students, in particular, on campus. “It’s not as bad as I have seen it, but it’s still far below par,” he maintains. “When I say par, it’s far below where it should be. It really should be 20 percent African-American, because that’s what we are in the state. But OK, 10 percent: Let’s say 10 percent. This year, the student profile they sent out is 3.3, and that’s as high as it’s been since [Anne] Ponder’s been chancellor.”

In comparison, 6.3 percent of Western Carolina’s students last year were African-American; at A-B Tech, the number was 6.7 percent.

Meanwhile, the diversity numbers for UNC Asheville’s faculty and staff show the same kind of fluctuation seen in the student population. In 2010, 17 percent of faculty and staff members (119 out of 698) represented minority groups — a 50.6 percent increase over the previous year. But 2011 saw a 26.1 percent drop, and in 2012 the number dropped again by another 36.4 percent. Furthermore, of the 37 minority staffers in 2012, only two held executive, administrative or management positions.

“There’s also institutional racism. When committees gather to hire, they’re more likely to hire people like themselves,” says James. “When we sit down, we think about what the department needs based on how it has always been. Certain kinds of situations mitigate against us choosing different than we’ve always chosen.”

The Center for Diversity Education, a nonprofit that’s based on campus and partly supported by the university, plans to implement some strategies to remedy the problem, says Miles.

“We want to see more people of color in management positions, and the ability to rise in an organization, rather than getting stuck in an entry-level position,” she explains. “Right now, I’m really looking into faculty hiring. When we put in a job ad, how is it crafted so that we send out as many signals as possible that we are looking not just for people from the typical pipelines? How can we get more women to apply, more African-Americans, more Latinos, more people of various ethnicities?”

Anne Jansen, a first-year assistant professor in literature and language who identifies herself as half-Chinese, said her racial background helped get her a job teaching ethnic literatures. “At this school, that’s what I was hired to do,” the Buellton, Calif., native reports. “But I’m really interested in how people across racial lines in the U.S. are interested in certain issues, sometimes working together and sometimes just working parallel to each other to accomplish similar ends.”

Faculty members, Jansen reveals, warned her about the racial disparities on campus and in the community when she was interviewing for the job. “They were very, very honest about what I could expect as far as the racial landscape in Asheville and at the university. They wanted someone who could teach this stuff, and they knew that diversity was very important. But at the same time, they wanted me to know, ‘Well, there might not be much of a community here for you; that needs to be something you consider.’ And I appreciate that, but I also see it as a welcome challenge.”

One of those challenges, says Jansen, is the startling lack of American Indian students at the school. In the last five years, that figure has never exceeded 0.55 percent (in 2013).

“It is surprising that in this region — I mean, it’s less than an hour’s drive to Cherokee — it is shocking that it’s one of the most underrepresented ethnic groups on campus,” notes Jansen. She and Trey Adcock, a visiting assistant professor of education who’s a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, hope to boost those numbers by creating an American Indian Studies program. “We have an Africana Studies program, so it would be sort of modeled after that,” says Jansen.

Meanwhile, the Center for Diversity Education plans to implement another program, AVID for Higher Education, which will help faculty and staff provide support for minority students. “We think AVID has strong potential because it’s all about relationships, building pipelines and networks,” says Miles. “I think it will give professors some ideas on how to be supportive of first-generation students.”

James, a UNC Asheville alumna, said her efforts to improve the experience of African-American students began the very day she first set foot on campus. “I came here because I was recruited to help integrate the women’s dorms. There were no black women in the dorms before 1969,” the Charlotte native explains. “As long as I have been here, I have never not been involved in some initiative or another to make this place feel welcoming and safe and better for underrepresented groups, particularly for African-Americans.”

Both James and Mullen say the athletic department has been much more successful in this regard than the school as a whole.

“I think the athletic department does a much better job than the university at recruiting African-Americans,” says James. “I think they’ve got a better pool to choose from, because most African-Americans play sports. But they don’t just bring athletes who are African-American: They bring athletes that can be scholars.”

Former men’s basketball coach Eddie Biedenbach, remembers Mullen, “came in and started recruiting out of the community, and he had the best recruiting program that I’ve ever seen on this campus.”

Jansen, like Mullen, thinks UNC Asheville could do a better job of mirroring North Carolina’s demographics. “Driving around the city or any other part of North Carolina, there’s a significant African-American population here, and it’s not reflected in the student body,” she notes. “We’re a state school, and we talk a lot about wanting to serve the local community and wanting to provide opportunity to people living in the region. It would be nice to see a closer correlation between our numbers and the demographics of the region.”

For her part, James says she hopes one day to see racial lines so blurred that they won’t even matter anymore.

“I would love to see a campus where there were so many different kinds of people from so many different kinds of races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, that you could not anticipate for any given event who was going to show up. I would like to see people who want to go to college, but I would like it not to be predictable who those people would be. That’s my idea of what we should be working for.”

For more information on Dee James, ‘Trailblazer: UNCA professor Dee James still leads the way,’ click here.

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