Somewhere over the rainbow

“If a minority student were to … ask me if they should come to UNCA … I would tell them to pack up and take their money somewhere else.”

— UNCA junior Rachael Williams

UNCA junior Rachael Williams was sitting in a humanities class when she heard the remark. “A nontraditional student who was right behind me used the phrase ‘half-breed Negroes’ to refer to multiracial people,” she recalls.

Williams, an honors student who’s majoring in theater, is multiracial herself. And she sees the incident as part of a larger problem: UNCA’s insensitivity to minority students.

“The fact that she could say something like that without thinking lets me know that there is not a great enough minority presence” at the school, says Williams. “There’s no one around to catch [such remarks].”

The statistics seem to bear out her concerns. A mere 42 of the 472 members of UNCA’s 2005-06 freshman class are minority students: 11 blacks, 10 Asians, nine Hispanics, one American Indian and 11 others, according to the current university fact book. That’s less than 9 percent minority enrollment. Overall, the 3,361-member student body is about 7 percent minorities, with 75 African-Americans, 55 Hispanics, 51 Asians, nine American Indians and 56 from other groups.

Moreover, the numbers actually show a decline from previous years in some areas. Between 2002 and 2004, for example, UNCA took in between 11 and 19 African-American students per year. (The total student enrollment also declined this year after rising steadily during the previous five years.)

From 1995 to 2005, the number of African-American students declined from nearly 5 percent of the student body to 2.2 percent. Meanwhile, the number of Hispanics rose from 1 percent to nearly 2 percent, the number of Asians stayed steady at around 1 percent, and the number of other minorities rose from a tiny 0.1 percent to 1.3 percent of the student body. (By contrast, African-Americans alone account for 18 percent of Asheville’s population and 22 percent of North Carolina’s, according to U.S. census data.)

These meager numbers translate into a lack of community for minorities on campus and a student body with only limited awareness of racial issues, some students and faculty members assert. And despite a mission statement that champions the need for “respect for differing points of view and heritage” and calls the university a “diverse and collaborative community,” the administration hasn’t done much about the problem, critics charge.

“We have struggled here in the past to accomplish some things,” concedes Associate Vice Chancellor of Multicultural Development Don Locke, who took over the office last fall. But he maintains that change is in the works. “The state of diversity here is developing. I think we have now a clearer vision of where we want to go.”

Locke also cites the arrival of Chancellor Anne Ponder, who took the university’s reins in October. One of the primary reasons for Ponder’s selection, he says, “was her ability to be a leader in the area of diversity. She has high expectations for what this campus will become during her tenure here.”

Williams, too, acknowledges that UNCA seems to be making a serious effort. “Up until now, it didn’t seem like they were trying. The new diversity coordinator seems to be avid [about] changing this. The new chancellor also seems more business-efficient.”

But though Williams says she feels “some hope about the future,” she adds that “there’s a very, very, very long way to go at this point.

“If a minority student were to … ask me if they should come to UNCA, I’d tell them ‘No.’ I would tell them to pack up and take their money somewhere else.”

A hostile environment?

“We have struggled here in the past. … I think we have now a clearer vision of where we want to go.”

— Don Locke, associate vice chancellor of multicultural development

Mark Gibney shares Williams’ concerns. Gibney, who is Belk Professor of Humanities, helped organize a forum last semester where students and faculty voiced concerns about diversity and a perceived lack of action on the administration’s part.

“In terms of bringing more Asians on campus, in terms of the size of the gay community — we’re doing well,” says Gibney. “But I don’t see many Hispanic faces, and I don’t see many black faces at all.”

The resulting environment can get “pretty raw” in some classes, he asserts. “I think what has stunned me is the level of hurt that I’ve heard from black students. … One of the problems is that these things don’t get talked about, because [black students are] such a minority here.”

Gibney finds that all the more surprising, given UNCA’s image as a progressive, liberal-arts college. “It’s not like this is a very conservative place where kids have been brought up thinking that whites and blacks shouldn’t mix — it’s not that at all,” he observes. “That’s the mystery. [The school] holds itself out as a progressive bastion, but on the issue of race it seems to have missed it completely.”

Interestingly, however, current student body President Tarik Glenn is African-American. At press time, Glenn had not responded to requests for an interview.

Last fall, the university chapter of Amnesty International sponsored a teach-in on the issue of racial diversity on campus. That event gave birth to the Student Diversity Alliance, which aims to coordinate the efforts of the different diversity clubs on campus to improve the environment and spur the administration to take a more active approach to implementing its stated diversity goals.

SDA President Sarah Young says she believes that changing UNCA’s racial climate will benefit all students.

“We want this university to be a representation of Asheville — but we’re the whitest school in the UNC system,” notes Young. “I’m coming from a white, privileged background. … I haven’t had that kind of racism directed towards me. But I think it’s really wrong that this kind of violation is going on. It’s like we’ve got segregation here — and it’s 2006. Talking to students of color and seeing their reactions about things on this campus … no one should be that uncomfortable.”

UNCA, she asserts, is “getting this reputation of being a ‘white’ school. There have been incidents where students have called minority students hateful words like ‘nigger.’ I’ve heard from some faculty that some people are even choosing to come here because they know there won’t be minority students here. That’s a real problem.”

All this creates a difficult campus environment for those minority students who do attend UNCA, says Williams.

“The students that are here are so fed up with the university,” she reports. “They’re fed up with the lack of community; they’re fed up with the unwillingness of administration — and professors sometimes — to take them seriously or even just to listen.” As a result, she maintains, “They don’t want to come back; they don’t want to be here.”

Locke, however, sounds a somewhat different note. While admitting that minority enrollment is “not where we’d like [it] to be,” he takes issue with the idea that the campus environment is unfriendly. “That impression contradicts the data we have received,” says Locke. “Students said they received good academic preparation around issues of race.

“I suppose, in any environment, you’re going to have people who are simply not good at — I don’t like the word, but — ‘politically correct’ behavior, even in environments that are quite mixed,” continues Locke. “I don’t want to discount what students are saying, but I don’t want to give it more credit than it’s deserving.”

The data Locke cites, however, comes from a survey of mostly white alumni conducted by the university last spring. And Young maintains that real education on the subject is minimal.

“I don’t think students realize there’s a problem,” she notes. “Some students think they are educated about [race], so they don’t realize what the problem is with these numbers being so dramatically low.”

Asleep at the wheel or a full tank of gas?

To Gibney, the heart of the diversity problem is administrative neglect.

“The common reasoning is that black and Hispanic students don’t want to come here. I don’t buy that,” he says bluntly. “I don’t believe the university has tried hard enough.”

Kimberly Gentry, who graduated last May, served on a diversity task force put together by the previous chancellor, Jim Mullen. During her time at UNCA, Gentry worked to help recruit students of color; she also founded Hispanic Outreach for Learning and Awareness, the first Latino group on campus.

Yet Gentry says she and her peers came away from their meetings with administrators with the feeling that the real issues were not getting dealt with.

“I would talk to fellow [students] and they would be like, ‘You know, nothing is going to happen with this,'” says Gentry. “They would feel better that they had this meeting, but they wouldn’t see the energy actually put into [addressing] these problems.”

That apathy has continued, Gibney maintains, though he’s hoping things may now begin to change. “I think the administration was — and has been — asleep at the wheel. To me, the results are the bottom line. Two years ago, it was announced that this is going to be a priority at the campus — and this year, the number of black students coming in had actually decreased. I just don’t think there’s much imagination. We’ll see what happens with the new chancellor.”

Locke, however, responded to the idea that the administration is asleep at the wheel with a chuckle.

“That may be something from the past, but that’s certainly not true of this administration,” he replied. “This administration is very clear in its desire to enhance the diversity on this campus. We are not asleep; we are quite awake. We have a full tank of gasoline, and we are on the journey. It doesn’t mean we won’t encounter some roadblocks down the way.”

Part of the problem, Young maintains, has been a lack of real commitment to increasing minority enrollment.

“No one has come along to set standards and say, ‘Hey, we need this many minority students next year — and if you don’t have it, your jobs are going on the line,'” says Young. “Maybe something like that needs to happen. People recognize this problem, but they haven’t taken serious steps.”

At the same time, Young also says she’s been impressed by her meetings with Ponder so far and hopes to see real results in the future.

Ponder, notes Young, has “been really willing to work with us and really receptive to our ideas. She seems to be serious about this, and that’s exciting. But there’s a difference between saying something and seeing real change. [Improving] race relations is going to take time, because we have to attack all these problems.”

Williams, however, cites a diversity meeting organized by the administration last fall. The meeting was held in the cafeteria, and the administration’s representatives arrived late. “When they finally came, it just seemed like they were gushing syrup to try to appease us,” says Williams. “No one seemed very interested in what we had to say.”

The administration representative at that meeting, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Patricia McClellan, could not be reached for comment.

For her part, Gentry says a special event aimed at Latino students helped draw her to UNCA, and she wonders why more isn’t being done. “There wasn’t as much pull in admissions as there could have been. What happened to Latino Open House nights? Why are we not recruiting at Asheville High? It’s right down the street.

“This is just not the biggest thing on their agenda. I honestly don’t know why that is.”

A solution in sight?

Both Williams and Gentry maintain that getting more minority faculty and administrators is a vital first step in addressing the issue.

Faculty recruitment is a key component of the university’s diversity strategy, says Locke, though he stresses that it will be achieved by means of incentives. “I plan to use a carrot rather than a stick,” he explains. “The office of the provost, which controls funding, is 100 percent behind this.” Individual departments, says Locke, will determine the exact nature of those incentives.

The Diversity Alliance is also pushing the university to implement Upward Bound, a federal program that helps low-income students prepare for college.

“That program would especially help in places like Asheville High, where they have such a high dropout rate,” notes Young.

She also believes that people seeking to increase racial diversity on campus could learn from UNCA’s gay and lesbian community.

“This school is very progressive on sexual identity on campus, because that community is assertive and is seen as a very big part of campus. A lot of students associate with those issues; not a lot of students associate with race.

“But I’m optimistic. Being a small school, we have so many faculty, [including] Chancellor Ponder, who are really supportive of our efforts. I think there’s a lot of potential here. We just need to keep working at it.”

Gentry, meanwhile, emphasizes that current minority students might be willing to help if they felt real progress were being made. “I volunteered a lot of time along with my peers trying to push this, but there was never the interest [from the administration],” she asserts. “Also, there’s a lack of compensation. It is a lot of time and effort; people are going to want their time to be worth it.”

Student compensation is part of one of UNCA’s planned diversity initiatives, Locke reports. Set to launch this fall, the program will target three groups of prospective students: African-Americans, Latinos and students from outside the South. In exchange for a $1,000 scholarship, participants will be asked to choose two campus organizations to get involved with from a list of options. Besides athletics, the list also includes student “ambassadors” whom Locke says he hopes will help attract other minority applicants to the school.

Williams, however, remains bitter about her own financial experience at the school. Despite personal assurances from then Chancellor Mullen that her living expenses would be covered while she was at UNCA, Williams says she had major problems getting her financial-aid verification forms processed last semester. And though she did eventually get the money, the whole episode left her with an impression of administrative apathy.

“It took six-and-a-half weeks,” she recalls. “Mostly that was due to negligence. Despite all the promises made to me from on high, I came within an inch or two of getting kicked out of school. Once you’re here and they have their statistical figures showing growth, they stop taking care of you.”

In Williams’ view, the first step UNCA needs to take is simply being honest about the situation.

“Frankly, the solution is to stop lying,” she declares. “They need to either tell people the truth — that they don’t care — or make good on their promises. … They need to tell people that this is, in fact, sometimes a miserable place to be a minority. … Maybe [minority enrollment] figures would go down, but then they’d come back up, because people would know that they’re not being lied to.”

[Freelance writer David Forbes is based in Asheville.]

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