Diversity Trails Average in State
BY JESS MASULLI
An inspection of the numbers over the past four years shows that the University of Mary Washington’s racial makeup does not resemble that of the Commonwealth of Virginia, from which about 75 percent of its students come.
In the past four years, African-American students have consistently comprised 3 percent of the student body, and roughly the same proportion has existed for Asians and Hispanics as well.
Meanwhile, Virginia and the country as a whole have much higher percentages of racial minorities. African-Americans represent about 20 percent of Virginia residents and 12 percent of U.S. citizens. Hispanics comprise about 7 percent of Virginia residents and Asians comprise another 5 percent.
“It doesn’t take long to observe that UMW does not reflect the demographic realities that characterize Virginia or the broader society, whether measured in our students, our administrators, faculty, or staff,” President Judy G. Hample said in her speech outlining her vision for the University last November.
“Simply put,” she said, “this must change.”
Minority percentages in recent incoming freshman classes at the University are an indicator of this situation. The number of African-American freshmen has shown a decline of 56 percent from 2006 to 2008. Overall, though, the number of black students rose to 163 from 130 over the same period.
There have been attempts to fix the problem. University efforts like the Student Transition program, which targets students of minority backgrounds, have been increasing each year, according to senior Shaunique Poole, vice president of the Women of Color club that promotes diversity and awareness of minority women.
The program allows about 25 students to take classes and to live on campus over the summer so they can become acclimated to the university before the other freshmen arrive. The students are accepted into the program because of their leadership skills, academic record and culturally diverse backgrounds.
From 2005 to 2009, the number of white students has steadily decreased to about 63 percent from 77 percent. This number is misleading, however, as more students are opting against listing their race or ethnicity, according to the Common Data Sets, a racial breakdown compiled by the university. This year, for instance, about 22 percent of students classified themselves in the racial category of “unknown.”
UMW has become more vocal about stressing greater diversity on campus, especially since the college made headlines for an incident of racism in the Jefferson Hall dormitory in 2007. According to Hample, funding for minority recruitment has doubled. She has also announced plans for a new position, vice president for diversity and inclusiveness.
“I believe that such a person would help us to energize our efforts to heighten diversity awareness, and help [us] to focus our attention on achieving a number of specific goals,” Hample said in her November speech.
Poole felt underrepresented the moment she stepped onto campus four years ago.
“I was completely outnumbered and realized that the school was living up to its reputation: University of Mostly Whites (UMW),” Poole said.
Seemingly simple ethnic definitions are more complex in reality, some administrators say. Dean of Student Life Cedric Rucker said that many students are multi-racial and do not come from a single background.
“We look at them and say, ‘Oh, they look white,’ but they really aren’t white,” Poole said. “[They] are a part of an ethnic background.”
The James Farmer Multicultural Center has aimed at helping students of color feel welcomed by the University. The center hosts many events, including an annual Multicultural Fair, a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration and various months dedicated to minority groups.
“They can go in the Multicultural Center and find students that look like them and who they feel can relate to their experiences on and off campus,” Poole said.
One active member of the Multicultural Center, senior Fumika Ueta, feels the University is not improving much in terms of diversity, though she says its awareness of the problem is increasing.
Clubs for minority racial groups promote a sense of acceptance and diversity that is not always seen in classrooms.
“There are a lot more Latino students now than in years past,” Latin Student Association President Gloria Pereira said. “Those students are proud of their culture and promote it to others.”
The issue of diversity became even more pronounced last year when the campus newspaper, the Bullet, ran an article on an incident in Jefferson Hall. A cleaning woman, who was African-American, found two offensive posters tucked in a freezer in the common area of the residence hall. One poster showed a white man with his arm around a crying black man. The caption underneath stated, “Slavery Re-instated: Catch yourself a good one.”
Many of the Jefferson residents’ comments to the Bullet later offended students and campus workers. One Jefferson resident was quoted saying that his housekeeper at home does not get offended or complain, so he didn’t understand why the cleaning ladies at Mary Washington should.
Many said they felt the university’s response was ineffective since they had no way of punishing, investigating or directing the bias complaint.
In April of last year, the UMW Board of Visitors, a 12-member panel that serves as a board of directors with oversight for the university’s welfare, voted to start a new bias-incident reporting policy in an effort specifically targeted at dealing with the Jefferson Hall incident, according to a Bullet article.
Priscila Saraiva, Hank Allingham, Lauren Colson, and Kiama Anthony contributed to this article.