Why racial tension persists and may be growing on campuses
Providence, R.I. — On the serene campus of Brown University, there seem to be no traces of racism. A pair of athletes -- one black, one white -- strolls up the hill to the cafeteria, carrying on an animated discussion about their afternoon exploits. A larger gathering of mostly Asian students sprawls comfortably on the steps of the college library. There's even a sprinkling of Hispanic students cramming for final exams in the hallowed halls here.
But mere diversity can be deceiving.
According to a report released Monday by a panel of outside advisers here, many universities have ``appeared to accept their social responsibility by inviting the presence of minority students but not by embracing their experience. Diversity [is] still measured by numbers and percentages rather than by revising the map of the white majority's intellectual terrain.''
The Visiting Committee on Minority Life and Education at Brown University was formed last spring after racial tensions here boiled over into a student strike and a building takeover. The committee's report -- which has been lauded as a model for all United States universities and institutions -- prods Brown to go beyond statistical diversity. It suggests how the school can reach the ideal of pluralism, ``where majority and minority cultures equally are honored, nurtured, and mutually understood.''
On college campuses across America, however, that ideal often seems far from real. Incidents of racial tensions are still being reported with frequency -- even as the minority presence at US universities continues to dwindle.
Earlier this year, 12 Dartmouth College students sledgehammered a symbolic shantytown erected by students protesting the school's South African connections. Some minorities on campus interpreted the incident as a direct assault on their freedom and dignity. Elsewhere, tensions have flared at the University of Texas, the University of Pennsylvania, and a few others.
Reatha Clark King, president of Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn., and a member of the Brown advisory committee, says she thinks some of the racial friction reflects the raised expectations of minorities. ``When integration first started happening,'' she says, ``minorities were satisfied just to be let in the door. . . . They now need and deserve not just to assimilate but to have others benefit from what they have to offer.''
Others look at the flip side of the flap -- the reluctance of institutions to adapt to minorities. ``There's a clash of perspectives,'' says Hubert E. Jones, dean of the School of Social Work at Boston University. ``The white people in the institution who call the shots are not interested in changing . . . what they think is already `good.' ''
While minority expectations and frustrations appear to be rising, however, the actual number of minorities in US universities has fallen steadily for the past decade. According to the US Department of Education, for instance, black student enrollment in four-year colleges has dropped from 10.2 percent nationally in 1976 to 9.6 percent in '82. Most observers agree that the numbers continue to fall.
Brown reflects that trend. Since 1975, the number of black faculty here has fallen from 17 to 13 and the percentage of black graduates has dropped from 9.1 percent to 7.3 percent.
But the issue is ``not numbers, it's control,'' says Jacqueline Fleming, a Barnard College psychology professor and author of ``Blacks in College.'' ``It's a matter of psychological territory. Black students don't feel they have a right to participate in much of anything.''
Some observers trace that feeling of ostracism -- as well as the dropping numbers -- to the Reagan administration's deemphasis of affirmative action.
``The conservative attitude nationally has made it legitimate for institutions to sit back on their haunches and do nothing,'' says Robert Ethridge, affirmative-action officer at Emory University and president of the American Association of Affirmative Action Administrators. He adds that college administrators ``expect minorities to adjust totally to the institution with no reciprocal effort.''
But now, with the advisory panel, Brown shows that it is starting to make that effort.
Among other things, the report recommends five basic changes: more courses -- and possibly a graduation requirement -- in ethnic studies; intensified recruitment of minority students and faculty; special academic-support programs; creation of an ``ombudsman'' to investigate complaints; and closer monitoring of the racial climate by the administration.
Brown president Howard Swearer indicated on Monday that he was willing to implement most of the changes.