How University of Nebraska is proactively tackling campus racism

University president, Hank Bounds, has experience successfully fostering diversity at the University of Mississippi, and he hopes to do the same at the University of Nebraska, pre-empting student protests.

Nati Harnik/AP
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (l.) Hank Bounds, president of the University of Nebraska, (2nd l.) and Ronnie Green, University of Nebraska senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, (3rd l.) applaud following a ribbon cutting ceremony, Oct. 8, in Lincoln, Neb., at the University of Nebraska’s new state-of-the-art research park.

While college campuses around the country react to calls for increased diversity from their student body, the head of the University of Nebraska system is taking a proactive approach.

President Hank Bounds attended a Black Lives Matter rally on Thursday at the university’s Lincoln campus, the Lincoln Journal Star reported, and said he wants to meet with leaders of the local BLM movement and the leaders of #NotAtUNL – a Twitter campaign aiming to spread awareness of campus racism by sharing student stories – to discuss what improvements need to be made.

"Everyone brings a different set of circumstances, and this is an educational institution that should lend itself to learning from one another," Mr. Bounds said, according to the Journal Star.

Racism on American college campuses was launched into the spotlight earlier this month when protests from students at the University of Missouri over the university's handling of racist incidents on campus led to the system president's resignation. But while many schools have been reacting to student demands, Mr. Bounds is looking to be more proactive.

Besides planning to meet with student leaders, he has also taken concrete steps toward improving diversity and inclusivity within the University of Nebraska system. He has made funds available to complete a diversity audit on each campus looking at the system’s racial make-up. The Lincoln campus is also in the process of hiring a chief diversity officer, and experience fostering diversity will play a big role in the hiring of the system's new chancellor. For that position, the school is seeking someone who has "tangible evidence of fostering diversity and inclusivity, affirmative action and equal opportunity, and the commitment to establish working and learning environments of trust and mutual respect for all students, faculty and staff."

Bounds, himself, is not new to this process. While commissioner of higher education in Mississippi – a state which "doesn’t have the best history on race," he told the Journal Star – he focused on enrolling more minority students and helping them graduate on time. He also worked to ensure there was equal representation of minorities on the faculty and staff of its state institutions, a relevant issue now given that students at Missouri have specifically called for an increase in African-American faculty and staff from just over 3 percent now to 10 percent by the 2017-2018 school year.

"We did things in hiring like make sure all of our committees had minority representation," Bounds told the Journal Star, recalling his time in Mississippi. "I hired someone to lead that effort and then required every campus to employ someone to lead diversity efforts."

The efforts seem to have worked. While only five universities have more than five percent black faculty, the University of Mississippi leads the country, with African Americans making up 6.29 percent of the faculty. The school's black student population is 15.26 percent.

Last month, student pressure at the University of Mississippi lead to the school removing the state flag, which includes the Confederate battle emblem, from its main campus.

"I think we've tried to be clear that this is an area where we'll be focused," Bounds told the Journal Star. "This is not a new issue that we're just now learning about – this gives us an opportunity to have really pointed conversations and brings the issue to the forefront in a way we can find solutions."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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