COLUMBIA — At a time in our country when a considerable number of Americans are vehemently opposed to a Muslim center being built around the corner from ground zero or when a rural middle school in *Mississippi will only, until recently, allow a white student to hold the class president position on alternating years, it is not difficult for one to question what exactly is diversity.
As classes are under way here at MU, the university's website splashed the headline “MU Experiences Large Increases in Freshmen, Diversity” on Aug. 23. Likewise, this time a year ago the main page contained a similar headline, “Freshman Diversity, Total Enrollment at MU Break Records.” In August of 2009, MU welcomed a total of 785 minority freshmen, including “484 African-American freshmen, up 14.7 percent from 422 last year, and 152 Hispanic freshmen, up 16 percent from 131 last year” in the midst of a total of 5,620 freshmen.
Regarding this year’s numbers, MU issued the following disclaimer, “Due to changes in federal reporting requirements, counts for specific minority groups, including African-Americans and Hispanics, cannot be compared to last year’s numbers.” Fair enough. I won’t attempt to compare them, though I reserve the right to remain wary.
This year we welcomed a total of 1,042 minority freshmen, with no specific breakdowns for any group. Ann Korschgen, vice provost for Enrollment Management, simply stated “certain minority student groups” increased their enrollment by “more than 77 percent.” Wow, 77 percent! That sounds like we have made leaps and bounds from the previous year. However, let’s not only give half the story.
This year’s total enrollment for first-time freshman is a massive 6,160. Roughly, minority freshmen make up about 17 percent of the total freshman class. Are we serious about diversity, or does it just sound nice?
You see, on the university’s main page you can find “Diversity Resources” somewhere in between “University Bookstore” and “MU Alert/Emergency.” Once there, you can scroll through the various actions and activities the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative has taken and continues to implement, such as the MU Difficult Dialogues Program and MizzouDiversity Summit.
MU has taken a pledge to increase inclusiveness and diversity that I honestly believe it is working to uphold. I commend countless administrators and faculty members such as Assistant Deputy Chancellor for Diversity and Chief Diversity Officer Roger Worthington, and professors such as April Langley, across campus making sure “difficult dialogues” are happening in their classrooms consistently. Yet, we still need to move diversity from the back seat and place it up front. These serious, important strides MU is making pale in comparison to, let's say, the recent string of troubles plaguing the football team or people stealing the new MU-themed street signs.
More so, I question where exactly is all this diversity? The numbers look good reflected on paper, but in the classroom those numbers don't look as apparent. Granted, I have not visited every classroom on campus or walked through every dorm. But I am fully aware that if I just happen to be that average student who doesn't look at MU’s main page everyday or calls the admission office for current student enrollment statistics, I may not know about that 17 percent of students of color.
If I just happen to be that student who walks through Lowry Mall every day, grabs a bite to eat from Memorial Union, stops in Ellis library, or makes a long (stressful) trek to either north, south, east or west campus, my very own eyes wouldn't believe that 17 percent statistic.
So MU, how do you define diversity? Is our “diversity … reflective of a community of people of differing genders, racial-ethnic backgrounds, languages, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, abilities and disabilities, national and geographical origins, socio-economic class, veterans’ status, and political views” as obvious as we may think? Are we content with what the numbers show and the fact we have “students from every county in Missouri, every state in the nation and 100 countries”? Or, can we just accept in some instances, such as this one, that the old saying "perception is reality" really holds some weight?
As Albert Einstein once said, “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." Let's take heed to his wise words.
Jennifer M. Wilmot is a graduate student at MU and a Columbia resident.