COLUMN: MU touts campus diversity, but seeing isn't believing

Tuesday, September 7, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 7:25 p.m. CDT, Sunday, September 26, 2010

* A rural Mississippi school recently dropped its race-based rule for class presidents; the policy stated that only white students could serve as class president one year and black students the following year. A previous version of this column incorrectly stated the policy.

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.


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Ellis Smith September 7, 2010 | 7:59 a.m.

In photos used in its recruiting literature another University of Missouri System campus creates an impression of "campus diversity" which is far from what is actually present at the campus.

The photos suggest that:

1- At least half the students are women (which would be typical of many college campuses today). Only 23% of the actual students are women.

2- At least 25% of the students are black, and roughly half of them are female. The actual percentage is less than half that, and half are not women.

3- At least 20% of the students are international. That's far more than the actual number. Put on your best sari, they're taking promotional photos today. :)

4- A high percentage of the female students are physically very attractive. Actually, the young women shown in the photos ARE real students, but they've been hand-picked.

I think we can all agree it's expected that liberties are taken with advertising, and no one familiar with the campus in question - including prospective male students - is going to be taken in by what's shown in the photos. We enjoy laughing at them.

But official statements concerning campus or university diversity are entirely another matter.

(Report Comment)
A C September 7, 2010 | 11:38 a.m.
This comment has been removed.
Betsy Murphy September 8, 2010 | 8:26 a.m.

It would be interesting to know how "student athletes" are counted in these figures. Specifically, what percent of 'regular students' are minorities?

(Report Comment)
Karen Pojmann September 8, 2010 | 11:22 a.m.

So, at what point it is OK to report improvements in diversity? When racism has been completely eradicated and MU's demographics are parallel to those of the country as a whole? MU is a state land-grant public institution in a not-so-diverse state. According to 2009 census stats, Missouri is 84.9 percent white -- whiter than MU (at 83 percent). Freshman minority enrollment has increased by more than 32 percent, and overall minority enrollment is up more than 18 percent. That's exciting! Why would readers interpret enthusiasm about improved diversity (backed up by actual data) as somehow deceptive or misleading? MU is working hard to improve and promote diversity and is making progress in that area. Is it slow progress? Sure. But it is progress. Believe it or not, promoting that progress -- through news announcements, photos in recruitment materials, etc. -- can actually lead to even MORE increases in minority enrollment. Why would anyone who purports to support diversity be critical of these efforts?

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking September 8, 2010 | 1:31 p.m.

One statistical comment I'd like to make is the 17% number is only the freshman class. Since the majority of students are not freshman, the overall incidence of minority students observed on campus may well be lower than 17% (about 1 in 5).

Reasons for that might be lower percentages in earlier class years, and I also believe that minorities drop out at a higher rate than whites do.

Ms. Pojmann also has a good point in that the percentage of minorities in the freshman class is very close to the state average and not all that far off the national average. If we were only seeing single digit minority enrollment then perhaps more concern would be justified.


(Report Comment)
Karen Pojmann September 8, 2010 | 1:43 p.m.

Sorry. Meant to say: "Missouri is 84.9 percent white -- whiter than MU's freshman class (83 percent)."

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith September 8, 2010 | 6:00 p.m.

Some history. University of Missouri, which was then just two campuses, did not admit black students until 1949.

This university likes to think of itself as a "Midwestern public university." Fine, but most Midwestern universities, public or private, ended exclusion of blacks before 1949 and some of them never had such a ridiculous policy. George Washington Carver, a native black Missourian, graduated from what is now Iowa State University.

(Report Comment)
Jennifer Wilmot September 8, 2010 | 9:09 p.m.

I thank you all for taking the time out to read my little piece. As you can see, I am not devaluing the efforts the university has made, I'm simply stating that 1. we need to do more, 2. students may not agree that we are doing all we can/could do. I'm not sure if you all are students (former included) or not, but as a current student, as someone that walks this campus seven days a week (weekends don't seem to exist in grad school lol), and yes, as a "minority," our "diversity" is not very apparent. Sure, we should promote our achievements, but let's be cautious about it. And yes, promotional items like brochures, pictures, etc. MIGHT help bring "minorities" to our campus, but what happens when they arrive and feel that they have no one to relate to? What happens when they arrive and realize those photos, brochures, etc. have somewhat bamboozled them? I didn't come to Mizzou because of any the materials they sent me, or even all the African-American professors they had contact me, harping on the diversity. I came for the academics. Finally, I feel that asking how can I purport diversity and be critical of it simultaneously, is like asking how can I be American and patriotic, and be critical of our government... The beauty of free speech and free-thinking.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith September 9, 2010 | 6:28 a.m.

Well stated, Jennifer.

(Report Comment)
Karen Pojmann September 9, 2010 | 10:51 a.m.

Fair enough.

(Report Comment)

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