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Study by professor shows university must promote inclusion

University officials say they are making some progress in addressing the concerns of minority students who say they face racial discrimination at Central Michigan University and in Mount Pleasant.

Still, the author of the study that encouraged administrative action isn’t convinced enough is being done.

Mary Senter, a professor of sociology, published her study in 2015. It showed there was little consistent improvement toward making CMU a more welcoming and diversely represented campus for minority students. In some cases, her study suggests the situation has gotten worse over time. Senter said to address these issues, the university needs to promote a wider range of diversity in faculty and students and educate faculty on building an inclusive classroom.

Additionally, non-white students expressed continued isolation and discomfort on campus. While CMU has implemented several programs to promote diversity in the wake of the survey, officially addressing discrimination and inclusion is trickier, said Carolyn Dunn, associate vice president of the Office of Institutional Diversity & Inclusion.

“If the institution is serious, it has to make additional commitments. It has to do more,” Senter said. “The racial problems of the past continue to be with us, and if one is serious about reducing them, then one needs to be serious about acting in ways that are new, different and sustained.”

Three, grant-funded, climate surveys were issued to CMU students in 2007, 2010 and 2015, surveying approximately 400 respondents thoughts and experiences regarding diversity, inclusion and discrimination on campus each year. The 2010 report also included in-depth interviews conducted with minority students, capturing personal stories.

In 2016 The Barthwell Group, a non-university affiliated consulting firm, conducted a similar project assessing student climate.

“Their findings about the chilly climate that some students face are consistent with data that my colleagues and I have been collecting for years,” Senter said.

Senter’s study showed throughout the years between 72 and 85 percent of the sample said they’ve heard other students making derogatory or negative comments about a racial or ethnic group. The most upsetting findings, she said, were revealed during the in-depth interviews when students talked about distress inside the classroom.Students witness discrimination in classes, Senter said, emphasizing that minority students feel especially isolated during group projects — when their white peers tend to dismiss or marginalize their input.

Participants also shared uncomfortable situations concerning faculty, such as being asked to represent an entire demographic when topics of discrimination are discussed in class. Many said they are treated differently based on race and have difficulty building meaningful relationships with faculty.

Since then, the Office of Institutional Diversity & Inclusion has been working to address student woes about discrimination. Dunn said she's been developing several programs and strategies since 2014 to promote a more racially diverse student body.

Dunn described efforts to create “true community partnerships.” One of which was established this year with the “Institutional Talent Search Program” — an early academic outreach program based on socio-economic status that helps bring diverse students to CMU.

“It’s a brand-new program federally funded for five years,” she said. “We’re providing support for first generation low income students in southwest Detroit, which is primarily a Latino population.”

The office is also working on ways to incentivize student and professional pursuit of diversity education. Dunn said one of these ways includes developing a diversity training institute where students can earn a diversity certificate.

Last year, a certification program was also developed with the College of Medicine, where health professionals can take continuing education diversity courses at CMU. Dunn said in the first segment, six doctors from Saginaw came to the training.

Still, Senter maintains that addressing discrimination in the classroom should be of highest priority. That starts with educating faculty members.

“Faculty need to be more aware and more skilled in creating inclusive classrooms,” Senter said, while also noting CMU needs to practice a more sustained effort in recruiting diverse faculty.

With more diverse faculty, students could learn from a diverse group of people. Minority students would have an easier time building meaningful mentor relationships — an important element in higher education, Senter said.

Dunn developed a free training and cultural competency seminar for faculty and staff last year. Two sessions were offered the first year, which expanded to four this year due to high demand.

The university cannot require faculty to attend training because of their contracts. However, Dunn said the seminars are always full and usually have a wait list.

“What’s heartening for me is that the faculty and staff want this,” she said. “They want to (know) how they can be culturally competent and develop skills in communicating with different groups.”

Dunn is considering starting a dialogue with deans and department chairs as a strategy to promote diversity training, to discuss adding a diversity component to the department bi-laws.

University offices also provide the colleges with resources on diversity hiring and gives presentations to hiring committees. Faculty recruitment, nonetheless, is still determined by the respective college, she said.

Some colleges have done well in increasing its diverse range of applicants, such as the College of Humanities & Behavioral and Social Sciences Dunn said, while noting the diverse subject matter of those disciplines also naturally tend to attract more diverse faculty.

Yet recruiting and maintaining diverse faculty across the university continues to be a problem.

Dunn said she understands the frustration felt by Senter and much of the student body, but is optimistic her position can help spark advancements in diversity and climate, despite the difficult times ahead.

“I am newer, so I’ve been able to bring a fresh perspective to campus and have been able to do quite a bit with not a lot,” she said. “We’re facing a budget crisis coming up next year, and we’re going to have to tighten up in a lot of ways. We have to do a lot more with a lot less, and it is frustrating that we can’t do a lot more with a lot more — but we have to reallocate resources”