By Olga Carranza
For a unified and diverse campus
From the lunch table to the hallways, from the Arizona Daily Wildcat to national publications, diversity continues to be an important issue in the world of higher education.
This year, a proposed amendment to the Arizona Constitution would have eliminated many of the services meant to make the University of Arizona a warmer environment for students of different backgrounds. That state Legislature defeated that proposal, but it could reappear on ballots this fall.
On this campus last week, the debate over affirmative action continued, as the UA's Libertarian students and the Minority Law Students' Association, among others, argued the issue.
Truly, discussions on diversity in this community are here to stay.
Why is community responsibility so important when dealing with the issue of diversity? As a community and as a nation, we are becoming more diverse, more globally focused and more interdependent. It is important that we modify and enhance our educational system to better prepare ourselves and our children for these changes.
Jonathan Alger, in his essay that appeared in Academe, "The Educational Value of Diversity," (Jan.Feb., 1997) states "The argument for the necessity of diversity is perhaps stronger in higher education than in any other context, but only if diversity is understood as a means to an end. The ultimate product of universities is education in the broadest sense including preparation for life in the working world. As part of this education, students learn from facetoface interaction with faculty members and with one another both inside and outside the classroom. Racial diversity can enhance this interaction by broadening course offerings, texts and classroom examples, as well as improving communications and understanding among individuals of different races."
We know that, on this campus, as the Campus Climate Poster campaign stated, "Community Sustains Us"
In Fall of 1997, the UA minority student population was 22.72 percent of the 33,737 student body, doubling from 11.75 percent in 1987. Although the UA student population has fluctuated over the past 10 years, the minority population, with the assistance of Affirmative Action guidelines, has risen to better reflect our state's population. The percentage of degrees awarded to minority students rose from 7.8 percent in 1987 to 19.4 percent last spring.
Although the graduation rate for all students is under 50 percent, the 1996 report notes that the six year graduation rate for African American students is only 33 percent; 41percent for Hispanics; 21 percent for Native Americans; and 53 percent for Anglos. The 1987 percentage of enrolled minority students was 11.75 percent but that is only 3,879 out of 33,009 students. The 1995 numbers showed 21.85 percent but that meant only 7,598 were minorities out of a total population of 34,777 and if the retention rate is considered and we do not improve, less than 3,700 will actually graduate!!! We are making progress but we also must improve. A telling statistic notes that in 1995, 34.2 percent of new freshman were minorities; 21.8 percent was the total of enrolled minorities and in that same year only 16.8 percent were awarded degrees. How do we persist in the retention of our students?
How do we improve the campus climate? We begin by reflecting an active philosophy that engages people of all cultural backgrounds to share their experiences within our work and class environment, without discomfort. In general, it is difficult within a large campus to not feel lost in the crowd. We must create these important communities that allow us to form unifying dialogues.
The UA community possesses a unique opportunity to create a supportive, diverse environment in which our differences are acknowledged and honored. Each person needs to seek opportunities to learn, work and develop free from the restrictions of bias and discrimination. But the reality is not so, yet. This is a life long journey for all of us. Affirmative action is not the problem.
All of us learn stereotypes about people from the media, friends, family, and other direct as well as indirect experiences.These learned beliefs and attitudes often have a powerful influence on our behavior, including how we perceive ourselves and other people. Although we may harbor stereotypes, how these beliefs and attitudes are enacted and lived out is very different depending on who we are, where we live and how the political dimensions of our community organizations guide us.
Because targets of prejudice and discrimination may be understandably angry as a result of their unfair treatment, when issues of diversity are aired, this anger may be expressed, or perceived, as blaming of people in more privileged groups. Members of privileged groups may respond to this anger with their own defensiveness and anger by stating "I'm not responsible for that! Don't blame me!" Blame and guilt tend to leave us all stuck in a position without solutions.
One of the challenges in addressing diversity is how we express and respond to the difficult emotional process that many of us have around these issues. Many of us are intimidated to look at and discuss with others these beliefs and attitudes. When the opportunities do arise, many of us are afraid to explore or discuss with others these beliefs because of a genuine fear that we may be judged negatively by others or that by expressing ourselves honestly, we will cause conflict and problems. It is difficult to get beyond the blaming and guilt that we feel.
As the campus continues to address the question of becoming both a unified and diverse community, we must open the lines of communication and heal these present and historical wounds.
Since 1990 the Diversity Action Council (DAC) of 28 faculty, administrators, staff and students has worked to implement and advise the UA president on diversityrelated issues. The council encourages students to join. One can read see the university's Diversity Action Plan and other related documents at http://w3.arizona.edu/~dac. More information on the make up of the campus is available from the UA's Decision and Planning Support department at daps.arizona.edu.
Olga Carranza, Ph.D. is a member of the Diversity Action Council and a psychologist with the Counseling & Psychological Services.