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University of Michigan holds town hall on campus diversity

Nov 10, 2015

Credit Wikimedia Commons

Students, faculty and staff talked about their frustrations – from who gets tenure, to recruiting Detroit students, to what it feels like to be one of the few black students on campus – at a "community assembly” on campus diversity today.

The event was moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Clarence Page, of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board. Community members were invited to share their own experiences and goals for the university.

Engineering graduate student Ryan Moody says when just 4% of the student body is black, it can be isolating – especially when the topic of race comes up.

"So what that looks like for me, is that for 50 students who are not black, are talking to me about my experience,” Moody says. “And that's often more tokenizing and more alienating than inviting. So what I’d like to encourage as an idea or strategy is more than just encouraging conversations.

“Because when you’re in a minority population and there’s not a lot of you, people often come to you as the representative of that, and expect you to be the only voice for that. And that to me has not felt particularly including.”

Another student, who identified herself as Chelsea and said she was an undergrad studying computer science, said she felt like the university was too much talk and too little action.

“If you really truly want a more diverse campus, then it’s not that hard to achieve,” she said. “I believe that by actually, actively seeking these students, going to Detroit and going to these different neighborhoods …and telling them about the University of Michigan, because they’re amazing students that are actively able to come here.

“If you really want to change how this campus is, then it’s not hard. If you want these students, then go get them.”

U of M President Mark Schlissel told attendees he heard a lot of “honesty, [and] a lot of subterranean anger and discomfort” at the assembly. “I think I’ve heard a lot of ambition, a lot of shared interests in trying to make the university a place we can increasingly be proud of, and people wanting us to live up to our highest ideals.”

“An interesting common theme for me, was the fact that improvement has to be led, but it can only come from the folks in departments, in working groups, on admission committees,” Schlissel says. “It happens in the trenches as everyday acts of commitment. It doesn’t necessarily happen from folks in a room making suggestions or setting rules.”

Clarence Page, the moderator, asked Schlissel about the question Chelsea raised: What’s so hard about going out and finding diversity? “You’re right next to Detroit, for Pete’s sake.”

Schlissel said he agreed that all communities have students who can thrive at Michigan, but that the challenge is identifying them.

“And finding in a milieu of a public educational system, which in many instances has let down our students and our rising generation … how do we find students who can succeed … and not just bring them here, but support them when we’re here?”

The event today is part of a broader push by the university to improve diversity on campus – a topic being discussed and various panels and summits this month, as well as in academic and staffing units at the college.

The University of Michigan also recently announced new initiatives to recruit students from Ypsilanti and Southfield, from helping them prepare for the college admissions process, to offering new scholarships for high-achieving, low-income students throughout the state. A spokesperson for the university says the school also has a satellite admissions office in Detroit.