During the same week that the President’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture, & Inclusion met in Oakland, a meeting where “community” representatives presented out-going UC President Mark Yudof with an award for “his commitment to our issues,” the UC Associated Students issued a statement that lamented the hostile environment across the UC system.
The “Resolution Recognizing and Condemning the Acts ofAnti-Black Racism and Racial Prejudices at the University of California Irvineand San Diego, while Affirming Support for the Black Student Unions at UCI andUCSD” begins with a sentiment few on the President’s Climate Council wanted to hear: “Whereas, instances of Anti-Black racism are common on all UC campuses, yet [the] administration continues to not adequately address these incidences and carry out adequate measures against those who enact anti-Black rhetoric and actions.”
The irony was clear to anyone who was paying attention. The Climate Council had come into being in 2010 shortly after UC San Diego was shaken by a series of events known as the “Cookout/noose” episode. Now, three years later, awards were being handed out at the Council’s final meeting just days after viral videos captured members of the UC Irvine chapter of the Lambda Theta Delta fraternity cavorting in Blackface. Things had come full circle and nothing of substance had changed.
The mission of the original Council was “to identify, evaluate, and share best practices in order to ensure a welcoming, inclusive, and nurturing environment across UC’s ten campuses.” Local councils were mandated for each campus. They developed randomly according to existing campus structures. Some were effective; some were a complete waste of time because they recycled existing approaches that were ineffectual. The system-wide Council began on a positive note with guest speakers such as Sylvia Hurtado from UCLA explaining to Council members the close connection between diversity and campus climate.
It wasn’t long, however, before the attention of the system-wide Council was diverted away from the recent traumatic events. Former Provost Larry Pitts announced that he did not want the climate Council to be a diversity council (guess he missed Hurtado’s presentation). Council members then learned that the next meeting would not be held at UCOP offices. Instead we would meet in Los Angeles at the Museum of Tolerance where we would take a tour of the exhibits.
Clearly, the Council’s business had been caught up in a hazy notion of tolerance that more often than not, as Wendy Brown has taught us, “iterates the normalcy of the powerful [and] regulates the presence of the Other.” (Regulating Aversion, 8) The hard work of trying to understand campus climate on the ground would not be encouraged. The outright hostility some student groups had recently experienced and still had to cope with on a daily basis on UC campuses was washed away in a flood of feel-good “can’t we all get along” liberalism.
Through the efforts of a small group of Council members, an attempt was made to tackle real issues. With the support of Dean Chris Edley, working groups were formed on faculty diversity, the status of LGBT communities, and other pressing issues. Working group members dedicated dozens of pro-bono hours preparing reports that, as is most often the case, were submitted, circulated through Senate circles, commented upon, and filed away for the edification of some future scholar. Minor recommendations were accepted at some campuses, but overall the Council’s impact was minimal. The climate had not changed.
Just five days after President Yudof received his commendation on May 2, a Black student at UC Irvine reached into her bag and found a note that read, “Go back 2 Africa slave.” UCI administrators reacted with appropriate horror and “we will not tolerate such behavior” pronouncements. Racism and sexism on UC campuses seemed to be caught in a never-ending loop of the film Ground Hog Day.
No one, not even the students who wrote the AS resolution, would argue that administrators have the power to stop racist or even garden-variety stupidity. But clearly something has to change. What can be done? No “climate” or “diversity” commission can hope to improve that situation until faculty members are educated about what their women and minority students experience outside of the classroom and lab. No student will be dissuaded from staging a racist and sexist “cookout” until campus demographics include more students, faculty, and administrators from historically underrepresented communities. No campus will make progress on any equity issue without strong and fearless advocacy emanating from the top of the administrative chain.
Yesterday, I attended a meeting of more than a dozen departmental representatives who had been asked to poll their colleagues about “diversity” issues. The most repeated comment was “We don’t know what diversity means.” The psych and anthro folks offered arcane definitions from within their disciplines; one engineer laughed and asked if a candidate who grew up with five sisters could list that fact as part of his contributions to diversity. No one in the room seemed to know that there is an elaborate scholarly bibliography about what diversity means in higher education, how it affects the campus environment, and how it can function to either impede or improve student academic success.
In order to avoid a heated debate, the “diversity officers” who ran the meeting declined to clarify their language. No one pointed out that until diversity and equity are understood in an historical frame that reminds us that for decades specific groups were excluded from higher education we will continue to have pointless meetings like this one. In the meantime, random incidents of racism, sexism, and homophobia will break out periodically, temperatures will rise across the UC system, and climate change will continue to be a hoax perpetrated by the keepers of the status quo.