Reports find diversity to be an issue for students and faculty

By Randal Walton – [email protected] – Contributor
According to UNC Asheville statistics, minority students only made up 11.9 percent of the total enrollment last semester.  These statistics illustrate the cautious nature of our country, but should not deter efforts to increase diversity on UNC Asheville’s campus, according to the school’s faculty and staff.
“In the United States, we don’t talk about race well. People have a hard time talking about race,” said Deborah James, a professor of literature and language. “We get scared that somebody’s going to get mad, one way or the other. It’s a difficult conversation to have. I think UNCA mirrors that.”
Despite its difficulties, UNCA’s administration currently works hard to get the conversation going, which shows some improvement over the last couple of years, according to Deborah Miles, the executive director for the Center of Diversity Education.
“I think that’s the trend line. There’s no way to go from zero to 60 in 10 seconds with recruitment and retention. It’s a trend, so it’s a slow, steady climb,” the Hot Springs, Ark., native said.
Statistics show recruitment and retention of minority students stand as a constant problem for UNCA with no visible or easy solution. In 2009, minorities accounted for 7.1 percent of all UNCA incoming freshman, only 43 out of 603 students, according to university statistics.
Dwight Mullen, a professor of political science, said he remains unimpressed with the number of African-American students on UNCA’s campus, especially compared to the African-American population across the state.
“It’s not as bad as I have seen it, but it’s still far below par. When I say par, it’s far below where it should be,” the 59-year-old said. “It really should be 20 percent African-American because that’s what we are in the state. But OK, 10 percent. Let’s say 10 percent. This year, the student profile they sent out is 3.3, and that’s as high as it’s been since Ponder’s been chancellor.”
Although the percentages increased during the next two fall semesters – 9.1 percent in 2010 and 11.8 percent in 2011 – university statistics show they started to drop in 2012. According to statistics compiled by the Office of Institutional Research, minority students comprised only 10.7 percent of incoming freshman in 2012 and 9.5 percent of incoming freshman in 2013.
“We bring in a lot of people, but we aren’t able to retain people. I’m not sure why that’s happened. Some of it is isolation. Some of it is frustration,” James said. “There are some institutional obstacles in doing the work of recruiting and retaining students.”
The minority presence in UNCA’s faculty and staff demonstrates a similar trend to that of students. According to university statistics, 119 faculty members comprise underrepresented populations, a 50.6 percent increase from the previous year. However, 2011 saw a 26.1 percent drop in the number of a minority presence in faculty and staff numbers; the number dropped again in 2012 to 36.4 percent, according to university statistics. Statistics also reveal only two out of 37 people from underrepresented populations held jobs in the executive, administrative or management fields.
“There’s also institutional racism. When committees gather to hire, they’re more likely to hire people like themselves, but not through intent,” James said. “When we sit down, we think about what the department needs. Well, how do we decide that? Based on how the department has always been. Certain kinds of situations mitigate against us always choosing different than we’ve always chosen.”
The CDE notes the lack of a minority presence among faculty and plans to implement methods to remedy the problem, including analyzing the production and distribution of job advertisements, according to Miles.
“We want to see more people of color in management positions and the ability to rise in an organization, rather than get stuck in an entry level position,” the 60-year-old said. “Right now, I’m really looking into faculty hiring. When we put in a job ad, how is that job ad crafted so that we send out as many signals as possible that we are looking not just for people from the typical pipelines? How can we get more women to apply, more African-Americans, more Latinos, more people of various ethnicities?”
Anne Jansen, a first-year assistant professor in literature and language who identifies as half-Chinese, said her racial background helped get her a job teaching ethnic literatures.
“At this school, that’s what I was hired to do,” the Buellton, Calif., native said. “But I’m really interested in how people across racial lines in the U.S. are interested in certain issues, sometimes working together and sometimes just working parallel to each other to accomplish similar ends.”
Due to her ethnicity, Jansen said faculty members warned her of racial disparities on campus and in the community prior to her employment.
“They wanted someone who could teach this stuff and they knew that diversity was very important, that the students needed access to an education that actually emphasizes that. They were very, very honest about what I could expect as far as the racial landscape in Asheville and at the university,” she said. “I appreciate that, but I also see it as a welcome challenge. Maybe there’s a need for programs and I would love to have a hand in shaping those.”
One of those challenges, according to Jansen, lies in the startling low number of American-Indian students at UNCA.  According to university statistics, the number of American-Indian students never reached higher than 0.55 percent in 2013 during the past five years.
“It is surprising that in this region, where we’re so close to the Eastern Band Cherokee – I mean, it’s less than an hour’s drive to Cherokee – it is shocking that it’s one of the most underrepresented ethnic groups on campus,” Jansen said.
Jansen said she and Trey Adcock, a visiting assistant professor of education and a member of the Eastern Band Cherokee, hope to increase those numbers by creating an American Indian Studies program to educate the community about their neighbors.
“We have an Africana studies program that’s similar, so it would be sort of modeled after that,” the 32-year-old said. “I get the sense that there are a lot of people who are doing this work and who are interested in it, it’s just not officially collected under any sort of program at the moment. So, we’d be trying to do that collecting, to do that unifying.”
Miles said the CDE plans to implement another program, AVID for Higher Education that will provide support for a university’s faculty and staff’s attempts to increase student engagement.
“We think AVID has strong potential because it’s all about relationships, building pipelines and networks, and I think it will be a big help,” she said. “I think having a program like AVID will give professors some ideas on how to be supportive of first-generation students.”
James, an alumna of UNCA, said she began her efforts to increase diversity among African-Americans the very day she stepped foot on the campus.
“When I came here in 1969, I came here because I was recruited to help integrate the women’s dorms. There were no black women in the dorms before 1969,” the Charlotte native said. “As long as I have been here, I have never not been involved in some initiative or another to make this place feel welcoming and safe and better for underrepresented groups, particularly for African-Americans.”
According to Mullen, using the word “minority” just provides an excuse for the administration to not deal with the increasingly visible minority issue.
“They play that game, saying minority, and knowing doggone well that’s just another way of not dealing with ‘black,’” the Los Angeles native said. “You have to call that what it is. If it’s racist, it’s racist. And y’all still being racist.”
Although the university continues to make strides to recruit more African-Americans, James said the athletic department has more success.
“I think the athletic department does a much better job than the university at recruiting African-Americans. I think they’ve got a better pool to choose from,” she said. “But the athletics department has been very, very good. They don’t just bring athletes who are African-American, they bring athletes that can be scholars.”
Former men’s basketball coach Eddie Biedenbach provided the best recruitment system ever at UNCA, said Mullen.
“Biedenbach came in and started recruiting out of the community, and he had the best recruiting program that I’ve ever seen on this campus,” he said. “Eddie Biedenbach was the best recruiter this campus ever had.”
Jansen said she wants to see UNCA mirror the diverse demographics of North Carolina, particularly with African-Americans.
“Driving around the city or any other part of North Carolina, there’s a significant African-American population here, and it’s not reflected in the student body,” she said. “I would like to see that reflected. We’re a state school and we talk a lot about wanting to serve the local community and wanting to provide opportunity to people living in the region, and it would be nice to see a closer correlation between our numbers and the demographics of the region.”
James said one day, she hopes to see racial lines blurred so much it doesn’t even matter anymore.
“I would love to see a campus where there were so many different kinds of people from so many different kinds of races, ethnicities, sexual orientations that you could not anticipate for any given event who was going to show up,” she said. “I would like to see people who want to go to college, but I would like it not to be predictable who those people would be. That’s my idea of what we should be working for.”