Last week, at one of my first lectures of the semester, I happened to sit down next to an African-American student wearing a neck brace. There was nothing remarkable about this situation; I was just some guy preparing to take on the “Herald Crossword,” and sitting next to me was some guy who had apparently hurt his neck.
Then it happened, an incident all too common on our campus: some woman, who happened to be white, was shuffling past us when she noticed my neighbor with the brace and felt compelled to ask him if he were a football player.
I don’t know how this must have made my neighbor, the non-football player, feel, but I do know that this relatively harmless situation was indicative of a much larger problem throughout the UW System. The problem is that on too many of our campuses, Madison included, racial diversity is the exception, and all of our students are denied the important social education that diverse surroundings provide.
My lecture experience coincided with a spattering of newspaper articles on diversity and a Board of Regents meeting addressing what role race plays in admissions. Only a rare bigot denies the benefits or importance of racial diversity, and the collective UW leadership claims great commitment to seeing that the goal of racial diversity is realized. So what is it doing about it?
In 1988 the Board of Regents approved the “Design for Diversity,” a ten-year plan that enunciated the board’s commitment to increase diversity. This plan made it clear to the UW System that this would be the priority for all UW campuses. In 1998 the board reaffirmed its commitment by adopting Plan 2008, a similar plan with an identical ten-year time frame.
Over the course of the 13 years that have passed since the board made racial diversity a priority, some campuses like Whitewater, Parkside and Milwaukee have made great progress strengthening their recruitment and retention of students of color, but the results on other campuses can only be described as a failure.
On our own campus, the System’s flagship, results have been nothing short of abysmal. For 13 years, campus administrators have been charged by the Board of Regents to increase diversity. Over these 13 years the amount of money spent on programs and salaries has increased along with the number of positions in the offices of Student Affairs and Admissions. Yet for 13 years, the percentage of students on this campus who describe themselves as African-American has remained flat. Furthermore, while the percentages of white and black students who are accepted to Madison are similar, a full 10 percent fewer African-American students opt to come to school here once accepted.
Administrators will tell you that once they get a little more money and can implement Plan 2008 all will be well. They will go on and on about how many sixth-graders of color they have enrolled in pre-college programs and explain that when these sixth-graders are ready to go to college they will be recruited to Madison. But the fact is we have already waited 13 years for results and haven’t gotten any.
I am by no means attacking Plan 2008; it is an admirable program worthy of increased funding. What deserves criticism, however, is the way Plan 2008 has been used to shield UW administrators from being held accountable. Conversation and debate about the issues surrounding diversity are generally healthy and can teach all of us something, but we don’t pay our administrators to talk.
It is time that the System administration and the Board of Regents stop rewarding mediocrity; campuses failing to achieve the board’s goal should be exposed for their failure, and administrators failing to do their jobs should be replaced.
This issue of racial diversity is a difficult one, but it is too important for us to ignore or scapegoat. Each of us has so much to learn about each other and ourselves — that is one of the reasons we go to college. On this issue we cannot afford to let the system fail us.
Joe Alexander is a former member of the Board of Regents. He is a senior.