The forgotten pillar: on diversity at Occidental College

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Karen Romero was only a few months into her time at Occidental when a racist classmate made her consider leaving.

In her first-semester CSP class, Romero (now a junior) encountered a white student who was openly dismissive toward her classmates of color.

“She wasn’t like that with other students who were white, but she was very condescending towards the Latinas in the room,” Romero said.

Because first-year housing is determined by CSP, Romero faced this woman not only in class, but also in her dorm. Romero tolerated her classmate’s hostility until November, when the two were assigned to work on a group interview project together. In an attempt to appease the student, Romero volunteered to obtain the majority of the consent slips for the interviews. She texted her partner the night she finished gathering all the slips, and asked if she would mind checking out a camera from the library. The other student did not respond well.

“She texted me and she told me ‘How dare you even have the audacity to tell me what to do?’” Romero recalls. “She was texting me in caps lock. I was kind of not registering things anymore because I was really confused.”

As soon as Romero made it back to campus from the interview site, the student barged into her room. According to Romero, the woman started moving towards her, yelling and cursing.

“I think I just blocked everything out because I was like, I don’t understand what’s happening,” Romero said. “I just let her go on because I felt like if I were going to say anything that it wouldn’t get through to her.”

When the woman finally stopped yelling, Romero asked her if she was finished speaking. “Yes,” the woman replied. “Now get the f*** out.”

“It just made me feel like a dog,” Romero says, “because it was my own room and my private space.”

For days afterward, Romero said, she was afraid to leave her room for fear of being accosted again. “Anytime anyone knocked on my door I would go hide in the closet,” she said. “It was really bad.”

At the recommendation of a professor, Romero went to seek help from the Dean of Students’ Office. But during her appointment she was told that, if she wished to take further steps, she would have to file a formal complaint. The other student would be notified that Romero had reported her.

“I told them, ‘If you contact her, things are going to get more intense. She lives right next to me, and it’s going to make me feel more unsafe,’” Romero recalls. “But they told me that was just their proper procedure. So I thanked them for their time and I just left.”

Romero received no follow-up from the Dean of Students’ Office. She lived in fear of returning to school the next year, until she learned that her assailant had transferred.

The new diversity movement

In the 2013-14 school year, conversations about diversity erupted on Occidental’s campus. Students of color joined with professors to end the silence around their experiences with racism on Occidental’s campus—experiences much like Romero’s. Inspired by the Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition’s successes—such as the hiring of a Title IX coordinator—students formed the Coalition at Oxy for Diversity and Equity (C.O.D.E.). Over the past year, C.O.D.E. sought to address microaggressions against students of color and support community change.

Building on C.O.D.E.’s public actions, Mika Cribbs (junior) and Adrian Adams (sophomore) started “I, Too, Am Oxy”—a social media campaign documenting microaggressions on Occidental’s campus. The “I, Too, Am Oxy” Tumblr page features pictures of Occidental students holding whiteboards documenting their experiences with racism. According to Cribbs and Adams, they initiated the project to provide students of color a social media platform through which they could tell their stories. Ultimately, the project also served to publicize these issues to the broader campus community—the page has reached almost 10,000 views to date.

In an attempt to take these movements beyond the interpersonal level and create institutional change, Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) senators drafted a constitutional amendment. If passed, the Diversity and Equity Board Initiative (DEBI) would create a branch of ASOC Senate tasked with funding programs that foster racial, sexual-orientation, gender and economic diversity. According to the proposal, the board would also produce semesterly reports on Occidental offices and departments “to establish and shed light on goals and measurable desired outcomes aligned with … our four pillars: equity, community, service, and excellence.” DEBI unanimously passed a Senate vote this fall, and since then over 700 students and 32 clubs have signed a petition pledging their support.

Despite the rising profile of diversity movements on campus, data from a Diverse Learning Environments (DLE) survey conducted last year shows that they have yet to catch on with everyone. In fact, over 10 percent of students at Occidental—the school rated the “most radical” in the country by the Huffington Post in 2011—believe that most people of color no longer experience discrimination in this country. Perhaps this is because almost 45 percent of the student body has never been to a race, culture or ethnicity-centered event on campus, almost 55 percent has never been to an LGBTQ-centered event and almost 65 percent has never been to a gender-centered event.

“What does it mean that half of the student body doesn’t come out to these events; doesn’t learn what it means to be marginalized; doesn’t learn about the experience of their fellow students?” Senior Class Senator Kerry Sakimoto asked the audience at a Feb. 19 DEBI teach-in.

This question was asked of a group of students who had voluntarily gathered to discuss DEBI—students who are probably among the 55 percent who do turn out for diversity events. But with a significant portion of the campus not present at such gatherings, it poses a larger question: Where does the diversity movement stand at Occidental?

A brief history lesson

Occidental was once a leader in diversity efforts in higher education. In the 1990s, the school admitted a much higher percentage of students of color than comparable institutions. According to a timeline compiled by C.O.D.E., incoming classes in the ‘90s were comprised of over 50 percent students of color. U.S. News and World Report even ranked Occidental number one in diversity in 1998.

“We were lauded as a liberal arts college that was able to detach ourselves from the pack, because not only were we a generally good liberal arts school, but we also made a strong commitment to diversity and were able to follow that up with our efforts,” an Occidental professor, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

This commitment to diversity took several different forms. Professor Regina Freer pointed to the Irvine Scholars Program as an example. Starting in the mid-’90s, the program admitted qualified high school students with an express interest in diversity and provided them a full scholarship. Once at Occidental, the scholars were offered ongoing diversity programming and summer opportunities.

“It altered and shifted the campus because there was a cohort of students who brought that energy and had support around that type of programming,” Freer said.

Occidental was also one of the first colleges to include equity in its mission statement in the 1980s—a radical statement for the time.

“The fact that we did that, and had some pretty powerful outcomes, made us appear to be leaders, and I think we really were,” the anonymous professor said. “I wouldn’t say that is that case anymore.”

Other faculty and students agreed that Occidental seems to be losing its place as a leader in diversity.

“Nowadays [Occidental] is getting whiter; it’s getting more affluent,” Sakimoto said. “That’s really created a divide between people who do care about this stuff—and are willing to put themselves out there to talk about diversity and equity—and people who don’t think it applies to them.”

This shift is evident in the numbers as well. Compared to the incoming classes of the ‘90s, Occidental classes average about 40 percent students of color today. The college also slid from number one to number 12 in the U.S. News and World Report diversity ranking—the only ranking in which the school has ever breached the top 10.

Academics at Occidental have also seen a decreased focus on diversity. A description of the CSP program from the late ‘90s described it as a space in which “the contributions of traditionally undervalued groups … take their rightful place in a tapestry whose colors are becoming richer as they become more varied.” Now, the Occidental website says CSP students will “approach topics from a global perspective,” but focus on “the writing of research-based essays … constructing evidence-based arguments and utilizing the conventions of academic discourse.”

Many faculty members attribute this diversity downturn to a period of fiscal strictness in the early 2000s. The Irvine Scholars Program, for example, was discontinued once outside funding dried up. According to Freer, many similar programs were discontinued when the school did not supplement outside funding with “hard money” from inside the school. Administrative upheaval only compounded the college’s financial problems, further shifting the focus away from diversity.

“Oxy is still recovering from several years where there was no leadership at the top, because we had presidents doing one-year terms,” Professor James Ford said. “Only now is Oxy rebounding from a leadership vacuum at the highest levels of administration.”

As evidenced by the growing movement on campus, however, many faculty and students would like to see that rebound happen faster. Ford, for one, fears that the school may fail to live up to its auspicious history.

“When I look at people like Martin Luther King, and others who have come to this campus, I think it would be an insult to their memory if we say that what they did 40 years ago, 50 years ago, 20 years ago was enough, and that we’re somehow off the hook,” Ford said. “I think their contributions set a standard for us to contribute. It’s not a way of letting us off the hook, it’s a way of setting a new standard for us to look up to.”

Where are we now?

Currently, about 42 percent of the student body identifies as part of a racial minority. While that number is high compared to many other small liberal arts schools, it is a significant decrease from years past. And many faculty and students are quick to point out that it is not just the number of minority students on campus that matters, but also their experience while they are here.

As highlighted by campaigns like “I, Too, Am Oxy,” this experience is often fraught with racial microaggressions. According to the DLE, 85 percent of students say they have witnessed discrimination while at Oxy. Only 71 percent of students of color felt a sense of belonging on campus, compared to 84 percent of their white peers. These experiences spilled into the classroom as well: One in four students at Occidental say they have heard faculty express race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality stereotypes, and 31 percent of minority students have felt singled out in class.

“[As a woman of color] I feel really ignored by most of the student body,” Romero said. “I think not being aware of what other people are going through makes it really easy to assume that there’s not a problem.”

The school’s strong history of diversity efforts can also lead faculty and students to ignore the problems that still exist.

“One of the biggest issues [with diversity on campus] is the desire to claim that the job has already been done,” Ford said. “Some people believe that any criticisms are not constructive, they’re just complaints when nothing more can be done.”

Of those who are formally tasked with making change, the effort is often passed off to other departments.

“A lot of people assume that it’s somebody else’s responsibility,” Freer said. “Folks are doing things, but it’s not a coherent effort and it’s not one in which the responsibility is broadly shared.”

Currently, diversity efforts are spread across various offices. Senior Associate Dean of Students Erica O’Neil Howard sees her role as addressing students’ challenges on a personal, not school-wide, level. Her office, she said, takes issues on a case-by-case basis and focuses on the unique needs of each individual.

Meanwhile, Tamara Himmelstein, the director of student life and a member of the Division of Student Affairs diversity committee, said she takes a hands-off approach to diversity efforts.

“I feel like my role is maintaining compliance without too much interference,” Himmelstein said. “We certainly want to help facilitate the movement, and we would want to help students if they want to organize, if they want to plan events to help with the causes.”

Along with these scattered efforts, Freer also cited a general discomfort with the topic of diversity as an impediment to change. But other professors believe that it is not just discomfort, but an active silencing of the discussion that is slowing progress.

“The fact that you can’t speak honestly as a member of the faculty supporting C.O.D.E. or DEBI or “I, Too, Am Oxy” speaks to the fact that those who have done that have suffered some pretty drastic consequences,” the anonymous professor said. “There’s a malaise on campus, but I think there’s also a sense of fear.”

This sense of fear stems not only from fear of retaliation from the administration, but also from the attitudes of other faculty members. An email sent out last semester, signed by 19 faculty members, called for a return to “reasoned, productive discussion of the issues.” To several professors, this felt like an attempt to silence their voices.

“I think there’s a general sentiment among the faculty that the troublemakers should just keep quiet, and let’s just go back to the good old days when our students weren’t getting raped and diversity was getting fulfilled because of the numbers that we have,” another anonymous professor said.

Although these faculty members feel silenced by the administration, and even their peers, they see promise in student movements.

“Overall, I think what’s been good about C.O.D.E., DEBI [and] “I, Too, Am Oxy” is that people have been shooting for the ambitious, structural changes,” Ford said. “By going with the ambitious stuff, we have a chance of changing the institution for the better, but also changing how we interact on smaller scales.”

Students are also optimistic about the power they have to affect change, even at an interpersonal level. Frances Delfin, a programming assistant for the Intercultural Community Center, was overwhelmed by her peers’ contributions to the movement.

“Everything that’s been happening this year with diversity is all student-led,” Delfin said. “We’re all able to participate in this conversation about marginalization and feeling excluded from conversations. I think that’s been the most powerful thing about diversity this year—people stepping up and just really sharing their narratives. And that’s just incredible.”

Despite this positivity, the students most active in the movement know that there is still work to be done. Along with the gaps in student participation, activists also see administrative response as lacking. The hiring of a chief diversity officer (CDO) is expected to help remedy this, but as of yet no CDO has been hired, and the report from the faculty working group has not been made public.

“The thing is, I don’t know if any of these things are going to ever come, at least in the way we want them,” Sakimoto said. “But as long as there are people making a commotion about it, at least people will care.”

Moving forward

In Spring 2014, 12 candidates for ASOC ran on a platform recognizing the need for increased diversity and equity. The next fall, four of those senators took this mandate and created the diversity committee within senate. Romero was one of those senators.

“[The committee] had a goal, and our goal was to increase and improve the presence and awareness of diversity and equity issues, but also improvement and empowerment in the lives of marginalized students,” Romero said.

The Spring 2014 platform called for a vice president of diversity, but Romero said the committee quickly decided that the issue was too large for one vice president to handle alone. Through a series of open weekly meetings, the committee created what is now known as DEBI.

“DEBI is important to Oxy’s campus for several reasons,” Yemi Belachew (senior) said via email. “One, it would provide a sustainable system to allow students to bring new and innovative ideas to promote diversity. Two, it would create a safer space for marginalized students on campus by creating a process of accountability through the reports they would produce. And three, as a person on several cultural e-boards, it would be extremely useful to have a specific source of funding for programs around diversity.”

On Nov. 17, DEBI passed Senate in a unanimous vote, which was attended by over 50 student supporters. Riding high on their initial victory, the senators were quickly faced with securing another vote—this time by Honor Board. Honor Board is a body of 10 student-elected jurors that focus mainly on issues of academic misconduct, such as cheating or plagiarism. But in 2013 the board was also given the responsibility of approving any proposed student body fee increases.

According to Honor Board member Kara Alam ’17, Honor Board was given this power as an additional check on the senate. The change was passed in a school-wide vote after the most recent student body fee increase, which dedicated $10 per semester to Sustainability Fund. While students were initially excited about funding Sustainability Fund, Alam said, over time they began to question what exactly they were giving their money to.

“There are a lot of people who just don’t know what Sustainability Fund does,” Alam said. “Students are charged $10 a semester … and we don’t really know what it is for.”

Because DEBI is the first initiative to request a student body fee increase since Sustainability Fund, it is also the first to test Honor Board’s new power of approval. Setting the precedent for all student body fee increases in the future has some Honor Board members on edge.

“Now what we’re finding is there’s a lot of discontent with Sustainability Fund and it’s inefficiency and its usage of student body fees,” Honor Board Chair Siri Guntupalli ’16 said. “So it’s like we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Because if we do go ahead with this and there is the same inefficiency and the same unhappiness with how student body fee increases happen, it’s like, ‘Oh, why didn’t you do your job, Honor Board?’”

With this in mind, Honor Board struck down DEBI’s proposed student body fee increase twice: once on Feb. 3, when ASOC proposed a $10 fee increase, and again on Feb. 11 when they reduced the request to $7. Senior Class Senator Keven Duran expressed the displeasure of many senators with this setback.

“There is a huge amount of support for this,” Duran said. “So for [Honor Board] to say, ‘We don’t know if the student body is okay with increasing the student body fee by 10 dollars,’ then my question is, ‘Is Honor Board listening? Are they talking to the people?’ Because people are talking—people are screaming—and they’re not listening.”

In interviews, and in a recent statement emailed to the campus, Honor Board members explained that their hope was to fund DEB through an ASOC savings account for its first few semesters and then move to a student body fee increase in the near future.

“[Using the savings account] is not a permanent change,” Alam said. “It would be a temporary holdover until DEB is established as a body. We’re not suggesting that DEB be funded by Senate for the rest of its existence. We’re suggesting that DEB be funded by Senate until DEB is established and then can ask for its own money.”

But Duran and other senators were not satisfied with this response.

“How long are we going to play this waiting game?” Duran asked. “Maybe it’s one semester … Then, ‘Okay let’s wait another semester, and another semester, and another semester.’ And then we’ve gone four semesters—two school years—and that’s $80,000 we’ve depleted from the savings account.”

Despite tensions, both senators and Honor Board jurors expressed a desire to meet and discuss a plan for moving forward. In doing so, they will draw on a history of progressive action and a network of sympathetic faculty. But, ultimately, they will need the support of their fellow students.

“I just want to see students involved and feel like they are stakeholders in this,” Delfin said. “I can’t emphasize this enough: This is for everyone. This is a conversation for everyone.”