Diversity Debate at Lehigh

Low minority enrollments trigger series of protests and considerable campus discussion.
March 31, 2006

A year ago, Lehigh University received nearly 800 applications from underrepresented minority students, and admitted about 350. In the fall, just 53 enrolled. That low success rate at an institution where 4 percent of students are black or Hispanic has set off a series of protests, culminating this week in a march across the Bethlehem, Pa., campus that ended with the students tacking a list of demands to President Gregory C. Farrington’s door.

Among the demands are that the university work toward increasing its minority enrollment and that it require a seminar for all students that deals with themes of diversity. Lehigh officials have said that they are also disappointed by the low minority enrollment rates, and have pledged to do more, but they have stopped short of endorsing all of the demands.

A student organization known as the Movement -- its members from a wide range of racial and ethnic groups -- organized the protests. Earlier this month, the Movement gained attention on campus for sponsoring a student walk-out and rally.

“What we’re looking to do is change the climate at Lehigh,” said Aaron Bergman, a member of the Movement. “We want to change the apathetic attitude on campus and get more interaction going between students.” 

Bergman said that since he arrived to the university, there have been numerous incidents involving racial slurs written on building walls. He said students have sometimes been hesitant to report these cases, and some students say the administration has downplayed them.

Farrington -- who met with the protesters on Tuesday -- said the administration is fully supportive of the Movement's ideals. The organizaiton is asking for a monthly meeting with the president, and Farrington said that is doable (although he is leaving office in June).

Farrington admits Lehigh “hasn’t been as creative as we should have been in our recruiting process for underrepresented students.” Of this year's disappointing minority enrollment numbers, he said, “we didn’t know why that happened.”

The university’s rural location and high tuition deter some students from applying to Lehigh, Farrington said. But this spring, he said four times as many minority students have signed up to attend a campus recruitment weekend as did a year ago.

Gabriel Ganot, a Lehigh student, said in a recent letter to the Lehigh student newspaper that the Movement “represents a good cause” but has some demands that are “far-fetched.” In particular, Ganot said he would be disappointed if the university agreed to a mandatory diversity seminar, because it would infringe on a student’s academic freedom.

Ganot also said he was bothered by professors who let out their classes early for the walk-out this month, calling them "unprofessional."

He said the lack of campus diversity is a sign of a larger socioeconomic problem and shouldn't be pinned on administrators. “I don’t understand where [the Movement] is coming from,” Ganot said. “I find it pathetic they need to exist.”

Katie Becker, editorial page editor for The Brown and White, the student newspaper, said the Movement's protests have "gotten people to have real conversations that I’ve never seen before."



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