Not So White Noise About Diversity

February 25, 2009

A faculty report has stirred some racial tensions at Sonoma State University, following claims from its author that the institution’s administration has deliberately targeted those from higher-income families as potential students for the past decade. In this process, the report claims that the university has become the “whitest” public institution in California, effectively preferring white students to minorities in an admission practice that it deems “reverse affirmative action.”

One aspect of Sonoma State that is decidedly diverse is the administration, where the president, provost and director of admissions – all criticized in the report – are Latino. The professor who brought forth this report, however, is white.

Peter Phillips, a sociology professor, wrote the report with help from student researchers and funds from the California Faculty Association – the National Education Association-affiliated union of professors in the California State University System. He argues that Sonoma State “deliberately tried to increase student wealth and maintain a non-diverse student population” during a time period in which the demographics of the state and the Cal State system have been changing.

Becoming Richer and Whiter

The report notes that, from 1994 to 2007, the system increased the number of non-white students by nine percent, bringing the number of white students to a system-wide low of 44 percent. During the same time period, the racial profile of Sonoma State remained relatively static: the white student population at the institution fell by just one percent, leaving the number of white students at 78 percent in 2007.

The report also notes that Sonoma State has increasingly attracted students from wealthier families. Since 1994, the number of Sonoma State freshmen with family incomes of greater than $150,000 has increased by 59 percent; the number of freshmen with family incomes of less than $50,000 has decreased by 21 percent. By 2007, nearly 50 percent of freshmen had family incomes of over $100,000.

The report argues this is greater than the Cal State average, though there is only system-wide data from 2000 provided to support this claim. Though acknowledging there is no way to know for certain whether Sonoma State has the wealthiest students of any public institution in the state, the report says that it is “most likely richer than most.”

Phillips believes that an administrative decision, made in the mid 1990’s, to reposition and rebrand Sonoma State as a “Public Ivy” is mostly to fault for these changes in the institution’s student profile. During this time period, Ruben Armiñana, Sonoma State's president, sought to transform the institution into a “beta site” for innovation within Cal State.

Phillips argues that Armiñana sought to market Sonoma State as “an upper-income destination campus” by building what he sees as high-end amenities for students, such as dormitories including private rooms with bathrooms and a multimillion-dollar performing arts center modeled after one used by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He also argues the institution marketed itself alongside area’s “wine country image” by making specific note of local vineyards in campus materials and giving dormitories names like “Sauvignon Village.”

Amidst this repositioning, Sonoma State introduced a “special admissions program” in 1994 to “draw an applicant pool for a statewide market” and “to admit the best class [it] possibly [could].” The institution used a more selective screening index of SAT scores and grade-point averages than the Cal State standard -- Sonoma State’s admissions index was 3200 compared to the Cal State’s 2900. Though the institution marketed this as a way to increase diversity, Phillips argues that it actually did the opposite.

Phillips also claims that the institution has limited its recruitment efforts to predominately white public and private high schools in high-income areas. In 2007, the report alleges, half of the schools visited by Sonoma State recruiters had a greater population of white students than that of their county. Of those schools, the reports also says that almost three quarters of them had a lower percentage of students using the Free and Reduced Price Meal program than the average in their county.

Criticism of Report

Administrative response to the report has been cold, at best. Eduardo Ochoa, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said the report is being released “amidst extraordinary efforts on campus to put diversity as a top initiative” – efforts that he says are glaringly absent from the report. Though the student profile data is “undeniable,” he said most of the conclusions drawn by the report are both unfair and untrue.

“It’s entirely off-base to suggest that we would go out of our way to get wealthier students to improve our fund raising,” said Ochoa, noting that the high schools visited were often the hosts of multi-high school college fairs and not specific institutional visits. “There’s no truth to the idea that we're skewing our recruiting to upper-tier high schools. The real objective of this report was obviously not to contribute to solving our shared diversity goals but to drive a wedge between the faculty and the administration. It wants to cast blame on the administration. We’re all trying to solve these problems together, and this report seeks to drag our campus back to where it was some time ago.”

Ochoa argues that some of the institution’s lack of diversity could be explained by the lack of diversity in the area. This, he noted, is part of the reason that the university has to recruit outside of the Sonoma County region to attract more minority students. Still, he admits the lack of diversity of the region may also be a barrier for these outside students, who might not feel comfortable.

“It’s a challenge faced by every college in a rural, predominately white community in the nation,” said Ochoa, noting that he believes it might not be possible for Sonoma State to replicate the diversity of the entire state but that it could do a better job of replicating what diversity exists in the region.

The report also stirred some racial tension among the university’s admissions and recruiting staff, a sizable segment of who are non-white. The fact that this report has come from white faculty members with mostly white students assisting in the research is not helping.

“As for the report’s characterization of recruiting, that hurt our staff a lot,” Ochoa said. “Which, I might add, is more diverse than that of Professor Phillips' research students. This is something that isn’t lost on our staff on campus. They find it galling to be accused this way when that they have done a better job of implementing diversity in their staff than many [professors] have done in their own departments.”

Andy Merrifield, president of the local chapter of the California Faculty Association and political science professor, said a subtle racial undertone on campus has clouded reception of the report. He said he believes Phillip’s report should further the dialogue on improving the institution’s diversity, rather than leading to more division on campus.

“Decisions about recruiting are made not by the recruiters themselves but the administration,” Merrifield said. “I never question someone’s commitment to diversity, and I don’t think this report accuses the administration of being racist. We [Phillips and the local CFA] are not a bunch of white people accusing a bunch of non-white people of being secretly racist. I think that’s an ad hominem attack. I’m not interested in pointing fingers. I think the purpose of the report is to define concerns and move forward.”

What Now?

In an effort to make Sonoma State more diverse, Phillips said he would like the instition to make a more concerted effort to recruit at low-income and inner-city high schools. He argued that the institution should be able to match the diversity of the state if it has the ability to recruit statewide.

“CSU's are public universities and shouldn’t be a refuge for the upper-income and top third of society whose kids didn’t have the grades to get into the UC system,” Phillips said. “This report certainly caught the attention of the administration but, boiling it down, we have to look forward.”

Gustavo Flores, director of admissions, said Sonoma State has to strive for a “reachable goal” in terms of diversity and agreed with Ochoa’s goal that it should at least mirror that of its local service area. He argued that the institution is already doing a great deal to position itself for a more diverse student body, citing changes among the staff.

“You’ll find that my staff is ethnically diverse, and this positions ourselves as a university,” Flores said. “We have to be willing to make change, and we already have great models on campus to do that. The report seems to allege that there are no diversity efforts taking place. If you call anyone in my office involved with anything diversity, they will tell you that’s not the case.”

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