A 'Chilly Climate' on Campus

Colleges have never been more diverse, but that doesn't mean minorities feel safe and welcomed on campuses. A new report describes a subtly hostile environment for women and students of color.

January 8, 2015

Women and students of color continue to encounter psychologically damaging racism and sexism on college campuses, creating a climate where students struggle to graduate and are unsure who to turn to for help.

That’s according to an article published this week based on the findings of Harvard University’s Voices of Diversity project. The report is based on the interview and online survey responses of more than 200 students across four institutions – Missouri State University; two anonymous public institutions in the South and the Midwest; and a private, elite university in the Northeast.

Since the 1970s, the percentage of students on predominantly white campuses who are black has grown from 10 to 13 percent. The representation of Hispanic students on those campuses has grown from 4 to 12, and the percentage of Asian and Pacific Islander students has grown from 2 to 7 percent. Women now account for 57 percent of the collective student bodies at those institutions.  At the same time, graduation rates for African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students are much lower than for other populations, and women account for only about one-third of full-time professors.

"Simply changing the representation of various groups does not in and of itself ensure that the experiences of racial/ethnic minority and women students are as positive as those of their white and male counterparts," the authors wrote. "Since institutional change tends to be slow, one cannot assume that increases in numbers of students of color have been accompanied by adequate changes in what has been called the 'chilly climate' for students of color and for women in undergraduate populations at predominantly white institutions."

The bulk of the incidents described in the report are what social scientists call "microaggressions." While these insults are more covert than blatant forms of racism and sexism, the actions cause prolonged doubt and stress, leaving students questioning their place on campus and whether they belong. The incidents not only hurt and offend, but often also lead to a student wondering how much “one can trust one’s own judgment,” the authors wrote.

“People who are [the targets of microaggression] spend a great deal of time in internal dialogue, asking themselves whether they imagined or misinterpreted what the other person said or did and, given the less blatant form of mistreatment, feeling apprehension and anguish about whether, if they try to name and object to what was done to them, they will only be told that they are overly sensitive or even that they are imagining it,” the authors said.

One South Asian-American woman recalled another student asking her if she’s carrying a bomb in her backpack. When she responded angrily, the student scolded her for not getting that it was a “joke.” An African-American senior at an elite, private institution said students – particularly white women – often express surprise that he is a student there or act afraid of him. A Native American student at the same university said that during a pow-wow organized by native students on campus, a man was shocked to learn that Native Americans attended the institution.

A Latino student said that, while hanging up posters in a dormitory, a white student mistook him for a custodian. Several black students reported instances where security officers were called to campus events, libraries, and even their own residences, because other students didn’t believe the black students were actually students at the university and assumed they were there to cause trouble. A Latina senior named Gladys described feeling “overwhelming emotion” when faced with racist and sexist incidents, then feeling weak because she isn’t sure how to react.

“I go nuts, I do,” she said. “It hurts so much, so much. It’s indescribable the way it makes you feel. Your whole body becomes hot and your eyes automatically become glassy, because you just feel so inferior.”

Students, particularly women, also reported not feeling welcome in the classroom. They reported faculty and classmates saying demeaning things about their intelligence or professors calling on women far less than on men during discussions. A dearth of female instructors and women featured in course materials left female students feeling unwelcome, they said. They also reported feeling unsafe on campus, providing specific examples of harassment, sexual assault, and rape. Groping wasn’t uncommon at parties and social clubs, women said.

Many women said that male students, even those who tended not to make racist statements, seemed to feel comfortable making sexist jokes in their company. While there were more instances of sexism than racism reported by students, the authors wrote, the participants were more likely to consider race-based rather than sex-based actions to be serious problems. Some students said they had accepted sexist actions as an unfortunate but “normal part of life.”

“Because of the nature of students’ experiences of sexism and racism on campus,” the authors concluded, “it is essential for university administrators to pay close and intense attention to the suffering that results from mistreatment and to take steps to change the chilliness of the climate for women and students of color."

The Voices of Diversity project, which aimed to "develop a picture of how stereotype threat and microaggressions" affect women and students of color, was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and directed by Paula Caplan, an associate at Harvard's DuBois Institute. Henry Louis Gates Jr., and the Educational Testing Service's Michael Nettles served as the project's principal investigators.


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