About Time?

The University of Oklahoma is one of the few institutions of its size without a chief diversity officer.

March 25, 2015

The speed and forcefulness with which David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, moved to punish members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon after they were caught singing a racist song this month earned the praise of many on campus and across the country, including President Obama. The following week, Boren drew similar praise for announcing that he would soon hire a vice president to oversee diversity and inclusion efforts on campus.

But the announcement also left some students with a lingering question: Why did it take Boren, who has been president of Oklahoma for two decades, so long to create a position that already exists in some form at hundreds of other colleges?

“We’re really excited that this is happening,” said BerThaddaeus Bailey, director of diversity for Oklahoma's Student Government Association. “We do wish that it would have happened yesterday, or the day before yesterday, or the day before that. You do have to ask, ‘When would the role have been announced had this situation not happened?’”

Oklahoma is one of only four institutions in the Big 12 Conference that does not have a chief diversity officer. The others are Baylor University and Texas Christian University -- two private, religious institutions that enroll half the number of students as Oklahoma -- and Iowa State University, which is in the midst of a months-long search for a chief diversity officer.

It’s a discrepancy that has not gone unnoticed by minority students on Oklahoma’s campus, particularly those who founded the student activist group Unheard. The organization received national attention this month after it aggressively publicized the leaked S.A.E. video and led student demonstrations on campus, but its members have advocated for institutional changes at Oklahoma for months.

Unheard, which began pushing for the creation of a chief diversity officer position in January and met with Boren about the idea, describes a campus that, while not often outwardly hostile, has "a tremendous lack of black cultural exposure," leaving black students feeling isolated from what the university calls the Sooner Experience.

Minority students are taught mostly by white faculty, the group says, and attend campus concerts that mostly feature white artists. The majority of players on the football and basketball teams are black, but they are cheered on by a sea of white fans -- including, apparently, students who can later be found singing about how those same players are more likely to be lynched than to join their fraternity. Black men make up 61 percent of Oklahoma's basketball and football teams, but only about 2 percent of the university's student population.

“Desegregated, but not integrated,” is how George Henderson, a professor emeritus of human relations at Oklahoma, has often described it; students of all races may be sharing a campus, but they're rarely interacting in a meaningful, equitable way. That's not to say that the university hasn't come a long way from when he first arrived there as a professor in the late 1960s. Before accepting the job at Oklahoma, Henderson was told by colleague to steer clear of this "small redneck school in a backwater state." The university had desegregated just 20 years earlier, the result of a historic Supreme Court case that was a precursor to Brown v. Board of Education.

Divorcing itself from that segregated past -- a history shared by many colleges but one that is especially pronounced at a flagship institution of a state whose entire southeastern corner is still called Little Dixie -- hasn’t always been easy or swift.

For 70 years, a chemistry building on campus was named after one of Oklahoma’s founding faculty members, Edwin DeBarr -- a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. DeBarr would go on to join the Klan’s “supreme advisory board” and become its national chaplain. Prolonged efforts in the 1980s finally persuaded the Board of Trustees to rename the building.

Today, about 5 percent of Oklahoma’s students are black. It's a low number, but not worse than most institutions in states with small black populations -- less than 8 percent of Oklahoma's population is black. What concerns some current and former university employees is how the number has remained largely stagnant for a decade, following large gains made in the 1990s and early 2000s. (Also of concern is the dwindling number of Native Americans, which account for 4 percent of students, but 9 percent of the state's population.)

They partly blame the lull on the university’s decision to consolidate the varying student services that once catered to specific student groups -- including African-American students, American Indian and Alaska Native students, and students with disabilities -- into a Center for Student Life.

In the early 2000s, a unit once called minority recruitment services became a new entity called diversity enrichment programs. A university spokesman said the change was made as part of an effort to increase the “breadth and scope” of minority recruitment services. Since then, the number of Hispanic students has doubled and there has also been an increase in the number of Asian and international students. The newer division's sparse webpage includes several dead links informing students that they have “taken a wrong turn.”

In 2013, the University of Oklahoma announced it was hiring a director of diversity research initiatives, to the excitement of some on campus, who interpreted the position as being a diversity or minority recruitment officer. By the time the position was filled, however, the title had been changed to director of broader impacts and research.

The position was never supposed to act as a diversity officer or as a director of minority recruitment, said Kelvin Droegemeier, vice president of research at Oklahoma. Instead, it was created to help "accomplish diversity and inclusion goals" specifically related to faculty and university research. The name change, Droegemeier said, was meant to portray that while diversity was still part of the job description, the job was actually broader than that. "It doesn’t take the focus off diversity," he said. "It just puts focus on other things, in addition to diversity."

Oklahoma has also struggled with the recruitment of minority faculty. None of the university’s 35 deans are black, and 33 are white. Only 4 of its 396 full professors are black, and 304 are white. Out of 1,531 full-time faculty members, 32 are black and 1,023 are white.

Corbin Wallace, Boren’s press secretary, said the university hopes the new chief diversity officer can help address many of the disparities listed above.  

“The vice president for the university community position will have oversight over all diversity programs within the university, including admissions,” Wallace said. “The vice president will also be kept completely informed by the Office of Student Affairs of all activities aimed at making campus life more inclusive. The vice president will also work with the president and with the deans to broaden the pool of applicants for faculty and staff positions.”

If the university needed evidence showing the effect that hiring a chief diversity officer can have on minority recruitment, it needed to look no farther than its in-state rival, Oklahoma State University. By most measures, Oklahoma State has trailed behind the University of Oklahoma in diversity efforts. But after hiring a chief diversity officer in 2006, O.S.U. saw black enrollment increase by 46 percent. The number of black students at Oklahoma State still remains quite low, however -- about 4.5 percent of students identify as black or African-American.

But simply increasing minority recruitment isn't a sure way of increasing inclusiveness, and chief diversity officers aren't a cure-all. In 2010, students at the University of California at San Diego created a similar firestorm to that at Oklahoma when they held a racist party called the Compton Cookout. Invites to the event promised that watermelon and malt liquor would be served. At the time, just 2 percent of the university's population was black, though nearly 7 percent of the state's population is black. All this, despite the university having a chief diversity officer.

While not a panacea, a chief diversity officer does at least help make sure diversity issues have a consistent presence in administrative decisions, not just in committee meetings or at student demonstrations after a racist incident happens, said Benjamin Reese, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education and the vice president of institutional equity at Duke University.

"In addition to everyone having diversity as their responsibility, it’s critical to have a senior-level experienced administrator who works full time with the president and other senior leaders to develop and execute a strategic path to enhancing diversity and inclusion," Reese said. "You need someone with that experience."

The university declined to explain why exactly it had not created such a position until now. During a press conference the day after the S.A.E. video appeared online, however, Boren discussed how the incident had served as a wake-up call of sorts.

When he began his presidency 20 years ago, Boren recalled, he was greeted by a Native American student staging a hunger strike on the steps of his new office. The strike was in protest of the university’s tepid response to fraternity members recently desecrating a tepee during a vigil.

When Boren walked around campus in those early years, he said, he still sometimes heard students casually making offensive "comments about gender preference or race,” prompting him to tell his staff that the university needed “to get to work to create a community where that doesn’t happen.”

As time went on, Boren heard less and less of those comments, he said, leaving him with the assumption that such blatant racism was no longer occurring at the University of Oklahoma. The racist song -- and the ease and glee with which its lyrics tumbled from the mouths of Oklahoma students -- has challenged that belief, he said.

Boren is not shocked to see incidents like this still happen in the United States, he said, but he thought such behavior on his particular campus was “unthinkable.”

“I truly felt that all the efforts we made under the last many years so changed what was acceptable,” Boren said. “That at Oklahoma, it had become unacceptable to be intolerant or to be a bigot, to be racist, to be prejudiced about someone’s religion or anything else. I thought we were beyond all that. I thought that was something from several decades ago. It’s like dashing cold water on your face.”

Bailey, the student government diversity director, said that many white students and administrators seem to have trouble fully seeing the “plague that is systemic racism and discrimination” on college campuses until an incident such as the S.A.E. video occurs.

“Whatever it takes to wake you up is what it’s going to take,” he said. “And that’s what it took.”

Carl Straumsheim contributed to this article.


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