Keeping our promises on diversity and inclusion

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on our campus in 1965, he made the following observation: “We find ourselves standing on the threshold of the most creative period in the development of race relations in the history of our nation.”

Dr. King was referring to the end of legal segregation. He spoke those words not long after James Meredith was denied admission to the University of Mississippi because of the color of his skin. Federal troops were sent in to uphold Mr. Meredith’s right to receive an education.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we can take pride in the growing diversity of our nation’s population and in the strides – legal, economic, and social – that we’ve made in this country. But we also acknowledge that there is still much work to do.

As I hope you know, people across campus have been working hard to make this community a more inclusive environment. Here’s some of what we’ve accomplished during the fall:

  • About 1,000 new students took part this fall in Our Wisconsin, a new community-building program that aims to equip students with the skills to live and work effectively as part of a diverse campus. Planning is under way to enhance and expand it for the 2017-18 academic year.
  • In November, more than 8,500 students ­– 20 percent of our student body ­– completed our first-ever campus climate survey, a project called for in our Diversity Framework. Results are being analyzed this semester and by summer we’ll be discussing any following actions that these survey results might identify.
  • House Fellows are receiving more in-depth training on communication, counseling, leadership and cross-cultural awareness. This began in August and will continue this spring and through 2017-18.
  • University Health Services now offers expanded services thanks to two new staff members focusing on campus outreach, particularly to under-served student groups, and another who specializes in the needs of students of color.
  • We appointed a Community Advisory Committee, composed of representatives from multiple local community groups. This committee has met twice this fall and is a source of advice for us on diversity issues, as well as a means to communicate campus issues and concerns back to key Madison-area groups.

Meanwhile, a number of initiatives are moving forward over the coming spring and summer.  Here are some efforts you’ll be hearing more about in the near future:

  • A ceremony in February will mark the opening of the Black Cultural Center in the Red Gym. Students, staff and faculty are guiding renovations to the space and planning programming and activities. Stay tuned for more details.
  • Learning Communities for Institutional Change and Excellence will expand this year, enabling a partnership with Undergraduate Advising to build our capacity for culturally responsive advising.
  • We are developing expanded training for TAs to help them deal more effectively with diverse classrooms. We will be rolling this out in our TA training sessions this coming summer.
  • A review of ethnic studies courses is under way to ensure our current curriculum fits the mission of the Ethnic Studies requirement. A report and recommendations will go to the University Academic Planning Council by summer.
  • The College of Letters and Sciences has redeveloped and expanded a course, Introduction to Comparative U.S. Ethnic and American Indian Studies, as a collaboration among the four ethnic/indigenous studies units. Funding from the Provost’s Office during the fall supported the redevelopment and expanded enrollment, to 144 students this spring. Through this collaboration, the course seeks to convey the full texture of the experience of people of color and Native people in the U.S. and to give students a sense of how race and ethnicity are at the center of the American experience.
  • The School of Education is developing training to help faculty better engage in classroom discussions of diversity and inclusion.
  • I have asked all units across campus to engage in some form of discussion and training on issues of inclusion and diversity. I plan to ask deans and other campus leaders to report back on what their units have done over the year and what these conversations did (or didn’t) accomplish.  I then hope to challenge campus leaders to think about next steps for their units in the following year.

These actions build on steps we’ve taken over the past several years that have improved recruitment and retention of students of color and expanded need-based aid.  Among the outcomes that have improved:

  • Over the last decade, we’ve gone from 11 percent students of color to 15 percent.
  • We’ve gone from 15 percent faculty of color to nearly 20 percent.
  • Our retention rate (freshmen returning for sophomore year) is now above 95 percent among both historically underrepresented students and all other students – we’ve closed the retention gap that used to exist.
  • Graduation rates among all of our students have been increasing, but they are increasing faster among historically underrepresented students, which means we’ve made substantial progress on the graduation gap as well. Last spring we were cited as a university that has made some of the best progress in reducing graduation gaps.

As I have said in multiple settings, becoming a more welcoming and inclusive campus requires long-term engagement in a process of self-evaluation and change.  This is not something that happens easily or quickly in some cases.  Like many others, we have experienced setbacks. But I have appreciated the depth of commitment throughout the institution.

Thanks to all of you who are working to make this a better campus for students, staff, and faculty.  Let’s keep at it!