When a black UMD freshman entered a study lounge at an on-campus apartment building last spring, she thought she was free of judgment. She soon realized that wasn’t the case. “I’ve been in racist situations but not as bad as this one where I was feeling unsafe and uncomfortable,” the student said in April.
There were two other female students in the study lounge that night—both white and both posting racist comments about the black student on Facebook.
That event led to a formal complaint and disciplinary action. It also led to more than 300 students speaking out against racism at a public campus event. Sentiments last spring were fragile as the campus and community gathered to heal. It seemed hopeful that events last spring would end racism on campus, or at least prevent it from happening as often.
Since the start of fall semester, however, four complaints have been reported to the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO), two dealing with racial discrimination.
On Dec. 10, 2010, an undisclosed student complained about a group of students citing racial harassment and threats of bodily harm, according to Director of Human Resources Judith Karon. The student complainant did not want the OEO to conduct an official investigation so no disciplinary action occurred.
A similar complaint was reported the next day when a student complained about an employee, citing racial discrimination. That complaint was resolved without an investigation. Details on both complaints have not been made public.
Most complaints fielded by the OEO are referred from Susana Woodward, director of the UMD Office of Cultural Diversity. For Woodward to refer a complaint, she said there has to be a person to complain about. So not all concerns can be dealt with.
Vandalized cultural diversity posters, racist and homophobic writing in bathroom stalls and derogatory comments in the hallway are all concerns that Woodward fields but can’t refer to the OEO for official investigation.
“The problem is that racism exists, but sometimes it’s very subtle,” Woodward said.
Aside from the two complaints this year, Woodward has met with three students that had similar concerns about racism on campus but couldn’t pinpoint a culprit. Therefore the situations went unnoticed. But with the help of the UMD administration, things might change.
The university recently purchased the student behavior management software, Maxient. A feature on this software allows for multiple levels of incident reporting, so the smaller incidents can now be documented and tracked over time.
Vice Chancellor of Academic Support and Student Life Jackie Millslagle said the new software is just now being used in the student conduct office and residence life. Next week, staff that deals with behavior issues will meet for the first time to become oriented with the new software.
It’s possible that in the future students will be able to file their own complaints online, but for now, all data entered into the new system will come from faculty.
The new system is part of Chancellor Lendley Black’s initiative to foster diversity on campus. On Oct. 7, Black sent an e-mail to UMD faculty and staff introducing a new organizational structure that will “advance social justice values of inclusion, equity and diversity.”
The new structure includes a Leadership Change Group and Campus Change Team that worked to create a model to set Chancellor Black’s initiative into motion.
While UMD administrators are working on improving the campus climate with the implementation of the Change Team and new behavior management software like Maxient, students on campus are doing their part too.
Amy Lee, a member of the Black Student Association (BSA), said racism happens every day. She said she hasn’t seen change but is working to make it happen.
Along with other BSA members, Lee is organizing a faculty panel event on campus during African Week (March 21-25). She said the event would combine faculty members from UMD and St. Scholastica who are part of a minority group. The event would allow students to hear first-hand-accounts of minorities in higher education. Dates on the event have not been set.
And if you step into the multicultural center, each cubicle is decorated to honor black history month. Lee said that decorations not only paid tribute to famous minority leaders but also provided education for those passing through this February.
There has been “a lot of talk,” Lee said, but not much action. With a little luck and a lot of hard work from campus administrators, that could change this year.