As a freshman at the University of Minnesota four years ago, I remember my eagerness for the opportunities offered to me as an underprivileged student. Between the services at the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence and the cultural centers in Coffman Union, I found my niche, despite the general lack of campus diversity.
Now as a fourth-year student of color and a first-generation college student, I’m frustrated with my university. This is because in the past 10 years, the opportunities minorities need to succeed have been defunded, devalued and deprioritized. Diversity at this university is in a crisis, and it’s less about tough economic times than it is about the Bruininks administration’s flawed priorities and poor decision making.
In recent years, it has been clear that strategic positioning isn’t working. In the name of excellence and efficiency, strategic positioning has justified slashing essential diversity programs while paying lip service to diversity. Mentioning diversity as a “top priority” means nothing and ignores the fact that this university disinvests in students of color.
A university doesn’t fulfill its promise of serving the best interests of its low-income students when students have to spend $500 on textbooks a semester and take out thousands of dollars in loans a year. In addition to those financial burdens, immigrant, low-income and first-generation students like me don’t feel supported when we hear the U Promise scholarship is ending next year. It was the main source of funding many of us received besides the Pell Grant. It was a main reason I could afford to attend this public university in the first place.
The University did not value its diversity when it decided to defund the Bridge Program and the Multicultural Excellence Program — previously known as the Minority Encouragement Program. Bridge mentored minority freshmen and provided TRiO services for equal access to education.
MEP, which was offered through MCAE, guaranteed well-performing minority high school students funds to cover college tuition and encouraged them to attend higher education. Both it and Bridge were essential to the retention rates of minorities, which tend to be low because these students must work harder to overcome systemic racial economic barriers rooted in the K-12 education system. These are challenges white students don’t have to face.
MEP and Bridge provided students with the financial aid, mentorship and community needed for minorities on an otherwise exclusionary and exclusive campus.
Furthermore, the University isn’t multicultural. Its minority students still have to go to Coffman Union’s second floor to find those around whom they feel comfortable.
We are tired of looking around in our classes and not seeing the diversity and multiculturalism the admissions office brags about in its deceivingly colorful recruitment brochures. Most of us also feel our collective narratives, histories and identities are not respected and valued here. This is demonstrated when administrators talk about restructuring the historical communities of our cultural centers and merging our ethnic studies departments.
Diversity should be about preserving and enhancing our communities and collective memories, not consolidating or removing what little we have. Although administrators may not see it this way, it’s structural racism and neglect to assume that in times of crisis, students and faculty of color must willingly consolidate our distinct communities, spaces and academic programs in the name of “excellence” and “efficiency.”
It’s collective amnesia when we forget that the African American and African, Chicano, Asian American, and American Indian studies programs came out of historical experiences of struggle for students of color; none of those programs would exist today without this past.
It’s also collective amnesia when the University fails to institutionalize the memories of the historic struggles and racial overtones of the closure of the General College in 2004. The college was responsible for admitting mostly urban, minority and low-income students and it served as a transitionary college for students who had potential but didn’t meet the University’s academic or testing standards.
Driven by the Bruininks administration’s obsession with metrics and rankings, the Board of Regents justified the closure of the college, which, by 2004, admitted 65 percent of incoming African-American and 43 percent of Chicano/Latino students. Six years later, the black admission rate is at 45 percent and the number of Hispanic students is the lowest in the Big Ten. This is no coincidence.
Studies show minority students apply to college and excel when they have financial and moral support and a sense of community. All of these were taken away when the University closed the General College.
Administrators need to understand that experiences can’t be standardized and passed through efficiency tests and metric profiles. Mentorship, community and alternative histories inherently cannot be measured by the standards strategic positioning requires.
Thus, the University’s goal to be a world-class research institution directly conflicts with its public land-grant mission.
Administrators must realize that in times of financial crisis, they should invest in programs for minority students. We’re the future of this state, yet we’re also the most vulnerable.
We’re tired of this administration’s disingenuous use of the word “diversity.” We’re tired of being mere poster children. We don’t want to be a priority when it’s politically convenient and devalued every time there are financial issues. We are tired of empty promises.
Last December, President-elect Eric Kaler said he would make diversity a top goal. Come July, we underrepresented students are going to hold him accountable to that promise.