On March 31, 2016, an African American student at the University of Wisconsin who had been involved with #TheRealUW, a hashtag and advocacy group meant to bring awareness to minority experiences on campus, found a threatening letter laced with profanity and a racial epithet slipped under her dorm room door. Below lines of hate speech there were four lines, presumed to represent the four members of #TheRealUW featured in a prominent photo, with one line ominously crossed out.
The letter was the fifth hate incident over the course of roughly three months. Since January, different UW students had put swastikas and a picture of Adolf Hitler on a Jewish student’s dorm room door, made stereotypical “war chants” at Native Americans during a healing meeting for sexual assault survivors, harassed and spit on a First Wave scholar, graffiti depicting what appeared to be a lynching had appeared on a bathroom stall, and now there was a direct threat toward an African American student activist.
Anyone who knows anything about UW is aware it has what could be called a “diversity problem” . . . AKA our racial and ethnic minority enrollment is minimal. Looking at the most recent numbers from the Office of the Registrar, you’ll find UW’s total undergraduate minority population is around 15 percent of the student body and African American enrollment hovers around three percent. This is nowhere near representative of Wisconsin’s own African American demographics, a state which is hardly a beacon of diversity in the first place.
Anyone who attends UW is also aware of administrators’ ongoing efforts, however ineffectual, to remedy the issue. The university recently implemented a new 10-year diversity framework aimed at increasing minority representation and experience on campus. This framework is latest in a series of well-intentioned, UW administration-authored formal diversity plans dating back to the 1980s. In examining these plans, I hope to demonstrate that recent incidents are not a fluke but the latest addition to a decades-long struggle for minority representation and agency on UW’s campus, a struggle which has been exacerbated the administration’s desire to maintain appearances instead of enact tangible change. UW community members’ observations, deficiencies in the plans, and static diversity goals despite the passage of nearly 30 years serve as evidence for this assertion.
UW’s first formal diversity plan came in the form of the 1987 Holley Report. The plan’s goals included recruiting and retaining minority students, faculty, and staff, creating a multicultural center on campus, establishing a committee on racism and sexism, developing an orientation for minority students, and developing a six-credit ethnic studies requirement. While the Report acknowledged the need to improve individual minority experiences as well as the broader curriculum and representation, it could hardly be called comprehensive or wholly effectual.
The Report focused largely on improving the experiences of minorities but did little in the way of making their experiences a priority to the majority white, privileged population beyond a change to UW curriculum. Implicit in the Holley Plan is the idea that merely having more minority representation and six credits of cultural awareness for the entire, majority white population will solve the complex and multi-faceted issues of racism and implicit discrimination. This disconnect was compounded by the fact the Report was just that – a report. It was a list of recommendations issued to the administration, and the Report itself said that the administration lacked “commitment and active concern” toward minority populations:
[This lack of concern] translates itself into a multitude of fragmented, underfunded, understaffed, poorly monitored minority/disadvantaged programs, designed more to appease minority constituencies and outside reviewers than to excel in their assigned missions.
The 1988 Madison Plan, the Office of the Chancellor’s official response, took the Holley Report into consideration but also perpetuated the disconnect between the administration and the real needs of minority students. The additions of increased penalties for hate crimes on campus and financial aid was certainly a step forward and the overall sentiment of the Plan aimed to empower minorities, but the Plan exhibited vague language and excusatory statements. The Plan also echoed the Report’s major failing, saying, “The Madison Plan will work only if its goals are widely accepted by both minority and majority students,” without providing detailed or even preliminary strategies beyond the ethnic studies requirement for connecting the metaphorical minority-majority dots.
The principle behind the ethnic studies requirement is simple: beyond the need for academic knowledge about minority communities, all students require awareness of the racial realities of our country. If the white majority is ignorant to the fact that there are explicit and implicit racial issues within the country, state, and campus then change for marginalized groups is that much harder. The ethnic studies requirement, however limited, can be seen as a positive step toward engaging white students in a discussion which requires their participation. Even then, the ethnic studies requirement was only vaguely discussed in the Plan – a loose timeline was set for implementation in 1989. The exact credit amount was never established despite the Report’s explicit recommendation for a six-credit ethnic studies requirement. The administration eventually reduced it to the current three credit amount. This being said, the Plan did move forward with the development of the Multicultural Student Center, which is currently housed in the Red Gym. The Center has most certainly been a considerable resource for minority students and others in the fight to improve the racial climate on campus. It serves as an advising and advocacy service for students as well as a provider of education and open forums for marginalized communities.
20 years later, the UW administration unveiled “Madison Plan 2008.” Despite the passage of time, the goals of UW’s latest attempt at diversity remained almost completely static – increase minority representation in student enrollment, faculty, and staff, implement new qualitative programs for minorities and increase financial aid – but was the first time the campus as a whole was invited to participate. Despite being a 10-year initiative, Madison Plan 2008 was replaced by the current diversity framework “Affecting R.E.E.L. Change: Retain. Equip. Engage. Lead. For Diversity and Inclusion” in 2015. Many of the goals remain the same and campus diversity forums have become commonplace but in many ways UW has formally tried to change campus climate and practices for almost thirty years to no avail.
Perhaps the 1988 Madison Plan said it best when it stated, “We will know we are successful when leadership and governance of this university is shared by women and men of many ethnic and cultural backgrounds.” If the most recent numbers, and documented experiences of the minorities that are present, are any indication, UW has failed by its own standards.
Madeline is a junior majoring in Political Science, History, and Journalism. In addition to ARCHIVE, she serves as an Atlarge Member of The Badger Herald Editorial Board and interns at WisPolitics.com. Her historical research has ranged from World War II brides to conspiracy theories surrounding Planned Parenthood and eugenics. Ultimately, she hopes to have a career in political reporting or communications.