Chase Portaro (email@example.com)
Black History Month celebrates the traditionally overlooked narratives of Black people throughout history. Ursinus hosted several educational seminars and community conversations last month promoting awareness of Black contributions to culture in America, but February should also be a time to reflect on the progress that is yet to be made by institutions like Ursinus.
Ursinus views diversity as a core value, but that ideal is not reflected in the experiences of some Black students on campus. Justin Best ‘24 spoke bluntly, “Honestly, I really think the school could do more for Black and Brown students.” Will McCoy ‘22 said, “What I really see on this campus is that people are all about talk. Conversation without action leads to no results, and that’s where we’re at – no results. They talk about inclusion and equity, yet I’ve been here for four years, and there hasn’t been any change.”
Best explained, “I don’t want to see my people just hired as cooking and cleaning employees. They’re great people, but that’s the only way I see my people represented at this school. Have you ever seen a Black president at this school? Why do you think that is?”
He makes an important point. According to CollegeFactual.com, 89.56% of Ursinus professors identify as white. McCoy explained, “You can’t say this school is diverse if you don’t have a diverse faculty. Students come to this school, and if they don’t see a representation of themselves, they won’t think there is anything here for them. … “Black people need to see, so they can aspire to become.”
Best also pointed to a social divide within the student body, which as a whole in 2020, is made up of 76.9% white-identifying students and only 7% of Black-identifying students, as reported by NCES (National Center for Education Statistics). “When the school lacks Black and Brown students on campus and we feel underrepresented in the school in terms of faculty, you don’t fit in as much.” He specified, “It’s almost segregated, if you aren’t white, or you don’t adapt to their version of a white person, you won’t hang out with many people.” A similar sentiment was expressed in the Ursinus Weekly way back in 1974, in an article titled, “Can a Black Man Find Happiness at Ursinus? Well, . . .”., in which author Nate Dupree explores how his identity as a black man made it tough for him to fit in here. After nearly 50 years, students still search for an answer to Nate DuPree’s question.
McCoy believes Black representation should go beyond faculty and students. He said, “I want Ursinus to start reaching out to more graduate programs at historically black colleges, especially ones with mental health degrees because they definitely need more black mental health advocates here. They need more minorities in general.”
Back in 1974, when DuPree gave an interview to the school’s newspaper about his experience as a Black man on this campus, he offered a challenge to Ursinus. “Reset the standards. Change the ‘Ivory Tower’ situation that exists on campus. I don’t think that the whole world is upper-middle class white, but that is what the campus is.”
Looking through a similar but unique lens as a Black student at Ursinus today, Best echoed Dupree’s 1974 comment. He said, “This school is for middle-to-upper class, suburban white people. Ursinus tries their best, but they aren’t doing enough.”
The racial disparity of Ursinus’s student population contributes to the social disconnect some Black students feel on campus, but McCoy points to policies that add to this sense. McCoy observed that the African-American affinity group has “the smallest house on this campus,” Cloake House, and another space, Reimert 100, which McCoy describes as “not much bigger than a dorm room.” “If a student wanted to party in a larger space, they would have to get permission from another house that could host them. How is that not a problem?”
When the Grizzly reached out to Ursinus for comment, we received a response from Dr. Heather Lobban-Viravong, Ursinus’s Vice President for Inclusion and Community Engagement, enumerating numerous measures Ursinus takes to promote diversity, including aspects of its curriculum, campus activities, and faculty recruitment. She also wrote, “We do not imagine that we have come close to fixing the problems of discrimination or inclusion at Ursinus, as they are tied to our national society and the nation’s tragic history of slavery, genocide, discrimination, but we are committed to continuing to listen, respond, act, and evaluate. … The initiatives we have developed over the past half-decade are substantial.”
We have invited Dr. Lobban-Viravong to discuss this further with us for future articles, or submit her own op-ed, because we want to focus this piece on student voices.
Black History Month is certainly a time to celebrate Black achievement in America, but it should also be a moment for colleges to reflect on what else they can do to improve students’ college experience. Ursinus is a liberal arts institution that promotes itself as a diverse campus in advertisements and brochures. It’s time we make that image a reality at a school-wide level, which starts by not only making Ursinus a more diverse campus, but also making it more welcoming to people of color. As McCoy put it, “We can talk about inclusion and equity all day long, but if we don’t apply action behind our words, the same thing that’s happened will continue to occur.”
Best concluded, “At the end of the day, we all graduate in four years. The college encourages us to donate to them, but what experience are they giving us to make that worth it? And don’t get me wrong, the education is great, but there is so much more to school than education.” Best is absolutely correct, a student’s college experience is so much more than just a classroom, and it’s time Ursinus starts treating it as such.