Chase Portaro (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In March, The Grizzly was allowed four hours of one-on-one interviews with three members of Ursinus’s adminstration: Dr. Heather Lobban-Viravong, Vice President of Inclusion and Community Engagement, Dr. Mark Schneider, the Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Shannon Zottola, Vice President of Enrollment. The lengthy conversations were prompted by a recent article outlining student criticism of Ursinus’s inclusion and diversity efforts on campus, which included comments from students Will McCoy ‘22 and Justin Best ‘24. Best explained, “This school [Ursinus] is for middle-to-upper class, suburban white people. Ursinus tries their best, but they aren’t doing enough.”
Part of the college’s initial response stated, “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. . . but we are committed to continuing to listen, respond, act, and evaluate.” The administration requested a deeper conversation with The Grizzly so readers could stay informed about the college’s plan to increase inclusion and equity for students of color.
Lobban-Viravong leads a new division created this year dedicated to diversity, equity, inclusion (DE&I), and community engagement efforts on campus. She said, “I’m certainly excited about the new division of Inclusion and Community Engagement. There are some opportunities for working with a team to continue doing the work that’s happening, and also finding opportunities for doing things a little differently.” Efforts around DE&I have been ongoing, but the new division now officially connects offices across campus.
One result of this cross-departmental work is the college’s implementation of a five-year enrollment plan. Zottola explained, “Within that plan, one of the goals is related to diversifying our student body.” This is an important answer, as Best and McCoy pointed to the underrepresentation of non-white students as one reason they feel out of place as Black students at Ursinus, but the college’s enrollment plan seeks to change that predominantly white culture and increase inclusion for those of other identities.
Putting that plan to action, Ursinus recently moved incoming students’ eligibility for the Gateway Scholarship from test-based to test-optional. The scholarship reduces students’ cost of attendance by nearly half, and its basis in standardized tests, according to Zottola, “was problematic for a lot of reasons.” She said, “We know, as professional educators, that standardized tests really disadvantage students of color.” Zottola pointed out the access to test-preparation resources that privileged students, and most often white students, have compared to their less advantaged counterparts. This policy contributed to the racial imbalance at Ursinus, but since the change, Zottola said, “We’ve seen a big increase in our Gateway-eligible students. . . And a huge percentage of those were students of color, which tells you that we were providing a financial barrier by having our premier scholarship be based solely on test scores.”
Reevaluating scholarship policy is just one way to ensure the financial realities of attendance do not create barriers for marginalized students. Zottola said, “Being able to attract students from different economic backgrounds hinges upon our ability to effectively communicate what we are doing here to support them.” “I think what a small school can do is get really individualized in our approach to supporting students all the way through.”
Ursinus’s small size may offer some advantages, but it still boasts an expensive ticket price of $72,000. Unlike some colleges, Ursinus does not meet full financial need demonstrated by disadvantaged students. Zottola pointed out other drawbacks of Ursinus’s size, “There are many schools that have better statistics and better demographics when it comes to diversity. . . And sometimes it’s hard for institutions like Ursinus to compete with that.” She added, “I think we’ve been really clear in the administration that we have work to do, but we are doing that work.”
Part of that work is Ursinus’s summer bridge program, The Crigler Program for Student Success. Named after the first Black graduate of Ursinus, the Crigler Program aims to ease the college transition for students of historically marginalized backgrounds by giving them the opportunity to take a four-credit summer class and get a taste of campus-life before their first semester. Zottola said, “The program is unique in what it is, how it is structured, and what it aims to accomplish.”
Outside of enrollment efforts, Schneider points to other hopeful endeavors that seek to increase conversation around DE&I topics on campus. “I’m optimistic for the Conversations About and Across Difference series, which actually we’ve been doing for five years.” The series is a weekly conversation over lunch that invites students and faculty to discuss topics surrounding diverse identities at Ursinus and how the college can improve its relationship with students from marginalized backgrounds.
The Common Intellectual Experience is another way Ursinus seeks to emphasize conversations about inclusion on campus. Schneider explained, “What we are trying to do is institute things that help our students grow from where they were in the beginning to where they are in the end, and we want that to affect all of our students.”
Regardless of incoming students’ preconceived notions of complex social issues, the CIE curriculum creates an environment where students can share some ‘common’ ground in those difficult conversations. Schneider said, “Just last night, I went to see the production of Sweat, which is part of the CIE curriculum, and it’s exceptionally provocative. . . So they’re going to come into CIE with their own narrow perspectives that we want to open up.” “Part of the reason we teach some of the controversial material is for everyone’s benefit. This should be a wake up call to students who come from privileged backgrounds as much as it is an affirmation. . . for those students who come from minority backgrounds.”
But regardless of differences within the CIE classroom, Schneider said, “There also could be some real benefits in terms of building the level of trust and understanding with one another.” These difficult conversations also help build trust between faculty and students. Schneider continued, “One of the things that makes a huge difference for the faculty and the academic program is actually CIE. . . Nobody is an expert. Everyone is humbled by the breadth of challenging material.”
CIE may place the student and professor in the same boat while navigating those difficult conversations, but students might be reluctant to believe it’s a comprehensive answer to increasing student-faculty rapport. 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.”
Lobban-Viravong said, “What the institution represents in terms of its values. . . is attractive to faculty. . . But when it comes to thinking about how you live day to day, sometimes that is a barrier — just knowing that you might be the minority within the population.” The college has identified ways to increase diversity lacking in the current faculty, which according to CollegeFactual.com, is made up of 89.56% professors who identify as white.
Schneider explained, “One thing that will help make this a place where faculty of color will feel like they want to be is if the college in the search process from the very beginning communicates that this is an institution that’s committed to inclusion.” Schneider also emphasized the visibility of current faculty of different backgrounds working together. He said, “When prospective faculty who may identify as people of color see people of color on the faculty who are already working in partnership with other faculty members who are white -– that makes the campus more attractive.”
These efforts certainly aim to show prospective faculty that Ursinus is committed to DE&I efforts, but Schneider identified the disadvantage of Ursinus’ size in recruiting a diverse pool of professors. He said, “The competition for talented faculty of color in higher education is great.” He recalled one faculty member who left Ursinus because they were offered “a salary increase that was just way beyond what we could possibly afford, with a lower teaching load at a higher ranked institution. It’s hard to say ‘No’ to that.” Ursinus’s size may offer an opportunity of specialized communication in its commitment to DE&I, but its limited resources as a smaller institution prevents it from being competitive among other colleges in attracting faculty members of diverse identities.
As Ursinus continues to grow, it continues to learn more about bridging those gaps that have historically disadvantaged some of its students, particularly students of color. Zottola explained, “There is absolutely room left to improve upon what we’re doing. I think we’re very upfront as an institution that we have work to do.” Schneider concluded, “You have to recognize we’re going to make some efforts, and some of them are going to fail. Some of them are going to take a long time to really get off the ground.”