Administrators, students: More can be done to make MCLA more inclusive

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NORTH ADAMS — Diversity is certainly advertised on the campus of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

There are flyers on bulletin boards for Gallery 51's new exhibit, "SPECTRUM: Exploring Gender Identification," and this week's Hardman Lecture with Latina journalist Maria Hinojosa. There also is an article in The Beacon student newspaper about the African Student Association's new "Afro Dance Class with Marg."

But does that mean the college is doing enough to make sure all students feel welcome, supported and represented on campus?

College administrators and students say no. While recent strides have been made to diversify everything from curricula to campus activities, they say there's still a long way to go in making the college and the city it resides in more inclusive.

MCLA issued a news release Sept. 26 about being identified as one of the top public institutions in the state and the nation "for serving black students well."

The ranking comes from a new report from the University of Southern California's Race and Equity Center that includes both letter grades, A through F, and what's known as equity index scores for four-year institutions. The report is based on data from the Census Bureau and the national Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, better known as IPEDS.

Researchers examined 506 public institutions across 50 states, looking at the enrollment of black students, the ratio of black students to black faculty members, and graduation rates for black students, comparing them with overall enrollment, faculty employment and graduates for each public institution.

With an average score of 2.8, Massachusetts had the highest equity index ranking of all states. MCLA, along with the University of Louisville and the University of California-San Diego, achieved the top equity index score of 3.5.

While MCLA's total enrollment dipped from 1,538 in fall 2013 to 1,444 in fall 2017, the college maintained an average of 9 percent African-American students over the five years. According to the USC report, MCLA earned As for demonstrating equity in black student representation and completion on campus, and Bs for showing gender equity and black-student-to-black-faculty ratio.

Of an estimated 900,000 black public college undergrads, the study found that, for various reasons, only 39 percent of black students completed bachelor's degrees at public institutions within six years of starting, compared with about 51 percent of undergraduates overall.

Researchers Shaun R. Harper and Isaiah Simmons say they hope the report can help "make inequities more transparent and to equip anyone concerned about enrollment, success and college completion rates for Black students with numbers they can use to demand corrective policies and institutional actions."

At the start of the current school year, Gina Puc, dean of enrollment management and community relations at MCLA, told The Eagle that the Class of 2022 represents the most ethnically diverse class in the college's history. Of its 275 members, 30 percent come from "under-represented backgrounds," including African-Americans, Asians, Latin Americans and Native Americans, among other groups.

But some MCLA students say there's still a visibly noticeable enrollment gap — not just among black students, but across students of color being represented in classrooms.

On Friday, first-year student Jeremiah Figueroa was winding down his afternoon in the college's campus center cafeteria with a group of his classmates, including Aliza Gonzalez, Alyna Cubilete, Jose Perez and Erick Zorrilla. All are from the Springfield area, with the exception of Perez, who is from Somerville.

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Figueroa said he had just come from a business class, during which the professor struck up a conversation about social justice, mass incarceration and disproportionate rates of imprisonment across racial profiles.

"When he brought it up, it was so awkward. Only three people in the class were nonwhite," he said.

The conversation, Figueroa said, also expanded to issues with gender and male privilege. While he said he enjoyed the fact that the topics were being brought up in class, he felt there was a lack of context and representation of different voices on the subjects, making the students of color, for example, feel singled out.

Asked what the term "diversity" meant to them, Gonzalez said "different cultures."

"People who look like me," Perez responded.

Said Cubilete: "It's not just about race — it's about sexuality, orientation and other backgrounds, too."

Gonzalez said she likes MCLA so far and has found activities like the NeXXus Step Team to take part in. But she and the rest of the group said they hope to be able to find a range of opportunities and activities in the North Adams community, too.

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MCLA student trustee Eva Marie Weeks is a senior studying across multiple fields, including business administration and economics. She said that while campus has grown more diverse across multiple areas since her freshman year, "in classrooms, sometimes I only see one person of color."

"I'm a student of color, half-black, half-white," said Weeks, who enrolled at MCLA from neighboring East Nassau, N.Y.

Weeks said the school's statistics on diversity — "that's just a number to us."

When she looks around campus, she said, there are imbalances in representation. In her own experience, she is the president of the NeXXus Step Team at the school, which is predominantly made up of black students, but she sits on the college's predominantly white board of trustees.

Weeks said that while the campus can make the efforts to create multicultural campus posters and materials or bring in speakers from a variety of backgrounds, the most important thing to her is seeing meaningful relationships develop between students and faculty and staff across all demographics. This includes, she said, administrators asking students whether certain diversity, equity and inclusion programs or policies might work for them.

And while they might be busy, she also said she' woul like to see faculty and trustees show up and participate in more student-run events beyond athletic events.

"[The college is] trying to be inclusive, but at the same time it's pushing it so hard," Weeks said.

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She cautioned that, while well-intentioned, colleges when touting campus diversity can inadvertently make students feel more like marketing tools and less like sought-after scholars.

"If we're trying to be a school that's inclusive for all genders, colors and orientations, the process needs to be more natural and not as forced," Weeks said.

When the USC Race and Equity Center report came out, MCLA President James Birge credited the campus's faculty and staff for a collective commitment to creating a more inclusive environment on campus.

But, he said, "MCLA is not an institution defined by students' statistics. Rather, we are an institution defined by students' stories, and for too many students, this ranking does not reflect their stories."

Birge said that attracting, retaining and graduating more students on time across populations is a key priority for the college.

Christopher MacDonald-Dennis has been the college's chief diversity officer for the past seven months and initially reacted to the USC report by saying, "While we are thrilled to be recognized for the steps we have taken to create an equitable campus, we see this recognition as a call to action and further impetus for infusing diversity, equity, and inclusion in everything we do."

MacDonald-Dennis told The Eagle that addressing diversity, equity and inclusion is more than a matter of black and white.

He said that using data like that from the USC report in tandem with internal data and other indicators is important in helping to explain to faculty and other administrators what successes students are having and what challenges they face.

For example, he said, if 26 percent of a campus includes students of color, then a college's honors program should include a similar proportion of students of color. If it doesn't, it might send officials a red flag that the college stands to better support students of color in reaching a higher level of academic achievement.

Already in action, the campus — in a regional partnership with Berkshire Community College and Pittsfield Public Schools — began work this year with a state pilot program to develop a local MassTeach model to diversify the pool of quality educators well-prepared to teach in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math in high-need school districts.

In other next steps, MCLA will, on Nov. 8, hold its inaugural "MCLA Day of Dialogue: Complicating Race," a day during which classes will be put on pause in order to allow students and faculty to take part in discussions across campus about how to improve culture and climate there.

The grande finale, so to speak, will be an evening public presentation by author, journalist and comic book writer Ta-Nehisi Coates at 7 p.m. in the MCLA Campus Center Gym. At this Michael S. and Kitty Dukakis Public Policy Lecture, Coates will talk about his book, "Between the World and Me," which was assigned reading for first-year MCLA students.

"It's tough work because it's about relationships," MacDonald-Dennis said of the upcoming campus conversations.

But to make change, he said, "We all have to do it — not just one group. We have to listen."


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