by Micah Wilkins, Editor-in-Chief
In Warren Wilson College’s mission statement the phrases “diversity” and “cross-cultural understanding” appear about a half dozen times. Research shows that diversity of all kinds is a necessary element to a broad-based liberal arts education.
“As educators we want to be challenging each other and students to question assumptions, to think critically,” said president Steve Solnick. “A large part of that is about engaging in thoughts and traditions that are different from yours.”
But Warren Wilson continues to be a rather homogenous campus community, especially in terms of race and ethnicity.
According to data from an annual report, posted online at the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, in Fall 2012, 84.6 percent of the Warren Wilson student body self-reported as white/non-Hispanic. And when foreign exchange students are not included in these numbers, the predominance of white students on campus is even more apparent. According to the Director of Diversity and Intercultural Initiatives Lorrie Jayne, recent data which does not include foreign exchange students shows that 755 of 832 students, or 90.1 percent, identified as white.
- 84.6 percent of students at Warren Wilson identify as white/non-Hispanic
- 3.9 percent identified as African American
- 3.2 percent identified as Hispanic/Latino
- 1.5 percent identified as Asian
- 0.5 percent identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native
- 2.8 percent identified as two or more races
-Fall 2012 data
Furthermore, the faculty body of the college is also predominantly white. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a survey of Warren Wilson College shows that, in November of 2011, 93.8% of full-time faculty members were white.
Last month, two incidents took place which brought the community’s full attention to the issue of color diversity on campus. On Nov. 18, the letters KKK were discovered carved into the tree in front of Gladfelter. Six days later, another KKK carving was discovered on a separate tree.
College Chaplain Brian Ammons called a gathering the day after the first carving was discovered. Students, faculty and staff gathered around the tree, sharing songs and words. On Nov. 20, Solnick called a campus-wide assembly at the pavilion, to “demonstrate support for all in our community and stand together against hate.” Four days later, when the second carving was reported, the administration offered up a reward to whoever had information about the incidents.
According to Ammons, these gatherings, or rituals as he calls them, are not the community’s response, but rather they “point to the response.”
The college’s response, then, is a continuation of commitments, action plans, programs and conversations. The effort to become a more diverse college was in play before these carvings, and it continues on today.
“We’re all in that place of how do we respond and be present with what’s happening and recognize that some of the more complex and subtle culture shifts happen over time,” said Ammons. “We can do stuff right here and now and we can do things that we have to invest in for the long haul work.”
Prior to the carvings on the trees, Solnick and the Cabinet (the group of institutional decision-makers) have identified as a 2013-2015 college-level goal “sustaining a campus-wide conversation about diversity and implementing programs to increase campus diversity along multiple dimensions.”
The first area in which the college hopes to address these issues is with the restructuring of the position currently held by Lorrie Jayne as Director of Diversity and Intercultural Initiatives. This role includes many responsibilities, and serves two very different constituencies, with very different needs: foreign exchange students and American students of color.
With Jayne’s departure this summer, Solnick has called together a task force, made up of students, staff and faculty, to reassess the structure of the Office of Diversity and Intercultural Initiatives, with the possibility of separating programming for students of color from programming for exchange students. This task force will revise the job description of the director of this office so that a national search may begin by February.
“For me, the priorities are getting the people who can be leaders for us in these areas going forward, whether it’s hiring policy or diversity programming,” Solnick said.
The college’s hiring policies and practices are being reassessed as well because, according to Solnick, “as we strive to create a more diverse student body, a critical prerequisite for that is becoming a more diverse workforce.”
According to theater professor Candace Taylor, who before this year was the only African American faculty member at the college, the pool of candidates for open positions must be intentionally broadened.
“How do we hire people?” she asked. “What is the criteria? Where do we look [for candidates]? If you advertise where [people of color] aren’t looking, you won’t find them.”
The new Human Resources director will be tasked with encouraging search committees to diversify their pool of candidates, according to Solnick.
In addition to the college’s lack of diversity, Warren Wilson also struggles with racism and other forms of prejudice, as is shown by last month’s events.
“We live in a culture that has failed to atone for its original sin of racism,” Ammons said. “It’s in the DNA of American culture.”
The Warren Wilson bubble is not thick enough to withstand the perforation of racism coming into this community. Sometimes racism is overt, and sometimes it is not, according to Taylor.
“It’s hard to be American and not have some bias,” she said. “It’s everywhere. Everyone’s a little bit racist.”
Institutional initiatives, discussions, committees, and task forces all have developed in the last few years to address the issue of lack of diversity on campus. However, save for the handful of students who have been invited to participate in these conversations on committees and task forces, these groups have mostly just involved staff and faculty.
Taylor is on at least three committees and task forces which involve diversity on campus but, she says, “they’ve all started to blend together. It’s all the same people. I’m calling them the usual suspects… I would like to hear from some of the people who don’t usually speak up. ”
Some recent events have been planned for students. On Dec. 9, faculty members Melissa Blair and Jeff Keith hosted a teach-in on the history of the KKK. During lunch that day, activist and author of a children’s book on the KKK David Lamotte discussed creative non-violence strategies. However, other than this programming, a venue in which people can discuss the recent incidents, lack of diversity at the college, and their own encounters with racism and other forms of prejudice on campus has not really been provided for students.
“As a community, we could have a lot more conversations about a lot of things,” Taylor said. “If you avoid your feelings about something because you don’t have to confront it, it’s more easy to be liberal. If it’s right in front of you it’s harder. That’s what’s shaking up Warren Wilson more… I’m less interested in who carved what into what or who said something ignorant than I am in people to be able to freely discuss their culture and identity and not feel like they’re unwelcome and left out. But I also think it takes a conscious effort to make a space for that. That’s where Warren Wilson is going to struggle.”
When Taylor was living in Chicago, she frequented boutiques where she was often profiled as a shoplifter because of the color of her skin. She saw the alarm on the clerk’s face when she walked in. As she browsed the store, she would be followed and questioned by the shop owners.
“I knew what it was and I knew why they were doing it,” she said. “I can’t take it too seriously. Each individual comes up with their own way of dealing with it. You just sigh and go on and say ‘That’s how it is.’ [At Warren Wilson, I hope] that people wouldn’t have to sigh in resignation that it’s happening again. But I think that’s a lot further off than our task force.”