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Lip service only to diversity on Purdue campus


By Mike Sloothaak
For the Journal and Courier

October 17, 2005

Purdue University continues to struggle with diversity. Currently enrollment for African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians are all below their respective populations for the state as well as the nation, and minority enrollments remain stagnant.

Accreditation visitors -- inspectors from other schools and professional organizations whose job is to give "seals of approval" to academic programs -- continue to warn Purdue to improve diversity. In response Purdue adopts written policies, sets goals for improvement again and again, and proposes expensive plans to achieve them. New press releases and "awareness weeks" are written and celebrated, but change remains
painfully slow. But while these diversity policies and programs come and go, the environment at Purdue stays the same.

Time and again Purdue administrators contribute to that recalcitrant environment. They are reluctant embrace diversity, but merely tolerate it as a bureaucratic necessity. And this shows.

Take for example the recent controversy over the Earl Butz Auditorium. People who truly embrace diversity are of course uncomfortable with Butz's history and sense of humor. They wouldn't be caught unawares -- as our provost was -- with African Americans' outrage. People who embrace diversity would at least initiate a public discussion with the communities of color before considering honoring a man who resigned from public office in disgrace after making racists comments. They wouldn't wait for the community to show up in their office.

Consider, too, the College of Education. It requires all its students (future teachers) to adhere to a set of professional standards, including diversity standards. The idea is good: prejudice causes irreparable harm to children -- not just for the children who are the targets of the prejudice, but to all the children.

But does the dean at the College of Education believe in this policy, or just give it lip service? This year the dean volunteered to be the chair of the campus United Way campaign. At least one United Way agency, the Boy Scouts, refuses to serve gay-identified and atheist boys. The dean apparently has no problem with that, as his fund-raising letter encourages Purdue to make every United Way agency a success. If that kind of prejudice is appropriate for the Boy Scouts and is supported by Purdue in that context, why isn't it appropriate for teachers-in-training and not supported by Purdue then? The subtle message received is that such prejudice is appropriate, you just have to be discrete about it.

In January of this year, Tim Burke, who works under the university architect, told The Exponent about why so many buildings lack improvements necessary to make them accessible to all students:

"Some of those items include building elevators in University and Elliott halls; however, Burke said his department receives only $600,000 and the construction on University could cost almost $2 million... Although money and resources are tight, Burke said he hopes to make the university completely handicap accessible some day. 'Accessibility is a civil right,' he said. 'At sometime we're gonna be at 100 percent. While that's way out in the future, we're chipping away at it for now.'"

Last year Purdue president Martin Jischke bragged about spending more than half a billion dollars on new campus construction. The money Burke says he needs to give handicapped students access to University Hall -- $2 million -- is less than 1 percent of that total. Why does civil rights for some students need to be "way out in the future" at Purdue? People in wheelchairs can do the math as good as anyone else. And they get the right answer: Their civil rights are not a priority at Purdue.

Purdue cannot fix this problem simply with new non-discrimination policies or fancy programs to attract minorities: no magic scholarship program or new cultural center or amazing external speaker will make a dent by itself. Purdue needs administrators with a personal -- not a bureaucratic -- commitment to diversity: one that comes from the heart, not from case law. It needs administrators who don't have one set of values on paper, and another, opposing set of values when working outside the purview of accreditation visitors.

Minorities realize that however rigorous the formal policies are at Purdue, they will be administered and adjudicated by people. And if those people demonstrate a superficial commitment to diversity, minorities know they will not to get fair hearings, and not to have their work judged on its merits alone. And they will continue to look elsewhere for an education or a job.

Sloothaak is a technician with the Purdue physics department.

 

 

 

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