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Saturday, May 28, 2022
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Action Project: Recruiting and retaining future Badgers who complete the conversation

A simple taste of Madison’s scenery and school spirit is all it takes to clinch many incoming students’ commitment to the Badger family. However, had Maria Espino been exposed to the environment pre-enrollment, she said there is a good chance the ethnic uniformity of the student body would have dissuaded her from becoming the junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she is today.

Espino, a Latina student, never toured the campus before registering for freshman year, and is now among the approximately 4.4 percent of Hispanic and Latino/a students currently earning their undergraduate degrees.

“The only thing that really got me here was the fact that I had that scholarship,” Espino said. “To this day that’s the only reason why I feel like I’m still here.”

Despite a decades-long effort to diversify the campus community, people of color still comprise only approximately 14.8 percent of undergraduates, and approximately 14.3 percent of the total 42,820 students on campus as of the Fall 2012 semester, according to the Office of the Registrar.

The perception that those numbers are not equalizing rapidly enough is the product of many factors, including UW-Madison’s unique model of academic decentralization and a historically wavering commitment to diversity, according to Ryan Adserias, a Ph.D. Student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.

Adserias, who also co-chairs the Ad Hoc Diversity Planning Committee, said he hopes the new strategic diversity plan will streamline policies for economic efficiency and harness the power of UW-Madison’s shared governance structure to kick-start an era of more sustainable inclusivity. The ad hoc committee released its preliminary report Feb. 18 to guide the coming months of planning discussions.

For one, Adserias and his colleagues are nullifying outdated identity constraints by “placing cognitive, emotional and behavioral disabilities or differences under that diversity tent.” In doing so, they intend to further a campus tradition of inclusion also lauded by Tess Arenas, the director of Service Learning and a faculty associate in the Chicano and Latino Studies program.

For instance, the university now provides a preferred name policy, which allows each student, faculty and staff member to assert their own identity. Adserias said much of the effort was driven by student activism and is symbolic of how quickly administrative demands can fall flat if not grounded in a clear student demand.

“Students have no idea how powerful they are on this campus,” he said. “At other institutions, the administrators are like ‘just wait four years and they’ll be gone,’ but here if there’s a loud enough voice for things, things happen.”

UW-Madison’s highly autonomous departmental structure makes it largely resistant to centralized direction, according to Adserias, which complicates implementation. However, he said the new plan hopes to couple coalition-building with increased accountability to introduce “micro-level, micro changes that need to accumulate over time to change culture.”

Adserias pointed to the results of a recent alignment of outreach services as one way coalitions have benefited previously unfulfilled constituencies on campus. He said Crossroads, for instance, emerged from cooperation between the the Multicultural Student Center and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender campus center to assist LGBTQ people of color.

“Through the storming, forming and norming process of getting groups to work together, they’ve really gotten those offices to work together and click and move in the same direction,” Adserias said. “And if we can figure out ways of building those strategic coalitions across all kinds of different areas on campus, we can be way stronger.”

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Though for some, such as Espino, the bottom-up model can daunt student organizations, and the intrinsic time lag it takes for grassroots campaigns to effectuate change is an unfairly high price to pay.

“I don’t want to assimilate to something I don’t want to be, but at the end of the day that’s what I have to do to be considered a person in the running to whatever I want,” Espino said.

Arenas echoed Espino’s sentiment and said critical improvement is contingent on the administration pledging itself to a more encompassing definition of what it means to be a UW-Madison student.

As a member of the now-dissolved Minority Student Coalition during her time as a student, Arenas participated in the first-ever campus climate review when the university assembled the Steering Committee on Minority Affairs in the mid-1980s.

The committee released the Holley Report in 1987 and in it, the Minority Student Recruitment and Retention Subcommittee called out numerous neglected minority programs “designed more to appease minority constituencies and outside reviewers than to excel in their assigned missions.”

The report advised the administration’s subsequent drafting of The Madison Plan, which outlined goals such as including an ethnic studies course in all undergraduate curriculums, opening a campus multicultural student center, hiring more faculty of color and doubling the number of incoming freshman of color; all in a span of five years.

To that tune, every department now recognizes the ethnic studies requirement and the Multicultural Student Center was founded in 1988. Espino said the MSC has since become her “home away from home,” when being one of only a few women of color in large lectures becomes overwhelming.

“You can go in there and actually see more diversity and more ethnic cultures, which is what we wish we would be able to see on campus more often,” Espino said.

Espino’s experience hints at The Madison Plan’s failure to enrich classrooms with students of varied ethnic origins.

According to the Office of the Registrar, 547 of the incoming freshmen in 1995 identified as people of color compared to 473 in 1991; a 15.6 percent increase far short of the intended duplication. Overall, enrollment of non-white students crawled to 8.9 percent in the fall of 1995, up slightly from 7.3 percent in the fall 1991.

Dissatisfaction over its statistical outcome lingered in The Madison’s Plan’s shadow until the UW System took up diversity efforts in 1997 and renewed hope, this time across all UW campuses, by releasing Plan 2008. Declarations of bolstering minority representation were not lost on Plan 2008 authors.

They avowed a 50 percent reduction in the gap between the minority student retention rate and that of the student body as a whole by the time the new plan expired in 2008. Espino said herein beats the heart of diversity; whether or not students who enroll at UW-Madison see their education through to a diploma.

“That’s basically what has been motivating me,” Espino said. “That fact that I know I’m just one of those small [statistics] that are here, but I’m going to be one of those [statistics] that actually graduate college.”

During the decade in which Plan 2008 was active, minority retention rates exceeded expectations, rising 55 percent closer to those of the entire student body. Plan 2008 nonetheless left Espino wanting, because the snippets of success did little to achieve her symmetric ideal.

“To me, that’s a diverse campus; 50 percent,” she said.

Plan 2008 also championed recruiting more in-state students of color “until the proportions of entering in-state students of color minimally equal the corresponding racial/ethnic proportions of the Wisconsin high school graduation class qualified for admission.”

“Qualified for admission” notwithstanding, the percentage of in-state freshmen who identify with non-white ethnicities remains far below state-wide graduation rates for high school students of the same background.

The high school graduation rate of black students was 68.2 percent in 2012, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. However, only 4.6 percent of the 2,959 in-state freshmen in the fall of 2012 were black. During that timeframe, the high school graduation rate of American Indian students was 77 percent, yet those individuals comprised only 1.6 percent of in-state freshmen.

The Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Experience is one of the ways in which Plan 2008 attempted to remedy those numbers. PEOPLE awards scholarships to deserving students of low-income or minority status, and currently operates in public school districts in Madison, Milwaukee, Racine and Waukesha.

Espino contributes much of her academic success to PEOPLE, because she said financial and scholastic realities prevented her from considering college until she received its application in the mail. In the future, she hopes more funding can go toward actually placing representatives in underserved neighborhoods to clarify expectations of applicants and compensate for the disadvantages of poor schooling.

“It’s a prestigious school, that’s why I understand it’s hard to get into,” Espino said of UW-Madison. “It’s dreadful to get into, but at the end of the day, if you want to diversify a school, you must be able to understand a student’s background ... a lot of it’s not that they’re not mentally capable of it, it’s the fact that they don’t know how to do it, and they’re not prepared because of where they’re from.”

Plan 2008 also inspired the Multicultural Learning Community, a residential college located in Witte Hall, formed in 2003.

The amount of available funding stands to define the future of diversity policies, and Adserias said he hopes stakeholders will be receptive to the economizing recommendations outlined in the new diversity plan.

Among other things, the plan calls for the creation of a Diversity Research Institute, a data aggregate to facilitate inter-departmental communication and eliminate costly redundancies.

“We like to grow our own kind of stuff, but because we’re decentralized, we grow a lot of our own but we don’t share it with anyone else in the institution,” Adserias said of experimental learning techniques.

A principle reporting system could counteract inefficiency as well as track progress and highlight successes, which could then be turned around to collect alumni donations, according to Adserias.

“We can probably drum up a significant chunk of money once we can show that we’re going to be good stewards of it,” he said.

Adserias views strategic spending and fundraising methods as instrumental to whether or not diversity initiatives can overcome future budget cuts in the face of a tuition freeze and reduced state support.

In the meantime, the Ad Hoc Diversity Planning Committee’s preliminary report charges UW-Madison’s Facilities, Planning and Management with evaluating spaces across campus where services for underrepresented populations can operate. Housed in the Red Gym as they are now, many of those accommodations are limited in their scope and ability to shine during campus tours, according to Adserias.

Increasing the visibility of those services and redesigning campus tour routes could go a long way to inform not only those already on campus of UW-Madison’s offerings, but also potential students, so the university is not relying on luck to enroll students who mirror Espino’s situation.

“It’s really hard to sell somebody on coming to an institution that doesn’t have a whole lot of readily accessible representation that looks like you or thinks like you or comes from your same background,” Adserias said.

The preliminary report will go through each of the shared governance committees on campus for review and polishing before adoption, which Adserias is hoping will happen before June 30 so implementation of the formal recommendations can begin in the fall.

Meanwhile, Espino is working toward graduating and obtaining her doctorate in a yet-to-be-determined area of higher education policy. She hopes to serve as the role model for Latina women she wished she had seen more of in administrative positions when navigating college for herself.

“Everybody who really knows me knows I give my life for PEOPLE,” Espino said. “Programs like those really motivate students who have nothing to motivate them. All you think about is all that negativity you’re surrounded by, and that one person that tells you [that] you have a chance is the person that’s going to lead you somewhere.”

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