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Sunday, September 24, 2023

UW-Madison community works to improve diversity amid student, expert concerns

The recent year’s political and social climate has thrust the topic of identity into the spotlight across campus and throughout the country. More specifically, the question of diversity, what it offers to various communities, what changes need to take place in order for marginalized students to feel included at UW-Madison has been the subject of students and administrators alike.

“Diversity on college campuses is important because the inclusiveness is what enriches college-life experiences,” Daiki Yanagawa, a member of the UW-Madison Asian American Student Union, said. “Not only does it accommodate students from different backgrounds, it also serves to unite these people to establish a strong sense of belonging.”

According to Markus Brauer, a professor of social sciences at UW-Madison, the value of diversity on college campuses lies in what it contributes to students’ futures in the work force.

“In today’s workforce, you have to be able to communicate with people from different backgrounds and to work in teams with people from different backgrounds,” Brauer said. “To know how to talk in a respectful way, to reach out to people who belong to different social groups is something you have to practice, and college is just a wonderful way to practice doing exactly that.”

Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate Patrick Sims also spoke on diversity regarding learning from the experiences of peers, in addition to promoting a sense of unity.

“From the perspective of our lived experiences as faculty, staff, students who work here, who live here at the university, finding ways where we can celebrate all the things that make each and every one of us unique … I think we’ll find out that we’re more alike than we are different,” Sims said.

In terms of UW-Madison’s efforts to promote and facilitate the presence of historically underrepresented groups on campus, the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement currently houses six of the eight major recruitment pipeline initiatives: PEOPLE, Posse, the Center for Educational Opportunity, First Wave, the Chancellor’s Scholarship and Powers-Knapp Scholarship, according to Sims. The other two initiatives—the Center for Academic Excellence and the Academic Advancement Program—are housed in the College of Letters & Science.

Sims said his office is also in the midst of a framework dedicated to addressing issues related to diversity and inclusion on campus. The program, titled Retain Equip Engage Lead Change, is set to occur over a nine-year period. The REEL Change consists of 18 initiatives divided into three six-initiative phases, each taking place over three years.

REEL Change’s first phase commenced in Fall 2014 with its first initiative—the Campus Climate Survey—which reached its goal of 20 percent student body participation, according to Sims. The program is currently in the third year of phase one. The most recent initiative, initiative six, focuses on “making sure diversity is a priority for philanthropic and fundraising activity,” Sims said.

Achievements of initiative six include one renewed and one new grant for the CEO program, a new STEM grant, and a $600,000 grant from ACT Prep for the PEOPLE program, along with the university’s first and largest single-donor gift of $10 million for Direct Match for the Chancellor’s Scholarship Program.

“These are all the things that don’t necessarily see the light of day, but they help solidify that foundation that keeps the work moving forward in a positive light,” Sims said.

Sims’ office has also recently launched another program, Diversity Inventory Project, which aims to “really understand what the university is doing with diversity,” Sims said. DIP is a product of the Strategic Diversity Update, which highlighted nearly 300 unrelated efforts that all related to diversity on campus. Sims said DIP is intended to promote the visibility and cooperation of these efforts.

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“We’re holding ourselves more accountable to ensure that we’re having the outcomes that we know are happening” Sims noted. “We’re getting the data, we’re asking the tough and hard questions that, for some, in other contexts, may appear to be politically or racially or ethnically motivated, but they’re there because that’s what good stewardship looks like.”

Despite these efforts, however, data suggests that UW-Madison could improve its demographic diversity. According to the Data Digest for the 2016-’17 academic year, nearly 75 percent of the undergraduate student population enrolled during the fall semester identified as white. The second most represented group, at nearly 6 percent, identified as Asian.

According to Brauer, the disparity in representation is due in part to the university’s recruitment and admission restrictions as a state-funded institution in Wisconsin where, according to U.S. Census data, 87.6 percent of residents identify as white.

While Brauer believes the university is doing an “okay job” within these constraints, he also believes that “there’s always room for improvement,” specifically regarding techniques used to promote inclusive environments and behaviors on campus.

“We’re using sort of old-fashioned approaches from the Our Wisconsin [project] to diversity training workshops … of which we now know that they’re perfectly ineffective,” Brauer said. “It’s a phenomenal waste of everybody’s time—both the instructor and the people who are participating in these workshops.”

Brauer said more modern methods such as social marketing could be applied in order to define optimal inclusive behaviors. They could also identify what currently prevents students from engaging in them and enumerate the benefits of engaging in said behaviors.

Brauer cited social norms messaging, a means of communicating to people “what their peers think and what they do.” He also recommends “engagement and commitment methods” that have been effective in increasing the awareness of bias, the behaviors that constitute bias and which behaviors students should be engaging in.

He said focus groups on campus have shown that students are less likely to reach out in class to students of different social groups out of fear of saying or doing something offensive unintentionally.

“We put people together in a room and we give them a bias awareness workshop or a diversity training workshop, and then we tell them ‘You are biased. Stop being biased,’” Brauer said. “It would be nice if, at some point, we tell students what behaviors we actually want them to engage in, and then how to do it and what they might get out of engaging in these behaviors.”

Faith, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians and a member of Wunk Sheek, expressed similar sentiments regarding heightening awareness of other cultures through facilitated conversation. She believes the university would benefit from a required program similar to the Tonight and Alcohol Edu programs that focuses on hate and bias.

“I guarantee you, there’s time in someone’s life where they feel like they haven’t belonged,” Faith said. “You can take that feeling of someone not feeling like they belong or feeling like they’re excluded … and you can directly transfer it to how certain groups on campus feel when you do things that you say, ‘oh, it was just funny at the moment,’ but really, it’s not.”

Sims said while there’s still a lot to improve upon in the realm of diversity on campus, and the progress being made is not as rapid as hoped, he believes they are headed in the “right direction.”

“What keeps me here is the fact that Madison hasn’t given up. We’re stubborn that way,” Sims said. “Maybe it’s the badger … think of the tenacity, what it means to be a badger…we are committed, and we’re committed to the end and we’ll do everything we can to try and figure out and get it right.”

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