As part of this action project, the Daily Cardinal Editorial Board mulled over what identity really means. We agreed on the basic tenets of identity, but realized that each of us weighed parts of our identity differently. Identity is a complex and essential part of our being. It is not something that can be catered to through placating actions or by hitting benchmark numbers. A sense of belonging is much deeper than that. This led us to think about what it means to be a Badger. What does the University of Wisconsin-Madison do to truly embrace diverse identities? Is it enough? Or is it all for show?
To many, being a Badger revolves around notions of school pride and the adoption of the “work hard, play hard” balance. Yet, many would not think about the religious diversity UW-Madison holds. The university ranks sixth in top public universities by Jewish population. The school currently maintains a population of around 5,000 Jewish students, accounting for 13% of the student body. This is a far greater percentage than the meager 2.4% of the U.S. population that the community of Jewish-American citizens accounts for.
Why UW-Madison attracts such a wide portion of students from this religious minority remains unclear. It likely has to do with the bountiful number of resources offered to this population. UW-Madison is home to five Jewish greek houses: Sigma Alpha Mu, Alpha Epsilon Pi, Zeta Beta Tau, Alpha Epsilon Phi and Sigma Delta Tau. The school also offers both an on-campus Chabad and Hillel, two extracurricular organizations allowing students to commemorate Jewish holidays and connect with Jewish life. Even within on-campus dining halls, kosher food is available for practicing students. Each of these additions to the campus provide outlets for this religious minority, likely keeping UW-Madison as a top school choice for Jewish students.
Yet, does hosting a large number of this ethnic and religious minority of Jewish students mean the university is reflective of diversity?
Clearly, the answer to this question is no. Even with the large number of Jewish students on campus, the university has shown blatant disrespect for their culture. The 2021-22 academic year was pivotal in marking the return of in-person classes, likely bringing feelings of anxiety to many across campus. Despite such significance, university officials made the decision to start the academic year on Sept. 8, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a holiday among the most important for those of Jewish faith. University faculty offered their condolences for Jewish students in this position, yet despite the many outcries, refused to change the start date.
All things considered, the large population of this religious minority is likely out of practice and not a result of UW-Madison officials' inclusivity efforts. The aforementioned Jewish life extracurriculars were not founded because the university sought to give Jewish students a community, but rather because there were many Jewish students on campus.
UW-Madison has attempted to take action increasing the representation of different student identities. In 2021, the university hosted a two-day Diversity Forum discussing the prominence of anti-Asian prejudice and how to alter perceptions of what it means to be Asian American today. The university has also scheduled an upcoming event called the “Day of the Badger” on April 5 and 6. The Day of the Badger is set to focus on the “University’s Greatest Needs,” including the Chancellor’s Fund, Emergency Student Support, Tuition Assistance, and Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion.
UW-Madison created the Raimey-Noland Campaign, named for UW’s first known male and female Black graduates. The campaign’s goals are to use scholarships to increase diversity, develop a more diverse faculty, raise academic success and graduation rates in STEM fields, create an inclusive campus and increase research studying issues related to social and racial justice.
As good as it is that more student identities are being represented, the university still fails to solve a number of issues regarding representation. Some may remember the infamous “homecoming video” from 2019 that was meant to promote inclusion. In this video, nearly every student featured was white.
Ultimately, this speaks to the university's continued pattern of disregarding the needs of all of its students. The university instead performatively touts its diversity numbers in order to paint a narrative that doesn’t exist.
In the year following this video, UW-Madison’s BIPOC Coalition made repeated calls to meet with university officials — including Chancellor Blank — which were dismissed repeatedly. The coalition made efforts to work with the administration in order to make the university safe and equitable for everyone.
Sam Jones and Kavitha Babu wrote an article for The Daily Cardinal showcasing a number of other shortcomings the university has committed over the years. These discrepancies include:
- In 2000, a Daily Cardinal reporter discovered that UW had photoshopped the face of a black student into the cover photo for the 2001-02 application booklet.
- In 2016, a Sellery resident posted photos of Adolf Hitler and swastikas on his dorm room door.
- In 2017, the sacred fire circle at Dejope Residence Hall was vandalized with the words “Columbus Rules 1492.”
- In 2018, a student filed a hate-bias complaint due to the inclusion of two UW alumni’s names in various spaces in Memorial Union — despite the fact that they were members of a student society that took on the name Ku Klux Klan.
- Also in 2018, student Ali Khan expressed frustration over a political science class titled “Terrorism,” which Khan found “neocolonialist” and greatly simplified the concept of Jihad in a “one-dimensional, single-faceted and inherently violent” way.
- In spring 2018, a “Make America White Again” and “Mass immigration is white genocide” stickers were plastered on campus light posts.
These discrepancies lead us to question if the efforts made to represent identities are enough. Is all the talk of championing diversity a facade if such shortcomings can be seen? Most of these incidents are part of our recent history. Surely, we cannot dismiss it all as “the past.” Even if these incidents were dated, sweeping them under the rug does not constitute a solution.
UW-Madison’s fevered announcement that its 2021 freshman class would not only be its biggest, but most diverse class of all time stirred excitement.
Compared to fall 2020, this new freshman class includes 7% more African American students, 22% more Asian students, 34% more Hispanic students and 34% more students who identify with two or more races. Total, there were 1,251 underrepresented students of color, up from 989 last year.
“The freshman class is the most racially and ethnically diverse in the university’s history,” a university press release announced.
When faced with these statistics, it’s easy to wonder why it took UW-Madison so long to get to this point of seemingly “acceptable” levels of diversity. In 2019, the university ranked 10th out of the 14 Big Ten Schools in diversity, ahead of only Indiana University, the University of Iowa and the University of Nebraska and trailing far behind sixth-place University of Minnesota and Northwestern University at second.
It gets worse. Between 2002 and 2021, the percentage of undergraduate Black students at UW-Madison remained virtually unchanged, despite increased efforts over time to become more inclusive.
It’s easy to think of diversity as a simple yes or no proposition. Faced with low numbers of diverse students, shouldn’t admissions just… admit more students of color? The truth is that diversity is more complex than that, and a student’s status is not always as visible as skin color. UW’s struggle can be best represented by administrators’ failure to look beyond just one axis of identity and instead embrace diversity in a way that includes all elements of a student’s experiences.
As evidenced, UW-Madison is home to a thriving Jewish student population, yet refuses to make time for students to observe Rosh Hashanah. UW has no issue honoring Native populations with dedicated plaques and land acknowledgements, but it falls short of retaining Indigenous students.
No one is more puzzled by the university’s failure to embrace inclusion than students and faculty. The benefits of a diverse student population are many and varied. In regards to practicality, students who have experience interacting with a broad range of people are known to have an advantage in the professional world, and employees who believe their different identities enhance each other are more productive than others.
The Wisconsin Idea suggests that “education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom.” A more diverse student body is in spirit with the Idea and should be a priority for the administration. Failure to embrace identity as it should be is a scourge on the Wisconsin Idea.