Steps are being taken to address the problem of diversity on the Eau Claire campus, but the problem persists
By Parker Reed & Seth Abrahamson
A single mother raises her child while attending the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. She sees her child taking in local media that is curated by mostly white individuals, a university that is predominantly white, and wonders how this is affecting her child’s development and way of thinking. As a white individual herself, she struggles to find a way to address it.
Sarah Ferber, a UW-Eau Claire social work student and mother to a young son, stresses the problem of diversity in the Eau Claire community is festering on the university campus.
“I think diversity brings other perspectives,” Ferber said. “I think this community in general is not very diverse, and when that happens we get really tunneled into one way of thinking. That is really dangerous.”
As reported by the US Census the city of Eau Claire is 92.3 percent white. This number is reflected in UW-Eau Claire student body makeup, as 89% of the university’s 10,164 students in 2014 were white, according to collegeportraits.org.
This statistic on its own does not give the entire story, however. When compared with four other prominent colleges in the UW system, UW-Eau Claire is tied for last in terms of percentage of its student body being white. UW-Madison’s student body is 75% white, UW-Whitewater’s is 82%, UW-Stout’s is 86%, and UW-Lacrosse is in the same boat as UW-Eau Claire at 89% of its student body being comprised of white students.
Ka Vue, Director of UW-Eau Claire’s Student Senates Equity in Student Matters Commission, says this lack of diversity is detrimental to any college campus.
“College campuses that are predominantly white require diversity in order to survive,” Vue said. “For a university not to be able to provide services to students of color, or even students of marginalized identities, forces universities to fail.”
Many experts, including Charles Vue, Associate Director of UW-Eau Claire’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, say having a large group of individuals who are predominantly of the same background encourages the possibility for group think. Groupthink is a theory that describes one idea (or way of thinking) taking over a group of likeminded individuals that discourages creativity and individualism.
“If you don’t have an understanding for the need for diversity, you only keep doing traditional things, which usually excludes diverse groups,” Vue said. “You then deny them the opportunity to have their needs met on campus.”
The issue of diversity on the UW-Eau Claire campus would appear to be one most people agree needs to be addressed through administration, but this notion is fundamentally incorrect if the problem has persisted in the 100 plus years the university has existed. Some members of the student body do not agree diversity needs to be addressed on campus.
Brodie Frank, a computer science major at UW-Eau Claire, said attending a college campus is more about working hard despite what race you are.
“I feel like it doesn’t matter what your race is,” Frank said. “Everyone has the opportunity to go to school nowadays, that opportunity is out there if you’re willing to put in the effort. I know some schools try and promote diversity, which I feel is kind of bull crap, if you ask me.”
Frank suggested that it is expected UW-Eau Claire’s population would be mostly white.
“It feels like we do have a vast white population here, but I feel like that is just the demographic that we live in,” Frank said. “Different groups tend to go where their population is highest.”
Sarah Ferber said the small amount of diversity she has seen on campus has been mostly linked to a specific sector of the university.
“I don’t think it’s diverse at all right now,” Ferber said. “And the diversity I have seen is catered towards the sports faculty recruiting athletes in inner cities. I think there are other ways of recruiting students of color to our campus than just through sports.”
In response to accounts and reports of the low number of students of color on the UW-Eau Claire campus, the university is taking steps to address the problem.
One way in which this is occurring, is through the approval of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity (EDI) recommendations. Charles Vue said this is a huge step in the right direction for the university.
“UW-Eau Claire is doing something that is very bold, and that is to pass the EDI recommendations,” Vue said. “It includes a component, before they are promoted, evaluated, or receive a raise; they need to prove they are doing something to promote diversity in their courses. Eau Claire is the only campus in Wisconsin that is doing this.”
In addition to adopting the passing of the EDI recommendations, the university added another position to address the issue of diversity and marginalized identities on campus head on and to be a resource for the campus and community.
In August of this year, Dr. Tamara Johnson was appointed to the newly created position of Assistant Chancellor for EDI. The UW-Eau Claire administration said her primarily role is to serve as an advisor to UW-Eau Claire chancellor James Schmidt on matters of Diversity and EDI throughout the university. Administrators also said she will oversee efforts to promote diversity on campus.
Both of these changes at the administrative level are in response to UW-Eau Claire’s reported goal of achieving 20 percent diversity for incoming freshman in the year 2020. In addition to these administrative changes, sectors of the UW-Eau Claire student body are taking steps to improve diversity and giving a voice to marginalized identities on campus as well.
Nick Webber, the Vice-President of UW-Eau Claire’s Student Senate, said a step the Senate has taken to address the problem of diversity on campus within the past year has been the formation of the Equity and Student Matters Commission.
“The Equity and Student Matters Commission within Student Senate focuses primarily on issues associated with representing marginalized identities and how they can have their messages be heard through student government,” Webber said.
Webber said this commission is a reliable resource for the UW-Eau Claire student body.
“If someone feels they are being marginalized on campus, the Equity and Student Matters commission is a great resource for them to reach out to and try and achieve the goal they are striving towards,” Webber said.
New student organizations on campus also have formed to provide a voice to students of diverse backgrounds. Black Male Empowerment launched in February of this year to provide a positive atmosphere for the black male population of UW-Eau Claire. The Bridge resource center on campus was created in order to provide resources and support for UW-Eau Claire’s LGBTQIA+ population.
However, some say these recent changes are not all positive.
One of the newly created resources on campus to promote and address issues of diversity/race on campus is the Bias Incident Report Center. The reported goal of this center is to take in reports of issues of bias on campus from the student body and address them in a timely and effective manner. Ka Vue said this center is failing in this sense.
“In the past they haven’t responded to reports well, because the members of the team are not very competent in responding to these incidents,” Vue said. “If you don’t have a proper knowledge base on critical race theory, you can’t respond to racist incidences properly.”
Vue said this is one aspect of the university’s plan to address diversity she said isn’t working properly.
“I think the big thing the university needs to do over the next few years is create an environment where students of marginalized identities feel welcome,” Vue said. “I feel like the university focuses on 20 percent diversity, and that is a great goal, but not if we don’t have a plan in place to make that a reality.”
OMA’s Charles Vue said budget cuts and staff reductions in recent years has not helped promote diversity on campus either. Vue said after recent budget cuts, the office was left with two full-time employees responsible for being resources to over 900 students of color on campus; something he said is not realistic.
“We are expected help students engage with two staff members, that’s a joke,” Vue said. The university is now hiring back two positions, which is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough.”
A problem exists, but the steps being made to address it are being met with polarizing reactions. The challenge of building a diverse and welcoming campus is persistent, but Vue and others
Charles Vue said change on the UW-Eau Claire campus starts first with the student body and how they think about diversity.
“Students need to be evaluating where they are, and where they stand with things,” Vue said. I would tell students, don’t be easily influenced by others when it comes to interacting with people with color. If you use your shallow prior thoughts, this can close the door to positive experiences you might have for the first time in your life.”
Whether the problem lies with administration, student government, student perception, groups having their voices marginalized, or group-think in Eau Claire, Ka Vue said the issue of diversity and the Eau Claire student body comes down to one simple thing.
“If universities care about their students,” Vue said, “they should be taking steps towards improving the diversity on their campus.”