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Creating a place to remember fondly

by Harvey Long and Dr. Valyncia C. Raphael, J.D. | Jan 19, 2017

Harvey Long is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin School of Library and Information Studies. Valyncia C. Raphael is an alumna of the University of Wisconsin Law School (J.D., 2013) and the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (Ph.D., 2016).

In the fall of 1940, 17-year-old Frances Murphy of Baltimore, Maryland, arrived at the University of Wisconsin. She was the last of the Murphy sisters to attend: Carlita was a sophomore, and Ida had graduated in May of that year and now worked in advertising at the family newspaper, Baltimore’s Afro-American. Jim Crow had forced the sisters more than 800 miles west to study journalism, a major not offered at historically Black Morgan State College (now Morgan State University). Their father, Carl J. Murphy, a former Howard University professor and prominent newspaper editor, demanded that the state of Maryland pay full tuition, and trips home, for his daughters, since the University of Maryland, which did offer journalism, was closed to African Americans. The governor consented, and installments were paid to the ​UW.

The Murphy sisters soon discovered that they had traded the formal and rigid Jim Crow policies of the east for more informal and covert racist policies in the Midwest. They were not allowed to rush any of the sororities on Langdon Street, nor were they invited to join the professional honor societies. When Frances was later asked if she considered joining Sigma Delta Chi, a society for journalists, she replied, “Yes, but they didn't want me and I didn't apply.” She survived those four years at UW by establishing a close group of black friends, including Mary “Bunny” Hinkson, who would become a world famous performer for the Martha Graham Dance Company, and Evelyn Bowden, a Philadelphia native and future physician. In an interview, recalling her time at the ​university, Frances said, “I don't remember Wisconsin too fondly.” She explained, “Journalism school was okay. In many of my classes I was the only black.”

Murphy's story is one of exclusion, loneliness, and structural racism in the context of Jim Crow. Although nearly ​80 years old, Murphy’s story will not surprise marginalized students today at predominantly white institutions, ​including those at ​UW-Madison. In the last school year alone, we have witnessed a Native American Elder being heckled with stereotypical war cries during a ceremony; a student being called a “Nigger Bitch” via an anonymous note; incidences of anti-Semitism; the arrest of a black student from a classroom, for anti-racist graffiti; and a diversity information bulletin board set on fire in a campus dorm. Additionally, the recent Color of Drinking Survey provided telling data on the unique impacts of campus drinking culture on students of color. 

While the college transition can be tough for anyone, minority and marginalized ​students face additional challenges. It is up to college administrators, influential faculty, and others with institutional power to lead the charge in addressing these challenges. Left unaddressed, exclusionary environments can impact college choice, student engagement, retention, and what students remember about their college experience. Marginalized students’ time at college is spent on surviving within the exclusionary environment, rather than thriving.

The survival​-versus​-thrive mindset creates unfortunate consequences for the institution and for the student. Institutionally, this mindset impacts retention, as students leave for more welcoming institutions or abandon academic pursuits altogether. Sometimes the exit occurs for reasons beyond an institution’s control, such as homesickness or because of financial or personal hardship. However, when the exit occurs because of racial climate, one could argue that it is a result of an institution’s failure to make good on its promise to provide a safe, welcoming, and equal learning environment. Even for those students who persist and graduate despite a hostile racial climate, they are likely to have a taste of bitterness as they depart the institution. They lose the opportunity to enjoy the sense of pride that can come with attending a university. This shame and bitterness can traumatize students, perpetuating a cycle of lost institutional connection and tainted memory. Further, a university loses a lifetime brand ambassador.

Some marginalized students who chose to stay in exclusionary environments cope by working to educate others. They invest time helping others to understand their own experience; combating racism, sexism, homophobia, and sexual violence; or working to improve the experiences of students that follow. This emotionally costly work creates added strain on students, and is also known to create pressure and strain on faculty of color. Usually, this work is thankless, as it occurs in addition to ​ordinary work and school commitments, and often goes uncompensated or unrecognized. While the cause is noble and beneficial to the institution and may add value on a resume, it can reinforce and harden feelings of exploitation and resentment. In addition, coping in such ways, while good intentioned, does little to disrupt the systemic roots of hostile environments or break the cycle of exclusion, exploitation, and resentment. To abolish systematic oppression, culturally competent leaders and others with systemic power should do most of the work, not marginalized students of color.

While the Murphy story illuminates the consequences of exclusionary environments, there are solutions for ​UW-Madison. This week, a collective of black alumni and allies provided a set of recommendations for UW. The recommendations aim to address the racially hostile environment that many alumni experienced while attending UW and that continues to exist. As the recommendations state, alumni should be part of the solution. Important components of the recommendations include recognition and ownership of the problem, as well as more transparent communication.

In terms of recognition, ​UW-Madison should review ​its policies and practices related to diversity and determine whether ​it has taken actions consistent with ​its espoused values ​related to inclusion. Afterward, the University should clarify and align its organizational structure, policies, practices, climate, and messaging ​to align with its values.

Next, in terms of ownership, while diversity and inclusion is a shared responsibility, administration and others with systemic power should bear most of the burden for evaluation of the structures, policies, practices, and climate of the university, and be responsible for making changes​. The responsibility should not rest with students and employees of color.

For communication, the recommendations ​suggest that the Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate report directly to the Chancellor, which communicates a serious and intentional commitment to diversity. It affirms validity of this issue as a core tenant of leadership and ensures swift access and flow of information to the Chancellor and Provost. Community and alumni involvement in decision-making and consultation can also play a vital role in ​communication between the ​university and the community. Alumni create and retain institutional memory, and they can collaborate with the ​university to preserve and share it.

As indicated by the recommendations, abolishing exclusionary environments requires leaders to take affirmative steps. The steps must be as dynamic and far-reaching as Jim Crow was; otherwise leaders will never replace its ghosts. As such, ​inclusionary practices should be embedded in orientations, classrooms, research labs, discussion sections, resident halls, student unions, recreational facilities, programs, services, assessments, recruitment, and hiring and evaluation protocols.

In reality, rare are the leaders who possess the type of cultural intelligence that equips them to detect and remove impediments to inclusion. Accordingly, leaders may not know where exclusion exists or what it feels like to marginalized students. This can cause leaders to conclude that barriers do not exist, that they should be overcome rather than eliminated altogether, or to diagnose problems incorrectly. To avoid this conclusion, campus leaders must acquire and improve their cultural intelligence through trainings, continuing educational opportunities, and implementing best practices from leading industries. Also, there should be a system in place that recognizes the value and compensates the individuals who do this important and emotionally charged work.

UW-Madison has already taken some bold, affirmative steps to improve its racial climate, and this should be acknowledged. Two such examples of this boldness are the Problem with Whiteness course and the Men’s Project. These two opportunities provide a place to start serious dialogue and provide mature, safe spaces to have honest conversations about systemic oppression including racism, sexism, homophobia, and sexual violence. The ​university should continue making affirmative efforts to identify, discuss, and counter threats to safe learning environments that enable all students to thrive. ​This way, today's students will have ​an opportunity the Murphy sisters and alumni like them never ​did, a place ​where they feel valued and are reminded that they matter; in other words, a place to remember fondly.

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