Diversity is a pretty word. At face value, the word conjures up images of middle-school illustrations of differently colored people holding hands, standing on top of a badly drawn globe. And perhaps it is this view of diversity as a superficial ideal of American pluralism that drives the growing discrepancy in diversity conversations between students and administrations, both on USC’s campus and on college campuses nationwide.
Some of the discrepancy — and cluelessness on part of the administration — could be a symptom of the fact that “diversity” means something different to students than it does to university officials. Whereas the administration is quick to point to our low-income and international student populations as proof that diversity issues are not as bad as we say they are, students are more interested in using “diversity” as a term to provide structural support to students who have been marginalized. It’s not about access — it’s about supporting students once they get here
The reality is that the issues that “diversity” cover are much more displeasing than the term itself. Whether they vary from blatant prejudice or offensive party themes, students are seeking institutional support against the — to borrow from Provost Michael Quick — “wicked problems” of racism, sexism and injustice.
For student activists, university officials and members of the community, we’re up against a lot.
And yet, again and again — whether it be in C. L. Max Nikias’ State of the University speech or in continuous open forums — the attitude toward creating tangible solutions for dismantling these structures has been superficial at best. Yes, the university has made progress toward implementing diversity training and funding inclusivity initiatives. And they have stressed — stressed — the importance of creating a “dialogue,” be it through open forums or task force meetings or a strategic planning committee. Moreover, the importance of transparency and communication between the administration and students cannot be understated. But many marginalized students are asking — why have these conversations not manifested into the adoption of the legitimate plans of action passed by the Undergraduate Student Government and Graduate Student Government last semester?
To a certain extent, it’s fair to contend that students should be patient. A hostile environment cannot be transformed instantly — and advocacy at a university as large as USC comes with significant red tape. But the tangible measures that the university has adopted so far — diversity trainings and increased funding for diversity — much more closely suggest a university placating students with band-aid solutions while delaying the more large-scale actions. On one level, it’s because these solutions require a more critical — and not-so-favorable — look at why USC, as an institution, has failed marginalized students. To improve diversity among our mentors in the classroom, it takes recognizing that our faculty remains dominated by white men to take steps. To improve our cultural centers, it takes admitting that they are understaffed and underfunded — and nonexistent for many communities, like Middle Eastern or disabled students. To fix current administrative structures, it takes realizing that they do not fully support students now.
For student leaders who have worked tirelessly on this issue, USC’s tone-deaf attitude certainly doesn’t help forge stronger relationships with students. When Nikias gave his State of the University speech earlier this month, he focused on diversity — but instead of recognizing the work that still needed to be done, he congratulated the creation of a “dialogue” and spotlighted the role of K-12 educators to create a pipeline for marginalized students to come to college. And while those notions are admirable, they’re blatantly missing the point — USC students want to see tangible policy change to create a supportive environment, not more empty words.
When student activists embarked on the overwhelming task of creating a more inclusive campus climate, they began a journey that will likely cement our generation’s collective legacy in a world in which university students come from more divergent backgrounds than ever. Such is a symptom of an increasingly globalized world that has had to grapple with creating common identity among a system that still oppresses minority communities.
For now, it seems that the university has embraced the feel-good, sugar-on-top definition of “diversity.” But students haven’t — and students shouldn’t. When students showed their collective force last semester — be it at unprecedented attendance in Senate meetings or in demonstrations outside Bovard Auditorium — the administration was responsive. Trojans — it’s up to us to continue this conversation.
The Campus Climate Coalition held their first meeting Wednesday night. As the next phase of advocacy for diversity initiatives continues, it’s important to continue to hold the administration accountable for implementing the change we want to see.
Sonali Seth is a sophomore majoring in political science and policy, planning, development. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. “’SC, What’s Good?” runs every other Thursday.