On Monday, the nation collectively took a day off to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
For many, it was a day to celebrate the growth of cultural inclusivity in the United States over the past 50 years. For others, it was a time for reflection on the oppression and adversity many racial minority groups faced during the Civil Rights Movement. But for the rest, it was just a day off.
For USC — a school boasting the second largest international student body in the U.S. — MLK Day should hold at least some importance. In its entirety, King’s cause has become synonymous with the fight for diversity and acceptance within both local communities and institutions of power — the same diversity and acceptance that is woven into the fabric of the University’s student body.
In light of MLK Day, the University needs to learn an important lesson: Promoting a truly inclusive environment requires more than just meeting quotas. The reality is that USC’s advertised demographics do not necessarily paint a complete picture of student representation on campus.
Statistics are hard to argue with. For the 2017-18 academic year, 14 percent of enrolled undergraduate students were Latinx. Of the Fall 2017 freshman class, 17 percent were first-generation students. The University also ranks 8th in the nation in ethnic diversity.
What these facts fail to mention, however, is the interplay between economic and racial diversity. College-aged minority populations emerge from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and college admissions should reflect that. But that does not mean accepting more low-income students necessarily equates to greater diversity. Low-income white students and wealthy or economically stable students of color also must have a presence on campus, and the unique experiences and world views they bring to the table have considerable value.
In addition, undocumented students are another overlooked population often excluded from the dialogue around campus diversity. Currently, undocumented applicants have a hard time affording colleges: The scholarships that exist either have high barriers to entry or are not marketed sufficiently. Furthermore, those who are accepted to a campus like USC are unlikely to find the support they need — university administrators often market the school as diverse, but the campus does not offer a resource center specifically for their needs. In fact, many California universities such as UCLA and Cal State Fullerton offer their own support systems for Dreamers. Of all universities, USC — ranked fourth in the nation in economic diversity — should be offering this.
Numbers and economics aside, the University must foster a sense of inclusivity by promoting student organizations that unite people of the same background. For instance, there is the Asian Pacific American Student Services, which promotes and reinforces the Asian-American community that is so prevalent on campus. The organization’s various bonding activities and educational field trips create feelings of belonging and camaraderie that should be experienced by the variety of ethnic minority groups within the Trojan Family.
Shifting the focus from the student population, the issue of diversity cannot be addressed without analyzing the demographics of its faculty. Of the University’s tenured faculty in 2016, just 2 percent was African American, 14 percent was Asian American, 3 percent was Latinx and 76 percent was white — numbers that are fairly identical to those put up by the average university within the Association of American Universities. Of course, there is an obvious discrepancy here. And while it’s perfectly fair to trust USC’s techniques in hiring instructors are based on qualifications, the dramatic difference in the number of minority and white faculty also suggests a lack of inclusivity on the University’s part. Put simply, a diverse faculty better represents a diverse student population. If USC wants to brand itself as one of the most inclusive universities in the country, then its student body and faculty must reflect this.
To firmly establish a racially diverse, economically diverse and qualified student population, USC must focus on the next generation of scholars. Right now, the University is making a commendable effort to better the educational standards of the local Los Angeles community. The Neighborhood Academic Initiative, for instance, offers an academic enrichment program to prepare South and East L.A. students for the rigor of university curriculum. Looking forward, creating such a productive and encouraging presence in urban environments is crucial to boosting diversity down the pipeline.
Numbers do not lie, but while the University is doing better than many in terms of establishing diversity in its numbers, many students may experience a different reality. In the realm of cultural diversity, there is no fitting conclusion to write, no tangible finish line to cross; college campuses — and all influential institutions, for that matter — must find a way ensure the diverse members of their student bodies are not only represented, but also embraced with a sense of belonging. The world may be a more inclusive place than the one MLK lived in, but there is still a long and arduous journey ahead.