Boundaries: Locking diversity out of the College of Charleston

1967: The first black students enroll at the College of Charleston.

Diversity, as Google defines it, is “a range of different things, a mixture, an assortment, a mélange and a difference.”

Enter human beings. This basic notion of diversity suddenly develops into something a little more serious and a little more deserving than Google’s “assortment.”

As human beings, we naturally leverage our own culture as a standard upon which to judge others. This unhealthy practice inhibits empowerment and celebration of cultural diversity, and can potentially reach a level where people discriminate against what they do not know or understand.

Cultural diversity is important—especially in the United States, particularly in South Carolina and even more so in Charleston.

Our country was built upon a foundation that encompasses other nations’ barriers.Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 6.55.57 PM

We are a people simultaneously brought out of and raised up in adversity and despair, but we know what is just.

America prides itself on its synthesis of rich, plentiful cultures that have, over the span of lifetimes, found a home here.

History books and professors in faded lecture halls tell us what we, Americans possessing a strange calling to preserve the “home to all” sentiment that our parents and grandparents shared, want to hear.

A study entitled “Population Distribution by Race/Ethnicity,” compiled by the Kasier Family Foundation in 2014, reports that white Americans are the maintaining majority at 62 percent, succeeding Hispanics (18 percent), blacks (12 percent) Asians (6 percent), American Indian/Alaska Natives (1 percent), and those with two or more racial backgrounds (1 percent).

The KFF’s 2014 study also reported the official racial breakdown in the Palmetto State: 66 percent  of our population is white, while 27 percent is black, 5 is Hispanic and Asian and mixed racial backgrounds are at a draw for 1 percent.

Supporting—and celebrating—cultural diversity requires us, American citizens living in South Carolina enrolled as College of Charleston students, to recognize, understand and interact positively with cultures and behaviors different from our own.

A quick search through the Office of Institutional Research, Planning, and Information Management reveals the numbers behind the College’s racial and ethnic Undergraduate enrollment.

The College’s racial and ethnic composition is compared to those at public institutions such as Appalachian State, James Madison University and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and private schools such as Elon and the University of Tampa.

This study reports whites, at 80 percent, as the majority at the College followed by blacks at 7.2 percent, and Hispanics at 4.3 percent.

This trend is equaled, occasionally in an even more drastic manner, in other schools. At App State in Boone, North Carolina, whites make up 85 percent of the student body, while only 4.3 percent are Hispanic, and blacks only represent 3.1 percent.

The College of Charleston prides itself on its “educational excellence, student-focused community, and the history, traditions and environment of Charleston and the Lowcountry.” The College states that this student-focused community “embraces mutual respect, collaboration and diversity for the welfare of the individual and the institution.”

Sociologists maintain that there is a significant distinction between prejudice, an attitude and discrimination, a behavior. People create prejudiced attitudes based off of stereotypical beliefs and therefore act in a discriminatory way. At the College, discussing these actions is often taboo, but their impact is still immense.

July 1, 2014: Glenn McConnell takes office as president of the College of Charleston.

It is not comfortable to talk about prejudice and discrimination on campus, but that is exactly the point. When people become uncomfortable they begin to stir, and then shift positions, and then finally get up and move altogether. When people get up and move, that is when change happens, and that is why it is imperative to have a conversation about the College’s diversity crisis.

Kat Roach is a senior at the College, the RA of the Spanish house and part of the Gospel Choir. Being Colombian, she is also a member of the Latino community, which makes her a minority in the thick of this diversity quagmire. It is something she has experienced, whether by being part of culturally based clubs and organizations, or through personal encounters.

Kat Roach. (Photo by Michael Wiser)

Kat Roach. (Photo by Michael Wiser)

Since her sophomore year she has lived in the Spanish house, which is one of the College’s Bull Street Living Learning Communities (LLCs). The Spanish house allows students to be immersed in the language and culture. In order to get accepted into the house, students must write a cover letter in Spanish, get references and also have an interview in Spanish.

Filled with only Spanish speakers, the house helped her grow culturally and academically. Along with the conversational growth that goes along with constantly speaking the language, members put on at least three Hispanic themed events and are also active in the Spanish Club.

But in February the house faced a critical situation. With no warning, only a few days before housing applications were due, they got an email from Housing about the LLCs on Bull Street opening up to the general student population. “I emailed my department head, and he didn’t know anything about it either,” Roach explained. “It was out of the blue. The College didn’t think to ask, ‘Hey, what communities will this change affect?’”

To combat this change, Roach volunteered to talk to the head of the Housing Department. Roach informed her of the programs, clubs and departments in which the students of the Spanish House are involved. “The head of Housing had no idea,” Roach said. “And I was insulted, because they had no idea and didn’t even think to ask before making their decision.”

Thanks to efforts by Roach and Daniel Delgado Díaz, the chair of the Spanish house, they were able to fill all of the rooms for the upcoming year and effectively save it. Delgado explained, “The Casa Hispana is one of the unique features on the College’s campus; students have even decided to come here because of its existence. It provides the rare opportunity to be immersed in new cultures and a new language without leaving Charleston.”

Fortunately the Spanish house was saved, but three of the other four LLCs could not say the same. At an increasing rate, these kind of cultural hubs are being dissolved.

The College of Charleston Gospel Choir is an ensemble class within the Music Department. Though its extensive bio has been taken down from the Music Department’s website, it is and has been a part of Charleston culture for many years. “Since I have been with the choir, we have sung at weddings, several churches, fancy restaurants and hotels downtown, at an antique show, at Accepted Students Weekend and also at Charleston Fashion Week,” member Jasmine Curbeam said. Their most recent performance was on February 14 when they put on their “Black History Concert.” In this show they paid homage to traditional Negro spirituals such as “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Trouble of the World” and “Down in my Soul.”

Along with the Spanish house, Roach expressed concern about being part of another culturally themed organization that is facing adversity. The predominately black choir which she is a part of is being shut down. Graduate student Breton Weeks is the choir director, and has stopped being paid for his work. The only reason the choir still exists is because he is volunteering his time. Roach said, “So I’m here wanting to save my choir, trying to save my house, and I’m just thinking, ‘What’s happening?’”

Lack of diversity on campus has been an issue throughout Roach’s college career. Last fall she wanted to create a support group for those culturally similar to her, those who have had kindred life experiences, but she ultimately found the task futile. “I attempted to start some sort of Latino sorority, but it was really hard to find people. I didn’t think it would be so difficult, because I knew there was a baby population of Latinos on campus, but in the end it never worked out.” Such support groups are important, because in the world of a minority, strength and encouragement comes from those having similar experiences.

On a perfect campus, these shared experiences would all be positive, but by no means is the College of Charleston perfect. “At least once or twice a semester, when I tell someone I’m Colombian, they will ask if I’ve tried cocaine,” Roach explained. “Another one I get all the time is, ‘Are there white people in your country?’ And I’m not saying it’s wrong to be curious about other cultures, but just have respect for them. A lot of times Americans feel like they have their culture, and then after that comes everyone else’s.”

This is a sentiment perpetuated by the lack of diversity on campus. And to add to it, Americans often disregard the very cultures that have been integral parts in the building of this nation.

April 4, 2015: Walter Scott is fatally shot in the back by a North Charleston police officer.

“I didn’t know it was still Black History Month.”

This is one of several remarks junior Donovan Taylor heard as he and other black students conducted a peaceful march downtown to draw attention to the death of Joyce Curnell, a black woman who died in Charleston County police custody. They gathered in Marion Square, under the gaze of John C. Calhoun’s statue. Onlookers flipped their middle fingers at the students as they passed. The BOUNDLESS campaign banners looked on silently: “Let’s talk about race today.”

MMA class April 5 2016

Donovan Taylor. (Photo by Michael Wiser)

Black students have an undeniably different experience at the College than white students. Their time on campus is influenced by both the school’s ambition to create a more diverse, supportive environment and the persistent realities of prejudice.

This atmosphere of latent discrimination manifests in many ways. Taylor saw it in the aftermath of the . He described the frustration he felt as the memorials and tributes poured into the city from around the world. “As students of color, it was a moment where people of color were being attacked,” Taylor explained. Many students felt the gravity of this racial attack was ignored in the “holding-hands gatherings.” Taylor observed that “it was white people saying we’re strong, we’re better than that, but ignoring the fact that it was a race issue.”

A few days later, he watched people go back to their routines as if nothing had changed. Calhoun Street hummed with activity once again. Flowers and cards piled up on the church steps. But for many white Charlestonians it was business as usual.  For black students, “it changed everything,” Taylor said. “We felt unsafe.”

At the College, a moment of silence at Georgestock showed respect for the nine victims. For a few seconds, the students were united. But the moment passed when the DJ shouted, “Let’s get back out on the dance floor.” Fragmented once again, white students flooded back to the center of the fun and black students remained still with heads bowed. Resolute, like rocks in a river.

The Mother Emanuel tragedy has come to symbolize racism in its most naked, ugly form. Consequently, it can be easy to overlook the instances of racism that occur on our own campus. They are not publicized, but they are no less problematic. One black student, who wished to remain anonymous, told of a night when he attended a party with a friend and was thrown out because, as the host said, they already had too many black people.

Once, the same student was walking down St. Philip Street when a car pulled up next to him. The white students inside rolled the windows down and began screaming the N-word. Perhaps they hoped that their behavior would make them Internet famous. They thrust a camera in the black student’s face, desperate to elicit a reaction.

They did not get one.

Lately, increased attention has been paid to the academic atmosphere for black students on campus. The College recently received criticism for the termination of ROAR Scholars, a comprehensive support program that serves first generation, low income and disabled students. About 150 students benefit from ROAR every year, many of them racial minorities. In September, Director Tom Holcomb explained that the program’s federal grant was not renewed by the Department of Education. Provost Brian McGee explained that the College of Charleston Foundation is being used to fund the program for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. “I was on the phone with the federal government myself” fighting for the grant’s renewal, McGee said, but to no avail.  “ROAR Scholars was a great program and we’re very sorry to have lost it.”

Provost Brian McGee. (Photo by Reagan Hembree)

Provost Brian McGee. (Photo by Reagan Hembree)

Despite the administration’s efforts to keep ROAR running, many black students believe that not enough has been done. “Yes, the grant ran out, and there’s nothing they could really do about that,” Taylor admitted, “but I feel like there’s lot of funds here at the College raised through things like the BOUNDLESS campaign.”

Alumna and BSU advisor Marla Robertson spoke at a rally for ROAR about a month ago. She lamented the loss of a significant scholarship and mentorship tool, at a time when the College is making bold goals for increasing diversity. “If we bring them here but we have…no infrastructure to support them, then we will bring them in but we will not be able to retain them,” Robertson said. Taylor and other students echoed her concerns, accusing the College of playing a numbers game.

In the springtime, tour groups are as certain as pollen. The photogenic college students gently guide the sweaty kids and inquisitive parents around campus, pointing out the amenities that will hopefully make the College feel like a second home.

Sadly, for black students, this second home can feel indifferent, even hostile. Programs like ROAR Scholars provided a refuge. They gave minority students a sense that they were valued as more than a number in a report. “You know that’s a place you can go and feel understood, and we don’t have a lot of places like this on campus,” Robertson remarked at the rally.

Junior Jakarri Godbolt said that ROAR taught him that people outside of your own race can care about you. Senior Alexis Walters said she is tired of not mattering to the administration of the College.

“We are important. We matter.”

June 17, 2015: White supremacist murders nine members of the Mother Emanuel AME church in downtown Charleston.

For centuries, Greek Life has been a prominent part of the college experience. And for most undergraduates, Greek Life is the gateway to new, exciting opportunities – a guaranteed way to make the most of your four years away from home. Social bonding, parties and networking are all just a few of the many benefits that come along with immersing oneself in this tradition. And ultimately, it is through this extensive experience that some may discover their own identity. For most, that is what makes Greek Life so enticing.

At the College, nearly a quarter of the campus believes in this narrative and partakes in Greek Life. This community is comprised of 26 nationally-affiliated chapters belonging to three governing councils – the Interfraternity Council (IFC), the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), the Panhellenic Council and two Greek honor societies – Order of Omega and Rho Lambda.

When the term “Greek Life” comes to mind, events such as Pep Supper, Derby Days and Anchor Splash undoubtedly follow. Fitting of Charleston, decorated, multi-colored historical houses lining Wentworth and Coming are also common associations to Greek Life culture at the College. But many fail to realize that these houses mainly house only two of the three Greek councils on campus. With organizations taking residency in homes stretching blocks in the downtown area, 97 Wentworth is left to the NPHC. But for the NPHC, this house is not home.

“It is nice that we were able to get a house, but at the same time it’s not a house for all of our members,” admitted Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. member, Jaquan Leonard.

In a house owned by the College, six fraternities and sororities are put under one roof. Fraternities and respective sororities share a designated room where business affairs can be conducted or a chapter meetings may be held.

“We just feel like it’s a meeting place, like we can’t take real ownership of it. We can’t take real pride in it as the other houses do,” said Leonard. “You see the other houses decorated beautifully, with their organization’s sign, letters, colors. But [the NPHC house] belongs to us collectively, so essentially it doesn’t belong to any of us.”

When considering Phi Mu member Megan Dunn and her chapter’s sorority house on campus, the story is very different. As with most Panhellenic organizations, her sorority house holds traditions from past years and members are welcomed to partake in chapter history, subsequently forging a close community with fellow sorority sisters.

Seven girls currently reside in the Phi Mu house. In the NPHC house, there is no one.

Unlike the members of Panhellenic Council and IFC, officers and chapter members are not permitted to actually reside in the NPHC house.

For some, to group the NPHC together – to place all the predominately black Greek organizations in one establishment – may seem a reasonable set up. Since first being organized on college campuses, Greek organizations have always been racially segregated.

Though, to Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. member, Robert Taylor, “Black history is also Greek history when it comes to the black community.”

Born out of the need to organize and serve their communities at a time of disenfranchisement and denied rights, black Greek organizations filled a void. Founded between 1906 and 1963, the “Divine 9” – Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Phi Beta Sigma, Zeta Phi Beta, Sigma Gamma Rho, and Iota Phi Theta – were created to uplift communities through service, all while emphasizing the importance of education. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Zora Neale Hurston, and Phylicia Rashad are a few of the many members belonging to these Greek organizations that have been instrumental in civil rights movements, education and the arts. Today, NPHC has spread its roots from just historically black colleges and universities, to predominantly white institutions.

Here at the College, the NPHC made their first appearance in the early 1970s, not many years after the first black student was admitted into the institution.

Though numbers have grown and shrunk over the years, the NPHC’s presence on the campus has been consistent. Producing numerous events on campus from environmental clean ups to town hall discussions, and having an active hand in local charities and projects, it would seem that NPHC stands as equals to their counterpart councils. They have proved to be a real council, with real organizations, having real impact on the campus and community. But NPHC Secretary and Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc, member, Julisa Truss, expressed that the campus may feel otherwise.

Julisa Truss. (Photo by Michael Wiser)

Julisa Truss. (Photo by Michael Wiser)

“People don’t consider NPHC to be a council. We are on the same level. We’re doing real work and we’re really trying to make this campus better for – not just black people – but all people.”

Little is known about the “stepping and dancing” Greeks at the College, and this level of ignorance only mirrors the issue of lack in housing. “Birds of a feather flock together” then rings true when all black Greek organizations are marginalized and placed under one roof.

Many would suggest simply purchasing a house to solve the housing disparity. While an easy solution, several factors prevent the NPHC from going forth with this.

First, there are not a large number of black students on campus, let alone within the black Greek system.

According to Taylor, Panhellenic and IFC have more members at the College and therefore have more funds backing their organizations. This means that these particular councils will always have the privilege and opportunity to have a house, and chances are, will never have it taken away.

At a school with nearly eight percent blacks, this is not the case for the NPHC. Many of the students cannot afford to live in pricey 17th century homes downtown. To expect students from lower economic backgrounds to establish a house is not logical. For a minority group to fund their own housing, Taylor projected that loans would have to be taken out, tuition would have to be increased or money would have to be taken from their already small chapter accounts.

But as much as a trivial issue housing may seem, the controversy sheds light on other issues surrounding Greek Life traditions, and even bigger issues of diversity on the College campus.

On campus, mixing of different backgrounds, is rare. As history would show, few blacks have attempted to join historically white Greek groups, and vice versa – for an underlying, unspoken sense of  taboo swirls when races interact.

Informal segregation has remained the norm on campuses far beyond the deep South. And the norm at most campuses is to ignore the issue. Colleges have conclusive data on many activities like athletics or fields of study, but they claim that Greek Life statistics are unknown.

Essentially, lack of housing translates into the lack of black identity on the College campus.

July 10, 2015: The Confederate Flag is removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds. 

And then there’s President McConnell.

President McConnell, who assumed his current position amidst bold protesting from minority and majority students alike in regard to his history with Confederate memorabilia and reenactments.

President McConnell, who publicly supported Governor Nikki Haley’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol, while simultaneously stating that “the people of South Carolina are entitled to their complete history, the parts that give us pride as well as sadness.”

President McConnell, who, upon taking office, has supposedly made it his mission to improve diversity on campus.

President McConnell, who issued a public statement addressing diversity on campus during last February’s Black History Month, which called the College a “melting pot of various ideas and people” as well as “a diverse place.”

As of March 2016, the College of Charleston Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Information Management reports that the College ranks in the bottom three South Carolinian colleges and universities in terms of underrepresented with a mere 16.7 percent. 7.2 percent of that number are African Americans, the next highest percentage being hispanic students with 4.3.

According to Dr. John O. Bello-Ogunu, Associate Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer in the Office of Institutional Diversity, the College is “not at a level we should be proud of” in terms of diversity, but “a level that is still a measurable success in respect to the last couple of years.”

Dr. John O. Bello-Ogunu. (Photo by Katie Carter)

Dr. John O. Bello-Ogunu. (Photo by Katie Carter)

“It is unfortunately difficult to appreciate the level of success that has been achieved because the magnitude of the diversity and inclusion problem on our campus is huge,” Ogunu said.

Ogunu admitted that McConnell’s stance on diversity since assuming his position as President has been observatory rather than interventionary. A little over a year ago, McConnell created a “Diversity Review Committee” made up of members of the faculty, staff and Board of Trustees. Since then, he has been waiting for the committee to “take a look at where we are with regards to diversity and to make recommendations to him as to their findings and where we should be headed,” Ogunu said. Ogunu had no information as to when the committee would be able to provide McConnell with a comprehensive analysis, but was told by the president himself that as soon as the committee presents its work, he will be able to provide “an institutional direction” as to where he wants the College to go as far as diversity is concerned. Until then, the committee has no definitive deadline.

In Ogunu’s opinion, the unfortunate racist history of South Carolina, as well as the College specifically, are two of the main barriers the College faces in its attempts to diversify the student body.

And while there has been progress in the past couple of years, citing the bigger percentage of minority students such as black, Asian Americans and Hispanic students, the pervasive sentiment of worthlessness and insecurity among those students has apparently seen no progress.

People should be treated as such, not as statistics on a College of Charleston application brochure.

Marla Robertson ‘01, Personal Services Budget Coordinator in the Budgeting and Payroll Services Department, has witnessed this firsthand. A graduate from the College, as well as the Staff Advisor for the Black Student Union, Robertson has watched the campus climate evolve from different sides of the perspective. On a visit to a local high school for its College Application Day, Robertson was assigned to help high school students fill out college applications. Robertson approached a black student who was sitting in the back of the room, inactive, and asked why she wasn’t filling out applications. Upon seeing Robertson’s College of Charleston uniform shirt, the girl responded, “I’m definitely not going to CofC, that school is for white people.” Shocked, Robertson informed the girl about her own experiences at the College, also being a black student.

The girl – a high schooler – responded, “what, with that slave owner president?”

Robertson called on the campus community to look at diversity as a concept that has seemingly become a buzzword – one that everyone likes to throw around but that no one seems to really understand. “Diversity pertains to a number, how many people in the room,” she said. “It does not address how many of those people are supported, or cared for, or appreciated.”

In her opinion, the institution is working hard to improve the quantitative aspect of diversity, but doing little to challenge the overarching ideology of institutional racism that is palpable on campus. In other words, the College wants to keep increasing its numbers of minority students without implementing an infrastructure to support the “numbers” who are already here.

“Increasing numbers of minority students, faculty and staff alone on any campus, especially any predominantly white campus, is not good enough,” Ogunu agreed. “And it should not be the only measure by which we [determine] the progress of our diversity climate.”

Robertson agreed. “We don’t need to focus on just getting brown people here,” she said. “We need to be making sure that the brown people who are already here are extremely supported and extremely successful.”

A common theme between Robertson and Ogunu’s prospective opinions is that there must be a larger financial commitment to supporting those students who have been marginalized on campus for being a minority. “Unless minority students and students from poor families see significant financial support,” Ogunu said, “their dreams to achieve a college education will remain mere dreams.” Robertson stressed that not only must the College dedicate scholarship funds to lower income students, but it must continue to support those students, financially and otherwise, throughout the entire four years that they spend at the College.

Ogunu summed up his opinion of the campus diversity climate in three words: good, improving and progressive. Robertson’s three words were hopeful, stifling and unclear.

Keeping true to Ogunu’s statement that “you can’t expect to obtain a different result by doing the same thing over and over again,” Robertson, Ogunu and other advocates of diversity and equality will continue to strive for change within the institution – contingent upon the results of President McConnell’s Diversity Review Committee.

President McConnell, who, according to his secretary, could not fit in a 15 minute interview with The Yard into his busy schedule to talk about diversity, something he has long believed to be one of the most pressing issues that faces the College of Charleston campus today.

July 22, 2015: Joyce Curnell dies of dehydration in Charleston County Jail. The story of her death is not revealed until months later. July 1, 2014: Glenn McConnell takes office as president of the College of Charleston. 

BY: Chelsea Anderson, Courtney Eker, Bradley Harrison, Sigrid Johannes, Emily Warner.

*This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of the Yard.

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