Marketing Diversity at Ithaca College

Written Fall 2011, this piece looks at the cynical gestures IC administrators made towards diversity. Today, IC students are voicing their frustration regarding the lack of meaningful inclusion provided by the college.

Ithaca College’s fountains, courtesy of Flickr user Paul_Houle

Senior DeAsia Gilmer first visited Ithaca College nearly four years ago as part of Inside Look, a program aimed at attracting African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native American students to the school. As a black high school student from Baltimore, Maryland who had barely heard of IC before applying, Gilmer soaked in the details of her new environment — the cold weather, the classes, and of course the people. She met with hundreds of different ALANA students, both enrolled and prospective. She went to classes, participated in game nights and made friends with the other students, all while learning about the minority culture on campus. The weekend sold her, and Gilmer decided to enroll.

But when fall came around and Gilmer moved into her Terrace dorm room, she couldn’t help but ask: “Well, where are all those people now?”

Gilmer found herself stranded in a drastically different culture, alien not just to Baltimore, but also to what she experienced during her first weekend in Ithaca. Rather than the sea of students of color she saw that spring, she met the reality of Ithaca College: a school that, when Gilmer arrived, had a freshman class comprised of just 13.4 percent ALANA students.

“Freshman year I wanted to transfer. It was just so different, I didn’t know if I could handle the college being so different than what I was used to,” Gilmer explained. “It wasn’t only culture shock, it was being uncomfortable with who I felt that I could talk to because, at least psychologically, people gravitate initially to people who they can relate to and who look like them. So it was like, ‘I don’t know if I can relate to any of these people.’”

Gilmer’s qualms ran the gamut, from feeling as though she was expected to speak for her entire race in classrooms, to being unable to relate to the people she passed in the halls. However, she managed to find a comfortable niche through programs like the African Latino Society, where she was able to express herself comfortably.

“Even if it was hard throughout the week, I knew on this night I could just go and relax for an hour, talk to people, and be myself,” she said.

In the three years since Gilmer considered transferring, the school has seen a growth its minority population; On October 5, The Ithacan ran a story headlined “College Reports Most Diverse Freshman Class in IC History,” trumpeting the fact that “the 2011 freshman class is made up of 18.2 percent ALANA students, compared to 15.1 percent in 2010, 14.9 percent in 2009 and 13.4 percent in 2008.”

However, the real story was buried in the article’s seventh paragraph: despite the college’s ballyhooed “progress,” its minority population lags significantly behind the national average of 27 percent ALANA students — even this, its “best” class, falls approximately a third below the national average.

“I guess in the administration’s mind it makes them feel better…I think from an administration view it’s like, ‘At least we’re not decreasing, or at least we’re not stagnant.’ It’s all about numbers,” Gilmer said.

But of course it’s not all about the numbers, and minority students on campus don’t function simply to make administrators feel better. The fact remains: students like Gilmer do sometimes wind up with a slanted perception of the school. How does that happen? And is there an ALS — somewhere people of different cultures can feel at ease — for everyone?

This past September IC’s marketing department reached out to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholars, a group of high-achieving ALANA students awarded merit-based scholarships. They were searching for volunteers to be photographed for the college’s promotional materials, specifically the brochures sent out to accepted applicants.

Gilmer, an MLK Scholar herself, bristled at the email and other attempts to highlight the relatively few ALANA students the school does have.

“If this was an email they sent out to the entire campus community saying ‘We want to get pictures of people doing X, Y and Z,’ that’s different,” she said. “But I just feel like they’re kind of putting students of color on a display…It’s kind of like, not that zoo feel, but kind of being examined, being looked at, just for simply the color of your skin.”

Other students echo Gilmer’s sentiments. Lawrence Moten, a senior MLK scholar, explained that he feels the college will, at times, intentionally play up aspects of its ALANA community in order to attract a larger population of those students.

“I think every advertising company lies. I think Ithaca College is no different,” Moten said. “I think that they want people to think that they are culturally diverse. And they’re trying, and not necessarily successful.”

It would appear that even President Tom Rochon agrees with at least part of that statement: the college does seek to create a perception that it is diverse. In 2009, as part of an article on the college’s marketing efforts, he told Buzzsaw Magazine’s Julissa Treviño that: “We do everything to present our campus as a diverse campus.”

Treviño’s article examined an ad campaign called “i Am Diverse,” which was scrapped in March 2009. The campaign involved a series of posters in which students and faculty listed what set them apart, to occasionally comic effect — among the phrases used to indicate “diversity” on campus included “Caucasian,” “Christian,” “born and raised on Long Island,” “student” and “nerd.”

While that campaign may have fallen flat in its efforts to achieve the impossible and to present Ithaca as an actual diverse campus, the intention behind it illustrates a larger point, which Treviño broached in her report: the desire to show the school as diverse is inherently manipulative if it doesn’t address the underlying fact that the student population is overwhelmingly white. And it doesn’t matter if the fact is glossed over in an attempt to “fix” a homogenous campus by attracting more ALANA students, because simply accumulating more minority students fails to “fix” anything at all. Ithaca College isn’t entitled to a certain number of minority students, nor is it bound to adhere to the national average. What it does owe to the community is honesty, and if the actual number of minority students isn’t placed alongside highlights of what little diversity is present within the marketing materials themselves, the college has failed in that obligation. While it would be great if minority students gravitated to our campus in large numbers, the fact that they don’t doesn’t mean we “present our campus as a diverse campus” when that isn’t necessarily true.

The negative effects of that failure manifest themselves in the students themselves when they arrive on campus under such a pretense. They’re apparent in Moten’s suspicion and Gilmer’s alienation. As Moten says: “That should be in their advertising. Yes, we do have a low minority student population but we are working in these ways to improve that, and it’s growing’ and they should show that track of growth.”

But Moten, for his part, would actually be willing to participate in the college’s advertising despite his reservations.

“I would do it for Ithaca because I love Ithaca and I love showing people how much I love Ithaca and trying to show them how great Ithaca can be, and for that reason I’d be a part of that,” he said. However, he is aware of how the school could use his ethnicity in marketing itself. “I don’t think I’d ever consider that as simply because I’m black, that I identify as African-American and Asian-American, but I know that those would be things that the college is using to its benefit.”

And while Gilmer might be unwilling to be in ads for the college, she nevertheless overcame her initial alienation by connecting with the ALANA community on campus, finding the relatable people she was looking for. In fact, she continued to participate in Inside Look as an IC student because she sees the program as important despite her reservations. So if the college fosters a culture of inclusion, the negative effects of misleading advertising are lessened.

But, if the school’s minority population is indeed growing at the rate the school insists, it stands to reason that the programming catered to fostering conversations about that diversity must also grow. If the school fails to do that, it increases the risk that students like Gilmer face similar alienation when they get to campus and experience life on the other side of the advertising. And, in at least one prominent instance, the school does indeed appear to be failing.

“The Asian-American Studies program… has been promised for the last ten years [since the creation of the Center for Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity], but has been put on hold for ten years,” Kristy Zhen explains, her voice rising to a crescendo as she details the latest resistance she’s met in her efforts to install an academic program examining the issues facing Asian Americans on campus.

The most recent push began in the spring of 2010, born out of a student identity panel hosted by the Asian American Alliance. That event invited students to share their experiences as Asians and Americans; a common thread running through the discussion was a desire for academic programming to explore their identity.

Zhen took it upon herself to push for the expansion of the curriculum, beginning with a survey gauging interest in an Asian American Studies Program on campus. It garnered roughly 100 responses, most of which favored the creation of such a series of courses.

Zhen acknowledges that the survey may not have been entirely representative, largely because of its population and sample size, but the apparent interest in such a program became a stepping -stone for her work the following spring. Zhen began compiling a documentary, “Missing in History,” examining identity and education in the context of a potential Asian American Studies Program.

“From the documentary and our research we found that students who are able to learn about their own history and the history of people of color in this country get a better understanding of who they are and their place in society. You also become more politically active because you realize how oppressed and marginalized your people are,” Zhen said.

In the course of her work on “Missing in History,” Zhen engaged Asma Barlas, director of the CSCRE, who helped draft a proposal for an Asian American Studies Program. She then helped gather 413 signatures on a petition supporting its implementation, presenting it to the dean of Humanities and Sciences.

But over the summer the administration decided on faculty lines, and Asian American Studies was not included in the plan. Zhen was disappointed, because she believed that the proposal was flatly rejected — she never received any notification from the administration that anything was on hold. However, when The Ithacan asked the administration about it this October, Marisa Kelly, provost and vice president of academic affairs, told them that the Asian American Studies program was simply “put on hold temporarily” in favor of other efforts, like a potential China program.

“That’s the first time we’ve ever heard that statement, or anything about being ‘put on hold,’ as opposed to just rejected or denied,” Zhen said.

Since then, Zhen has held a meeting to discuss the need for the program open to the school that attracted roughly 100 students. She extended invitations to both the provost and the president, but they did not attend.

Zhen’s fight for an Asian-American Studies program is closely related with Gilmer’s struggle to find a comfort zone in a predominately white campus and Moten’s critique of college advertising — all believe that if the higher education is going to reach out to students of color, it has to do so in an honest way.

“I think the school does a lot of advertising and marketing to make Ithaca seem diverse and that it’s really accepting and open to students of color,” Zhen said. “In some ways it is, but in a lot of ways it’s hypocritical. A lot of things are unsaid and a lot of things are emphasized. For example, the emphasis that this year is that they have to most color enrolling into the college…[but] enrollment and retention are two very different things.”

And to Moten, that retention is directly related to programs like the CSCRE, ALS and the Asian American Studies Program. “The biggest thing for retention [of minority students] in a college is that they need to be able to see themselves in the community and they need to be able to see themselves in the rhetoric of the community.”

That rhetoric, though, needs to extend itself beyond the campus community and into the college’s advertising as well. The ethos of college marketing toward minority students — “We won’t say anything, we won’t lie, but we won’t tell the truth either,” as Gilmer put it — needs to change if students are ever to feel comfortable within the “diverse” community they’re allegedly joining.

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