Being Black at Fordham: Recommendations for an antiracist and equity-oriented university culture

In the summer of 2018, I wrote a report for a Fordham Administrator outlining Fordham University’s institutional goals for diversity and inclusion with recommendations on how the university could particularly support Black and Latinx students. I wrote this piece under much duress and stress. Towards the end of the project, I was not adequately supported in the writing process — I was gaslighted and belittled. However, I am proud of the end product and the three recommendations I chose to propose to Fordham University. These three recommendations have still not been addressed, and it shows through the experiences of students documented on social media through @BlackatFordham and @letstalkaboutitFordham, as well as ASILI’s (Fordham’s Black student union) list of demands. I have given up hope for my personal experiences in the roles of faculty, graduate student, and staff at the university. I can only do my very best as 1) an educator that aims to create a transformative classroom environment by instituting my own antiracist teaching practice, and 2) a community member and graduate student that moves to address the needs of marginalized Fordham community members in the ways I am able to. I am very impressed by the students who work every day to transform Fordham into the place it should be — you all are inspiring. Keep stating your truths and keep making demands.

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“Supporting Black and Latinx students at Fordham: Demanding an antiracist and equity-oriented university culture”

Introduction and Theoretical Framework

With the committee’s recommendations and McShane’s leadership, there have been important changes at Fordham within the past year. This is primarily the creation of the Chief Diversity Officer position and accompanied staffing in 2017/2018 as well as a new Vice President of Human Resources with a renewed focus on diversity. Although Fordham will be impacted by the addition of leadership focused on the challenges of supporting and creating diversity initiatives, university community members remain skeptical if programmatic changes will affect ingrained institutional culture. In particular, Black and Latinx students have vocalized ongoing bias incidents and a culture of exclusion that persist at the university, especially Fordham’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx.

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In this report, I will provide three recommendations to Fordham University on ways to support Black and Latinx undergraduate students at Fordham and foreground antiracism and equity as vital parts of the university culture. This report will combine tenets from President McShane’s strategic priority for “A Diverse and Inclusive Community” with three of the top demands from groups representing marginalized students at seventy-six universities and colleges in the United States [1]. Additionally, best practice models from comparable or associative university systems will be explored to support these recommendations.

With a focus on the praxis of social justice and counterstories, Critical Race Theory and its associated LatCrit Theory are integral to this analysis. As described by Kimberly B. Pyne and Darris R. Means, Critical Race Theory “deconstructs the apparent neutrality of social institutions by focusing discussions on the history and continued prevalence of racial oppression in these sites and beyond” [2]. An extension of the CRT efforts, Latinx critical race theory (LatCrit) confronts the Black–White binaries in the United States to understand systemic challenges facing those individuals that identify as Latinx [3]. Both CRT and LatCrit draw on critical feminist, womanist, and other intersectionality theories recognizing the combination of racism with multiple marginalized identities.

bell hooks’ and Kimberlee Crenshaw’s respective CRT concepts of “engaged pedagogy” and “intersectionality” will inform this piece by exploring culturally transformative and intersecting ways for institutions to push for pluralism and equity. While also acknowledging the complex identities at the base of how diverse community members experience an institution’s culture.

It is my hope that these recommendations will provide Fordham University insight into the needs of Black and Latinx undergraduate students in particular. It will be necessary to scale up these efforts to support other minoritized students, transforming Fordham’s practiced institutional culture to embrace plurality and equity.

First, I recommend strategically allocating diversity funding resources to directly impact students; second, diversity, equity, and antiracism training for the entire Fordham community; and third, development of academic curricula that expounds Fordham’s mission of diversity, inclusion, and equity.

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Literature Review

In an article discussing the twenty-year anniversary of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, former Spelman College President, Beverly Daniel Tatum suggests that there have been three major setbacks in diversity and equity in education between the period from 1997 to 2017: (1) the anti-affirmative-action backlash of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, (2) the economic collapse of 2008 known as the Great Recession, and (3) the “phenomenon” known as mass incarceration [7]. Subsequent protests and demands made at other U.S. higher education institutions demonstrated formally by “The Demands” website further evoked the need for scholars and practitioners to reassess student success, inclusion, and equity at predominantly white higher education institutions [8].

The work of Samuel Museus and a collective of scholar-practitioners engage this reassessment of “climate” to “culture.” In “How Culturally Engaging Campus Environments Influence Sense of Belonging in College: An Examination of Differences Between White Students and Students of Color” Museus, Varaxy Yi, and Natasha Saelua investigate culturally engaging campus environments (CECE) model of college success for students of color. They advocate for an institutional focus on cultural relevance and cultural responsiveness through themes such as culturally validating environments, cultural familiarity, cross-cultural engagement, holistic support, collectivist cultural orientations, and humanized educational environments [9].

In “Mapping the Intersection of campus cultures and equitable outcomes among racially diverse student populations,” Uma Jayakumar and Museus address racial and ethnic disparities in college success for students of color. Instead of reinforcing support in individual-based interventions for students of color, Jayakumar and Museus advocate for institutional transformation highlighting the importance for higher education institutions to self-interrogate institutional “campus culture.”

Although Fordham University is not at the lowest end of Museus, et al.’s proposed spectrum of “Eurocentric,” “Diversity-Oriented,” and “Equity-Oriented” campus cultures, by my assessment the university has recently transitioned from a “Eurocentric” to “Diversity-Oriented” campus. How can we move Fordham from a “diversity-oriented” to an “equity-oriented” campus? How will an “equity-oriented” Fordham better support the Black and Latinx student body? How will an “equity-oriented” Fordham support marginalized and minoritized students at Fordham?

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Recommendations

First, I recommend strategically allocating diversity funding resources to directly impact students; second, diversity, equity, and antiracism training for the entire Fordham community; and third, development of academic curricula that expounds Fordham’s mission of diversity, inclusion, and equity.

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Recommendation #1

In an analytical review of the documented student demands from TheDemands.org, Higher Education Today aggregated the types of requests students petitioned to respective institutional administrations. Eighty-eight percent of representative student groups demanded an increase in resources to be allocated to the needs of diverse and marginalized students [10]. Although, as promised by Father McShane in the CUSP Strategic Framework and response to the Task Force on Diversity report, there is an increase of funding for staffing and programmatic diversity needs, the Office of Multicultural Affair is understaffed (June 2020 this still holds true). This department works closely with Black and Latinx undergraduate students supporting their needs and interfacing with students of color more than any other department at Fordham.

The Office of Multicultural Affairs department is too small for the breadth of programmatic and student support they must administer at both the Lincoln Center and Rose Hill campuses. Currently, the office includes two full-time staff with two to three graduate interns supporting the office during the academic year. I would suggest the inclusion of Program Associate and Program Assistant positions, as well as more connectivity with the graduate intern positions by recruiting Fordham alum or current Fordham graduate students (one from Lincoln Center and another from Rose Hill). Staff of color should be hired in these roles. In “Person First, Student Second: Staff and Administrators of Color Supporting Students of Color Authentically in Higher Education,” Courtney Luedke explores the importance of mentoring roles of staff and administrators for first-generation Black, Latinx, and biracial students. For Luedke, staff of color nurtured the capital that students brought with them to college. Because of this students often turned to the staff for other forms of support, which creates cultural capital within and outside of the university [11].

Fordham University administrators have expressed plans to increase support of Black and Latinx students through, “Welcome events/Pre-orientation opportunities, Integrated Learning Communities in Residential Life (with a complimentary commuter component), Diversity and Inclusion Graduate Celebration, Connection with Alumni through events and mentoring, and stronger/annual cultural events” [12]. Increase staffing will be necessary to successfully support these initiatives and programs. Additional staff will allow the Office of Multicultural Affairs to support students holistically valuing their backgrounds and supporting their success.

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Recommendation #2

Seventy-one percent of representative student groups requested either new or revised diversity or cultural competency training. Student groups called for faculty, staff, students, administration, and university police/security to receive training to increase their overall cultural competency [13]. Fordham’s CUSP Strategic Plan specifically addresses the renewed efforts to “enhance the cultural competency of faculty, staff, and students” [14]. Higher Education Today suggests that students petitioned institutions to “consider expansive shifts to institutional culture rather than merely stand-alone programs or add-on policies.” I recommend collaborating with the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Equity and Inclusion Fellows Program. Graduate student fellows are trained in a year-long program on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Fellows facilitate training outside of Harvard and prospectively could provide diversity training to staff and students in Residential Life, New Student Orientation, and Campus Tours at Fordham University. These Fordham administrative groups interface with current and prospective Black and Latinx students and their families. In these different spaces — from dorm room to touring prospects — Fordham’s culture of “white exclusivity” and biased aggressions are expressed.

Particularly in the residence halls, students of color can experience both explicit and subtle racism that may lessen the benefits of living on campus [15]. According to Stacy Harwood, et al., these experiences for Black and Latinx students attribute to adverse outcomes in academic performance, greater stress, and increased mental health needs [16]. The fellows are training students at Yale this fall 2018 and are interested in engaging Fordham [17].

In addition to training, Fordham can scale up recently created Diversity Peer Leaders and Racial Solidarity Network initiatives to model the Harvard program and include a variety of university stakeholders (graduate students, faculty, and staff). HGSE’s Equity and Inclusion Fellows Program is grounded in Intergroup Dialogue, and hosts activities throughout the academic year on and off-campus. Trained “Fordham Fellows” can give workshops within courses, at orientations, department meetings, student organizational meetings, etc. If a comparable fellowship program was instituted, this network of trained diversity and equity facilitators would be transformative for Fordham’s culture and beyond.

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Recommendation #3

Sixty-eight percent of representative student groups demanded revisions or additions to the academic curricula. Through CUSP, Fordham plans to “strengthen the focus of undergraduate and graduate/professional curricula and program offerings on the many dimensions of human diversity.” Although there are ethnic studies departments at Fordham, there has been difficulty in holistically transforming curricula and required coursework to include a multicultural standpoint.

In Teaching Community, bell hooks explains that much of the contemporary attack on Women Studies and Black/Ethnic Studies emerged because these programs were successfully educating students to be critical thinkers [18]. Curricula development will support Black and Latinx students who, in addition to student groups and initiatives, may find safe spaces to express their cultural capital and mentorship within these programs.

In concert with bell hooks and Samuel Museus, I recommend training sites for faculty to fully engage in their role as “Cultural Agents” in developing and expanding multicultural programming in and outside of the classroom. Specifically, Museus states “faculty members have the capacity to reshape campus cultures so that students of color experience less cultural incongruence….faculty can work to reinforce and enhance campus cultural values that promote success for all learners” [19]. Faculty have an integral role in supporting students of color, particularly the Black and Latinx student body. Curricula development could lead to co-curricular activities and programs that transform Fordham’s culture from “Diversity” to one that exudes “Equity.”

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Conclusion

By addressing the experiences of Black and Latinx undergraduate students at Fordham, the university is casting a wide net and addressing the needs of Fordham’s diverse student body. Black and Latinx students are intersectional and represent an array of identities, such as immigrant, commuting student, LGBTQIA, differently-abled, diverse religious background, etc. There is also the intersection of Black and Latinx as Black Latinx or Afro-Latinx for many Fordham community members. It is my hope that Fordham University considers my suggestions focusing on funding, training, and curricula. These recommended interventions address a segment of Fordham’s minoritized student population in an intersectional and holistic way that will recognize the needs of all marginalized groups in the university community.

[1] McShane, Joseph, S.J., “A Strategic Framework for Fordham’s Future: Bothered Excellence.” Letter to Fordham Community, Fordham University, December 2014, 13.

[2] Pyne, Kimberly B.; Means, Darris R. “Underrepresented and In/visible: A Hispanic First-Generation Student’s Narratives of College”. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, v6 n3 Sep 2013,187, 188.

[3] Pyne and Means, 188.

[4] Zimmerman, Jonathan. Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know® Oxford University Press, 2016, 55.

[5] Zimmerman, 55

[6] Tatum, Beverly. “Why Are All the Black Kids Still Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations about Race in the Twenty-First Century.” Liberal Education, vol. 103, no. 3/4, Summer/Fall2017, 48.

[6] TheDemand.org,http://www.thedemands.org/ , accessed July 2, 2018.

[7] Museus, S.D., et al. “How Culturally Engaging Campus Environments Influence Sense of Belonging in College: An Examination of Differences between White Students and Students of Color.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 25 Sept. 2017, 3.

[8] Chessman, Hollie and Wayt, Lindsay, “What Are Students Demanding?” Higher Education Today https://www.higheredtoday.org/2016/01/13/what-are-students-demanding/

[9] Luedke, Courtney L. “Person First, Student Second: Staff and Administrators of Color Supporting Students of Color Authentically in Higher Education.” Journal of College Student Development, vol. 58, no. 1, 01 Jan. 2017, pp. 37.

[10]Interview with Administrator by Lisa Betty, July 25 2018

[11] Chessman, Hollie and Wayt, Lindsay, “What Are Students Demanding?” Higher Education Today https://www.higheredtoday.org/2016/01/13/what-are-students-demanding/

[12] McShane, 13.

[13] Harwood, S.A. ( 1 ), et al. “Racial Microaggressions in the Residence Halls: Experiences of Students of Color at a Predominantly White University.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, vol. 5, no. 3, 01 Sept. 2012, 160.

[14] Harwood, 160.

[15] Interview with HGSE Administrator by Lisa Betty, July 27 2018.

[16] hooks, bell. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. Routledge: New York, 2003, 71.

[17] Museus, Samuel and Uma Jayakumar, “Mapping the Intersection of campus cultures and equitable outcomes among racially diverse student populations,” in Creating Campus Cultures: Fostering Success among Racially Diverse Student Populations, ed. Samuel Museus and Uma Jayakumar, 169.

Written by

Lisa Betty is a PhD Candidate in History and Course Instructor at Fordham University.

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