The Case Against Campus Diversity Offices

By Brianna Suslovic

This fall, I watched my Facebook newsfeed fill with friends posting about student efforts to combat racism at Yale and Mizzou. Several months later, I watched as my own campus found itself addressing similar concerns of race, free speech, and representation in academia. As I contended with these issues, both as a fellow student and an activist, I realized that the trouble wasn’t only the lack of diversity on campus. It was also the way those problems were supposedly were being redressed.

At Harvard, my alma mater, all issues of diversity are relegated to the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, a small branch within the Office of Student Life. The office was newly instated this year, receiving only a quick head-nod in the school newspaper. As the school year wore on, I realized that this tiny office was bureaucratically isolated from the very students it was purporting to serve.

Despite decades of student efforts to develop cultural centers for various racial groups, administrators have continued to balk at the idea for fear of creating isolated, divided communities. Instead, without consulting students, Harvard has erected an under-staffed bureaucratic apparatus designed to address all issues of oppression, bias, and discrimination for all 6,000 members of the undergraduate population.

On paper, this office looks like a much-needed resource to students. In practice, its mission — “to foster understanding, community and belonging” — seems more like pure lip service. The existence of a university-run office to promote “community” flies in the face of past demands from students themselves, students who sought non-administrative communal cultural spaces that they could control. Instead of ceding some of its real estate to groups of marginalized students, my alma mater has chosen to follow the trend of ballooning university administration at the expense of tuition costs and tenure-track positions.

Following this trend of administrative expansion, it’s alarming to see the rise of so-called diversity offices as the place to address student concerns. These offices often preach to the choir, unless they find themselves in hot water for attempting to tell students what to do or say. Students of color do not need a university office telling our peers to be more inclusive. We need spaces to come together as a marginalized community, support each other through isolating experiences, and talk about how to address racism on our campus. We need more — and less — than a tiny office attempting to speak for us within a massive administrative bureaucracy. This does nothing to address our real concerns, while simultaneously stepping on our ability to self-advocate.

I am still unclear about why universities decide to devote a small segment of their ever-expanding bureaucracies to the vague notions of “equity, diversity, and inclusion.” I am even more mystified that, if they must create bureaucracy for these concepts, administrations don’t support projects and goals that would actually make students of color less marginalized at their institutions. If these offices are going to operate within paradigms of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” then part of their responsibility should logically be to create spaces where marginalized students feel a sense of belonging. After all, diversity per se is hardly the problem at many schools — the issues on campuses this year have stemmed from a lack of inclusivity.

Universities often operate under the assumption that diverse student bodies are enough to facilitate anti-oppressive learning for everyone. This assumption backfires, however, when marginalized students are treated as tokens in classrooms and dining halls, explaining away their difference to other students. As students of color, we are looked to whenever race comes up in seminar discussions. As queer students, we’re peppered with questions about pronouns and gender neutral bathrooms. We are considered dictionaries, thesauruses, and encyclopedias for classmates who have never heard of the languages or the labels we use. This explaining takes a toll — it is extra work to bridge and code-switch with students who have never been marginalized, and when this work is done in isolation, it feels even more depleting.

Even more exhausting, we are called on not only to educate other students but to educate administrators. When students at Harvard — primarily Asian American women — received anonymous email death threats, administrators seemed disinclined to act until students told them explicitly that the police investigation should have been accompanied by administrative recognition of the incident’s racist nature. Friends of mine had to organize via social media statements and campaigns in order to pressure administrators into accountability, demanding answers to questions about their safety and asking for the college’s response. Instead of allowing this targeted threat to serve as a “learning experience” for students and administrators — learning spearheaded by the students themselves — the entire administration should have been able to quickly respond to the racism and sexism inherent in the threats.

When students are in a position where we feel obligated to educate peers and administrators in order to feel like a part of our campuses, our learning experience is diminished. Spending time organizing protests, setting up meetings with deans, and attending community forums are burdens that non-marginalized students do not have to engage with. These burdens often fall disproportionately on students of color, disabled students, queer and trans students, and other marginalized campus populations. We are not operating on an equal playing field — equality and parity do not exist within or outside of the American university.

Diversity work, as Sara Ahmed calls it, is real labor — the kind of labor that university bureaucracies often place on marginalized students, inviting us to sit in on committees and task forces without realizing how much of our time and energy is eaten up in these sanitized spaces. In a grand attempt to create the mythologized and unattainable safe space, these bureaucracies place undue burdens on the students they’re supposed to serve — asking us to testify about their oppressive experiences on campus, contribute to common-sense committee findings, and wait just a little longer for them to meet demands that have been consistent for decades.

Some might argue that diversity offices provide “safe spaces” for marginalized students, but that has not been my experience. I have often felt unsafe when approaching diversity administrators, knowing that I might have to wait weeks for a response or educate them on some parts of my own identity even before I tell them about my experiences with another aspect of the university. Instead of shirking responsibility for serving marginalized students and placing it all on a meager office, the entire university structure should be responsive to the needs of marginalized students, granting them the student-run spaces they need to thrive.

The fact is that marginalized students have never been asking for university-managed “safe spaces.” Most of us understand that that isn’t a reasonable thing to ask for. We can’t trust administrators to know what it’s like to be put on the spot as the only black student in your class, to have your presence as a person of color questioned through comments about affirmative action, to be misgendered by every professor, or to be excluded from participating in some popular student activities because they are not disability-friendly or within your budget.

Instead, we want spaces of our own, for ourselves, outside of the administration — but we also want the administrators to listen and learn. Why not scrap the diversity offices and ensure that all university administrators know how to address the subtly exclusive and oppressive aspects of the university? By recognizing the ways that specialized diversity spaces in the bureaucracy allow every other administrator to get a free pass, we can start to transform university structures on a larger level. Whether they’re working in financial aid or the office of student life, university administrators need to educate themselves on issues that marginalized students regularly experience.

But the way to do that is to ask marginalized students what we need, not to tell us.

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