Bruce Shepard, the president of Western Washington University, walks across the college campus every day and he doesn’t like what he sees: Too many white students.
Shepard, who is white, is taking on race by circulating a bold questionnaire to all students enrolled at the college: “How do we make sure that in future years we are not as white as we are today?”
It’s a courageous question by Shepard who is directly confronting the changing racial demographics in America, six years after the historic election of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black commander-in-chief.
“If in the decades ahead we are as white as we are today, we will have failed as a university,” Shepard said during the university’s opening convocation in 2012.
I commend Shepard. He didn’t have to speak out about race on his campus. He could have just sat back, collected his paycheck, and watched his mostly white university stay mostly white.
Consider this: Only about 20 percent of the university’s enrollment is students of color and while Shepard wants to encourage more students of color to attend Western Washington University—African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians — he also wants to increase minority graduation rates.
“My role as a leader is to ask questions that take people outside of their zones of comfort,” Shepard to reporters Shepard must be doing his job very well because there are many people in the Washington state region who are extremely uncomfortable with Shepard’s message.
In fact, the university’s campus police stepped up their security around Shepard after he reported that people have threatened him. Conservatives have blasted Shepard, accusing him of discouraging white students from enrolling at the university.
“I’m not surprised when liberal universities take these kind of ridiculous, bigoted, racist positions,” said Lars Larson, a conservative talk radio host.
One person who disagreed with Shepard tweeted: ‘Dear Sir: You need to resign immediately! Your white mediocrity is a stain to the fabric of WWU. Usher in the future. Defund WWU.’
“I think he’s being very insensitive to how people are perceived based on the color of their skin,” said Caleb Bonham, editor-in-chief of Campus Reform, a website created by a group of conservative students. While Obama supporters had hoped his election would usher in a new sense of racial reconciliation in America, the push-back against Shepard is another example of how diversity is still a thorny topic among some whites.
“I needed to provoke attention to the changing demography of our state, and when you use words like ‘white,’ that does get people’s attention,” Shepard said. Shepard has received many notes of support and studies have shown that Shepard’s call for diversifying his university could also be beneficial to white students.
In a 1996 study, “Who Benefits from Racial Diversity in Higher Education,?” researchers argue that racial diversity has a direct positive impact on the individual white student: The more diverse the student body, the greater the likelihood that the white student will socialize with someone of a different racial group or discuss racial issues.
I believe the core of this study still applies today.
“Socializing with someone of a different racial group or discussing racial issues contributes to the students’ academic development, satisfaction with college, level of cultural awareness, and commitment to promoting racial understanding,” wrote authors Mitchell J. Chang, Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Loyola Marymount University, and Alexander W. Astin, Director, Higher Education Research Institute, University of California–Los Angeles.
Despite the criticism, Shepard is making no apologies – and he’s not backing down. “We will not waste a moment’s time responding to extremist media and the hate mongers they pander to,” Shepard said. “As a university, we believe that difficult questions must be answered thoughtfully and deliberatively.”
Shepard is a courageous leader who should be applauded. But instead of receiving widespread appreciation, he’s being shadowed by extra security guards to protect him from bigots who refuse to accept the nation’s shifting multicultural landscape. And that’s a shame.
What do you think?
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