Campus climate is chilly for women, students of color and people disabled

Posted November 6, 2017

Students of color are 14 times more likely to report suffering racial hostility than are white students, and female students are nearly three times more likely than men to face political bias, according to campus climate survey results released last week.

Students with disabilities report more bias, too.

“I’ve had to fight for a lot of accessibility issues on campus,” said Sam Hopkinson, a senior majoring in communication studies. “I’ve even had to call in the state department in order to get some of the stuff addressed.”

Some of the accessibility issues that Hopkinson has to deal with are poor sidewalk conditions in the winter, broken elevators and too steep and blocked curb ramps that make it very difficult to  get around with his crutches, wheel chair and sometimes an electric scooter.

Hopkinson has cerebral palsy and while most of his experiences on campus have been positive, there is room for improvement.

“With me being physically disabled it’s easy to tell that I’m handicapped. In some ways students treat me differently, some professors treat me differently.”

The climate survey report details the responses of 372 students and 293 university employees to questions that dealt with discrimination or bias on issues of gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, age, job classification and political views.

Most of the individuals who took the survey had few if any complaints about feeling discrimination or bias at UWRF. The results go into detail about the demographic of students and faculty on campus who answered the climate survey.

The overall student makeup of those who took the survey was 60 percent female, 89 percent white and 87 percent heterosexual. The demographics of faculty who took the survey are 52 percent female, 89 percent white and 91 percent heterosexual. The survey results point out that UW-River Falls lacks diversity.

Every spring semester, journalism professor Sandy Ellis teaches a class called Race, Class and News. This class teaches students first how reporters can do a better job at covering stories that reflect the diverse population of the United States. The class uncovers how recognizing bias, attitudes and stereotypes are the key to being more culturally aware in reporting.

Ellis, who chairs the Communication and Media Studies Department, agrees that there is low racial diversity among UWRF students and faculty.

“Those white folks who don’t have enough experience with people from another race are neither knowledgeable nor comfortable trying to figure out how to deal with a person from another race,” Ellis said.

The class, which is a journalism course, is often made up of 75 percent non-journalism majors, according to Ellis. Race, Class and News fulfills the diversity requirement, and Ellis’ goal is to get all students talking about race and class in the United States and understand better the differences in our population.

“It is the most rewarding class I teach,” said Ellis. Students have said to Ellis that this class has changed the way they think and how they act.

For students of color on campus, the survey reports, they are “14-times more likely to report experiencing racial hostility than are white students.” Survey results also showed that non-white students felt less attached to the university and were more likely to feel less satisfied in the campus environment. Non-white students, according to the results, were more likely to consider leaving campus.

UWRF student Paige Delgado experienced the general lack of cultural awareness of white folks with her own roommate. She made a comment about my race, Delgado said, and the way she said it was hurtful. When Delgado talked to her roommate about the comment, she apologized immediately, Delgado said. “She didn’t realize that she had hurt me by saying that and didn’t realize it was offensive.”

Along with the survey results, the chancellor’s office released a set of follow-up actions to address some of the results. The first goal of the follow-up actions will focus on diversity and inclusivity on campus. “We have been seeing a larger percentage of students of color choosing UW-River Falls,” Executive Assistant to the Chancellor Beth Schommer said of the first goal. “Now it is our job to make those students feel like they belong here and that they are welcome here.”

Feeling a bias in regards to political beliefs was one of the most strongly felt biases, according to the survey. This political bias is even more strongly felt by females — 23 percent in comparison to males at only 9 percent. Student comments regarding this political bias in other students and in faculty were included in the results, with some students feeling that professors and staff were “imposing his/her political views on the class.”

For employees who took the survey, feeling hostility or exclusion due to their political views, 54 percent of employees experienced this political bias two to five times. The survey noted that political bias felt by students and employees is especially strong due to the 2016 elections.

Neil Kraus, chair of the Political Science Department, concurred with the results, finding a correlation between the political bias results on campus and on the election.

“Political debate in the society becomes oftentimes more hostile,” Kraus said. “We are going to see that sort of change on the university campus, too. I am not too surprised there has been an increase in this sort of bias.”

Kraus noted that while he did not personally feel any political bias from faculty or students, he has had an increased amount of students coming to him with political bias-based grievances they have felt. Similarly to the survey results, most of the students expressing political bias or frustration have been female.

Talking about politics in everyday life, to colleagues and in class has become far more difficult in general for Kraus. “I think that it is extraordinarily difficult to talk about President Trump in a neutral way,” he said. “We are in a whole different world now.”