This piece was originally printed in CU Independent’s Spring ’18 edition of Syllabus. Find it around campus.
Samantha Truong pulled into Kittredge loop in her mom’s Subaru on the first day of her freshman year in August 2014. In her stomach sunk a nervous pit, one fueled by months of pros and cons lists, late night decision-making and lingering qualms about her move from Broomfield to Boulder.
Looming large on her cons list: Boulder would be a much whiter community. Truong had already spent her whole life as a woman of color straddling two worlds — her parents’ China and her own birth country of the U.S. She, and other students of color the CUI spoke with for this article, had heard that CU was not a diverse or welcoming place for people of color.
But one of the pros was a small community designed for students like herself: the Ethnic Living Learning Community.
The ELLC was a home in which Truong could be comfortable. Students in the program shared her interest in and embodied the multiculturalism she was unsure she would find at CU. As a part of the Leadership Residential Academic Program, a housing unit where students could take classes on leadership, the ELLC gave students the opportunity to focus on leadership through a social justice lens. Its partner program, the Chancellor’s Leadership Program (CLSP), also taught students about leadership, but did not have the same focus on race.
When Truong moved into her new home, she met Adán García, a Latino student originally from central California. She befriended Akosua Otoo who, two years before coming to CU, had moved the U.S. for from a small city in Ghana. She met students from Uganda, Asian-Americans like herself and many others from a diverse range of backgrounds. The new friendships she made with her dorm-mates and classmates lasted throughout the rest of her years at CU.
Last November, the University closed the Leadership RAP along with the ELLC and CLSP. Many students and faculty felt “disrespected” and upset by the abrupt process. While devastating to many who were involved in the program, it did not come as a surprise. For many who worked in the ELLC and diversity programs on campus, the closing of the ELLC seems to reflects a broader pattern of undeserving marginalized groups on campus.
The closing of the ELLC came at a time the university said it was in a “unified, complete, and transformative campus effort” to improve diversity and inclusion on every level, letters from the chancellor say. But for the students of color who said the ELLC was one of the only places they felt welcome on campus, the university’s actions seem like a step backwards.
In 1998, a social climate survey found many African American and other students of color did not feel welcome at CU. The report detailed a stark racial divide in which African-American students report “greater dissatisfaction with the university’s efforts to welcome students of all racial groups.”
Two years later, a new Living Learning Community was established in Hallett Hall to welcome the types of students who responded negatively to the survey. The Lead Alliance, a program that supports diversity on campus, helped to set up the first Ethnic Living Learning Community in 2000 with then-Hall Director Brian Shimamoto at the helm.
From its conception, the program faced challenges. With the first-year on-campus housing requirements, every bed needed to be filled in order to meet the demand of incoming freshman students. Without the recruitment resources to fill new ELLC’s beds with students committed to diversity, the program designed to be a welcoming space to students of color was not filled with students who shared those goals.
Seeing the impending end for the ELLC just one year into its operation, Dr. Richard Kraft incorporated the program into the Leadership RAP, which at the time, he directed. Leadership RAP staff improved recruitment of diverse students, co-curricular activities and added courses to build a stronger sense of community in the new Williams Village incarnation of the ELLC.
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Ginnie Logan, an ELLC student in the early 2000s, saw the effect of these changes firsthand. With better courses and a more diverse range of students, the program became a foundational experience to her time at CU.
“I would not have graduated if not for the ELLC,”
she said, repeating a sentiment almost every ELLC student the CUI spoke with shared.
Logan came to CU having grown up hearing horror stories of what it is like to be black at CU. Her mother, also an African American woman, withdrew from CU after her first year was plagued by racism and discrimination. Her older brother refused to come to CU because of the experiences other black students had at the school.
Logan found hope in the ELLC. It became one of her escapes from CU’s “very hostile” environment.
Freshman year is often the most tumultuous time for CU students. New social pressures and heavier workloads can lead to academic probation, transferring or dropping out. For students of color, added layers of racism and discrimination on and off campus compound these struggles, which is reflected by lower retention and graduation rates.
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Professors, students and staff say that this past year has been especially difficult for students of color. According to data obtained through a Colorado Open Records Request, reported instances of ethnicity-based harassment or discrimination from the 2014-2015 school year to 2015-2016 school year have declined from 17 to 11, respectively. But on a campus of over 30,000, these low numbers seem to reflect a lack of willingness to report more than a representation of discrimination on campus.
“I am seeing more instances of blatant racism against my students than I have in the past,” said Dr. Johanna Maes, a former ELLC instructor who currently teaches courses in the School of Education on race, power and privilege. Maes attributes this increase to the national political climate emboldening racism on campus and fueling tensions among students.
In spite of the hostile climate many students of color experience on campus, those in the ELLC showed far better retention and satisfaction results, according to a 2013 self-study done by the Leadership RAP.
Many years, first-year retention for students in the ELLC outpaced that of the university as a whole by over 10 percent. The strong sense of community and academic support that resulted from living with classmates and faculty made navigating CU easier, students and faculty said.
The positive experience was noticed on a national level. The National Conference on Race and Ethnicity, a conference focused on race in higher education, invited the ELLC to present on their program. In 2015 and 2016, faculty and students from the ELLC were recognized for their best practices. According to faculty who attended, many other universities sought the ELLC’s advice on improving their own programs.
CU did not respond to a request for comment on if they were aware of the national recognition the ELLC got two consecutive years before it was closed, nor did it make administrators available for interviews.
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Despite the ELLC’s success, its directors felt a target on their back. The program’s second director, Carol Miyagishima, said she was constantly trying to produce reports for administrators showing the program’s academic rigor and effectiveness. Instructors in the program confirmed the different treatment the ELLC and Leadership RAP felt from other RAPs in the school.
Miyagishima had seen programs that help underrepresented students on campus be dismantled before. In the 1980s she worked in the Office of Admissions’ Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). Created in the 1960s, EOPs were designed to help increase access to CU for minority students. By the late 80s, the programs were phased out. Miyagishima called the practice “mainstreaming,” a term many othe CU faculty and staff have used to describe actions by the university to funnel programs that help minority students into large ones not designed to serve the specific needs many students of color and first generation students face on campus.
Also aware of opposition to the ELLC and the history of mainstreaming, in late October 2016 Anne Scarritt, then-director of the leadership RAP asked her boss if the program was going to be closed. Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Mary Kraus ensured her that the program was safe, Scarritt said.
A few weeks later, that changed. On Nov. 1, Kraus told Scarritt the entire RAP, along with the ELLC and CLSP, was going to be closed. Kraus told Scarritt not to fight the decision, saying appealing would be disrespectful. Kraus declined repeated requests for comment.
Twenty-four hours later, an article in CU Today titled, “University embarks on plan to expand academic experience for first-year scholars,” announced the decision to the public, but with a twist. Along with publicizing the closure of two other RAPs, the article added that the ELLC was going to remain open, claiming the program was “in alignment with campus priorities.” The statement directly contradicted what Kraus had told Scarritt the day before. Confusion spread among ELLC staff as the university’s public message differed from its private one.
In a statement given to the CUI, the university said they originally planned to keep the ELLC open but “disentangling” the program from the RAP was too difficult. Scarritt refutes this statement, saying if she had been asked to help keep the ELLC open, it would have been easy.
Despite Kraus’s warning not to, Scarritt submitted an official appeal to the chancellor in mid-November.
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In addition to Scarritt’s appeal, ELLC students sent messages to the Chancellor and other administration officials detailing how much they benefited from the program.
In an email to the chancellor, Otoo said that the ELLC “made me who I am now,” adding that, “during my sophomore year, I had some thoughts about switching to CU Denver because of the diversity issue we have on this campus but it was through [the ELLC] that I had a change of mind and decided to stay.”
Kraus, who was not copied on the original message, responded to Otoo to set up a meeting to hear Otoo and other’s concerns.
“She basically looked down on me,”
Otoo said about the meeting with Kraus.
Another student in the same meeting with Otoo, Shiyan Zhang, described the meeting more bluntly. In an email to the CUI, Zhang said that, “I felt like I was dealing with a child rather than a professional adult.” She added that she left the meeting “disrespected and discounted as a person […] I was so appalled.”
Other meetings Kraus set up with students left many with similar feelings of disrespect and their questions unanswered.
“We were just getting the shoulder,” said García about a separate meeting he and a fellow ELLC peer mentor attended with Mary Kraus. He added that in the whole process, he felt the university did not, “[let] us in on a conversation about us.”
In the meetings, Kraus repeatedly claimed that a $850 RAP fee was cost-prohibitive to students and the new programs would not include any additional fees for students. Everyone who requests a scholarship to cover the fee, including both Otoo and Zhang, had received one to cover the cost of the RAP fee. Kraus refused to hear this point, repeatedly cutting Otoo and Zhand off when they tried to explain how the RAP fee was not a barrier to them, according to both students in the meeting.
In a statement issued through a CU spokesperson Deborah Mendez-Wilson, the university said, “The decision to close three residential academic programs (RAPs) due to lower enrollment and higher per-student costs was not an easy message to hear or an easy message to deliver,” adding that, “campus administrators did their best to communicate this difficult message as effectively and respectfully as possible.”
In response to Scarritt’s appeal, the Chancellor said that he supported the decision to close the RAP and “reconceptualize” the ELLC. He added that Provost Moore had complete control to “create and discontinue RAPs based upon a number of factors including enrollment and revenue/expenses.”
The former faculty in the Leadership RAP were unsatisfied by the university’s reasons of lower enrollment and higher per-student costs. The ELLC ran waitlists every year, and popularity of the RAP continued to grow when it moved to Kitt Central in 2013, according to the staff and documents showing the RAP’s enrollment.
Miyagishima attributes the higher per-student costs to the lack of funding the RAP got because it was not attached to a department or school. Many RAPs are associated with a school, like the Business RAP or the Global Engineering RAP, and because of that get additional funding from their departments. The Leadership RAP did not have an attached department, leaving them to foot the bill for their entire program.
Provost Moore and the university did not respond to multiple requests for comment to elaborate on the higher per-student costs.
The “reconceptualization” of the ELLC came in two pieces: the Multicultural Perspectives LLC in Hallett Hall and the Multicultural Leadership Scholarship Pathway. The new LLC will house 300 students in a similar “intentional multicultural environment” as the ELLC.
The scholarship program will offer students in the leadership minor a $2,000 scholarship renewable up to four years. While alike in name, the two programs are unrelated. Scarritt and others said there was “zero involvement” from the ELLC and Leadership RAP staff with the new programming.
The Multicultural Perspectives LLC in Hallett, like the original ELLC in 2000, does not have the same level of built-in courses as when the program had in the Leadership RAP. Instead CU is piloting new Freshman Interest Groups (FIGs) and freshman seminar courses to provide small class size environments for students.
Scarritt said that the whole process was deeply “upsetting” and that the way CU handled the closing of the program shows that “the university does not care about these students.” For the rest of the ELLC’s final year, Kraus often avoided Scarritt.
Dr. Johanna Maes who taught many of the ELLC’s courses remains the only former ELLC faculty still at CU. When the program ended, everyone else was let go. Maes continues to teach the same courses in the School of Education.
“I am confident the School of Ed is going to embrace the work that we do,” she said. Maes and Logan, who continues to be a graduate student instructor with Meas, both say they have found “allies” for the at-times controversial material they teach about race and discrimination.
The sudden closure of the ELLC was not the first time the university made changes or closed a program that was beneficial to minority students, according to interviews with current and former faculty and documents obtained by the CUI. For many at CU, the pattern of treating programs that help minority students differently is one that they have seen for decades.
“I have seen this institution eliminate programs that seem to be working,” Shimamoto said.
Reflecting the elimination of successful diversity programs are years of negative social climate survey results. Year after year many students of color, especially African Americans, say they feel unwelcome on CU’s predominantly white campus.
“Twenty years later, race relations really have not changed at CU,”
Shimamoto said, referencing his 20-plus years working in diversity at CU and other universities.
Campus-wide social climate surveys consistently show that students of color do not feel welcome on campus. Places like the ELLC provided much-needed spaces to be comfortable in, according to students. When they are closed, the talk about making the campus more inclusive and diverse doesn’t feel real to students affected by the closing of programs like the ELLC.
“It just doesn’t make sense, why would you eliminate a program that seems to be making a difference?” Shimamoto said.
The new Multicultural Perspectives LLC will serve many more students, being more “efficient” than the ELLC. But those who worked in the ELLC worry the new program will be less effective at making a welcoming space of diverse students.
Initial interviews the CUI conducted with students show a range of experiences. While some enjoy living in the new Hallett LLC, other still face microaggressions and instances of overt racism. Only open one semester at the time of writing, it is difficult to measure the success of the new program.
“The university feels obligated to do superficial talk about diversity,”
With her experience working in multiple diversity-oriented programs on campus, the program’s closing did not surprise Miyagishima. Because of their teaching of controversial topics on race, privilege and power, Miyagishima said “I was only surprised it lasted that long.”
For Miyagishima, Scarritt and others who worked in the ELLC, the closing of the program represents an about-face from the universities stated goals to make the campus more welcoming for all students. Shutting down a successful program was one thing, but the disrespect many students felt in the process is what hurt Scarritt and others the most.
The university says that the new programs they offer will expand the successes of the ELLC. But to expand on the ELLC’s successes without consulting those that made it successful seems improbable, according to former faculty. Students the CUI spoke with gave mixed responses about the new inclusive spaces. Time will tell the success of the program.
For students like García, Truong and Otoo the closing represented more than the closing of a helpful program. For them, the university shuttered one of the rare places they felt welcome on campus. A feeling they can’t overstate the importance of. Being a part of the ELLC community helped them overcome difficulties they faced as students of color, and with that gone, they fear for their own future experiences and the experiences of incoming students.
Contact CU Independent Editor-in-Chief Jackson Barnett at firstname.lastname@example.org