Open Letter from Prof. Yang…
The problem is not (just) the party. The problem is the party line.
An open letter to the UC San Diego community
First and foremost, we should all commend the Black Student Union and its many allies across the spectrum of student organizations (including fraternities/sororities), for the dignity with which you have faced the recent onslaught of racist provocations. You are turning personal insult into a push for structural changes that are sorely needed at our university. You fight not only for the benefit of African-American students, but for all our common good. You are continuing a tradition of UC San Diego student activism dating at least as far back as 1968. You honor us. I hope our university will honor you back.
That said, I’m not writing to condemn the PIKE party. I’m writing to condemn the university’s party line.
University officials have been quick to the condemn the party, and even quicker to point out that it happened “off campus.” The party line is one of shock and horror, as if prior to last weekend, this institution was a model of diversity and racial justice. We repeat buzzwords like “mutual respect” and “diversity” and “community” until they are empty of meaning. The party line is to individualize a racist system to a few “racists,” and to isolate the event as a freak occurrence at UCSD. This party line says: Let’s go after a few fraternity boys, and then go back to business as usual.
What is business as usual?
We have a 1.3% African-American student enrollment, not simply because of poor admissions, but because admitted students don’t choose to come to UCSD. Only about 13% of admitted African-American students come to UCSD (compare to 44% at UCLA). This information comes directly from the “Yield Report” – a 2007 UCSD Final Report from the Advisory Committee on Increasing Yield of Underrepresented Students. The Yield Report actually provided multiple strategies for improving campus climate, and for increasing the number of underrepresented students. These recommendations have by-and-large NOT been implemented despite 2 years of research and 3 years of reading time.
Business as usual means that for the last 30 years our university has refused to repatriate Native American human remains found on the ancient burial ground (on top of which the Chancellor’s house now stands). This outright defies federal law and treaty rights. San Diego has the largest number of Native American reservations of any county in the United States, but UCSD has a nearly 0% Native American student body. Why wouldn’t Native American students want to come here? It’s not just because of some frat parties.
All the administrative condemnations of a woefully misconceived fraternity party will not increase African-American enrollment at UC San Diego. All the email links to the “Principles of Community” will not make UC San Diego more diverse. A Chancellor-sponsored Teach-In, however well intentioned, will not lead to systemic change. Even as a symbolic gesture, it is misdirected – enough so that we should teach against this Teach-In.
What exactly does this Teach-In teach?
The Teach-In puts the blame for racism on our students. It exonerates the “teachers” of their role in perpetuating a poor campus climate. If our administration refuses to take responsibility for a toxic campus climate, for our share in the disrespect of African-American, Native American, and other excluded communities, then why would we expect our students to act differently? If our administration deals with collective problems by disavowing individuals, then why would we expect students to act differently? If our administration is silent about its own poor track record in race and community relations, then why would we expect students to act differently?
Furthermore, a two-hour Teach-In trivializes the work of teachers who critically examine race and racism year-round. We teach in History, Ethnic Studies, and Psychology, as well as other programs, departments and colleges, such as Thurgood Marshall’s Dimensions of Culture. In these classes, our students and instructors put in intense intellectual and personal work in struggling with our inheritance of racism, sexism, and classism.
But most importantly, teach-ins are strategies for the powerless, not for people in power. The Chancellor has a wide-range of powers and more than a few resources to commit to improving campus climate. The BSU is rightfully pressuring the administration to administrate, not just talk about, solutions for improving our campus climate.
What should the administration do?
To paraphrase Cornel West, “Young people don’t want to hear a sermon, they want to see a sermon.” It’s time to commit to some real structural changes. We can start with the BSU demands. But if a simpler list is needed, I have some suggestions below.
1) Implement the Yield Report. This report came out 3 years before last week’s frat party. Can the administration take this state of emergency and finally implement the Yield Report recommendations?
2) Put some teeth into the diversity office. Currently, the Chief Diversity Officer is a 50% position with no budget, no staff, and no formal power. Upgrade it to a Vice Chancellorship and equip it with a staff and budget. Such offices at UCLA and UC Berkeley are able to provide material support for research, teaching, and student affairs. They can take a preventive approach to racial incidents on campus. (This recommendation can also be found on page 10 of the Yield Report.) But don’t stop there. Give this office wide reform powers over all units on the campus, and we will gain at least one institutionalized motor for bridging the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of diversity.
3) Fund organizations that support underrepresented students. Right now, student organizations like the SAAC orgs (BSU, MECHA, and others) are doing the work of the administration to recruit, retain, and respect underrepresented students. These student leaders bear a double burden – even as they are assailed by a toxic campus climate, they are also expected to be its antidote. How do we expect to retain our current students if they are mending our university on top of their obligations to schoolwork, jobs, and family? These orgs should be given increased funding for major events such as high school conferences, overnight recruitment events, and graduation ceremonies. (This recommendation is on page 9 of the Yield Report).
4) Create a committed commission on campus climate. No, not a group of Chancellor’s appointees, but a coalition of organizations with a track record of transforming our university. Start with the SAAC orgs, the Campus Centers, and the interdisciplinary departments and programs.
5) Repatriate, Research, and Respect. If diversity is to be more than an empty word, then it has to become part of the fundamental business of universities: research, teaching, and service. Fund collaboratories and cluster hires around indigenous scholarship, black and black diaspora studies, and chicano/latino studies. Develop curriculum and coursework relevant to these areas. (These recommendations are on page 10 of the Yield Report). But don’t stop there. Repatriate the Native remains, the burial grounds, and the Chancellor’s house on it. Let the Kumeyaay decide how they wish to establish a Native peoples’ presence on campus. UCSD would lose an unoccupied house, gain a Native cultural hub, and comply with the law. We might also become a truly attractive option for both established and aspiring Native American scholars.
What should the faculty do?
As departments, programs, divisions, and as the faculty senate, we should formally endorse the BSU demands and the Yield Report recommendations. We should change our admissions policy from comprehensive to holistic. But don’t stop there. Let us create admissions criteria that value local San Diego community knowledge, especially the community intelligence it takes to persevere within structurally disadvantaged schools. We would not only increase campus diversity, but also demonstrate commitment to the local community in these adverse economic times. UC San Diego might yet live up to our namesake.
What can students do?
It is a privilege to teach here at UC San Diego, where I am constantly impressed by our students’ initiative, compassion, and sense of social justice. Stay up, stay strong, and stay righteous. You’re changing this campus.
K. Wayne Yang, Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies
Affiliated Professor of Urban Studies and Planning