Lee Daniels
Lee Daniels

Fellowship Title:

Intolerance on Campus

Lee Daniels
February 13, 1991

Fellowship Year

After taping the poster announcing the spring activities of the black student association to his door in Wright Hall, Timothy Rey had gone to sleep around one o’clock that Saturday morning, his freshman year at the University of Indiana at Bloomington.

When he opened his dormitory-room door at nine o’clock, heading for breakfast, only charred fragments of the poster remained.

During the eight hours he slept one, or more than one, of his residence-hall neighbors had walked up to his door on the long corridor and burned it.

Drawing of man standing at table talking to a man and women sitting“I didn’t even wake up, they were so quiet,” he says, recalling that morning, three years ago, “and I didn’t smell anything. I didn’t know about it until I opened my door.”

Rey alerted friends and campus officials, who launched an investigation (the culprits were never found)-and that night he returned to sleep in his dormitory room.

“People were surprised I went back to my room,” he remembers. “But I wasn’t scared for myself. It was my room, and I wasn’t going to be driven off.”

By Sunday morning someone carved ‘KKK’ and “N…..” into Timothy Rey’s dormitory-room door.

Unfortunately, in its broad outlines, Tim Rey’s bitter experience is not at all unusual in higher education now.

From the scrawling of racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual slurs on posters, building steps, or bathroom walls, to offensive jokes in campus newspapers and on campus radio stations or threatening letters and telephone calls, to arson and physical assaults, ‘bias incidents’ against students, staff, and faculty who are African American, Latino American, Asian/Pacific American, Jewish American, Native American, female, homosexual, or lesbian have become commonplace at the nation’s predominantly white college and universities.

Since 1986 more than 250 campuses have reported such activity, according to a recent report of the National Institute against Prejudice and Violence, in Baltimore, which gathers such statistics. Howard J. Ehrlich, its director of research, estimates that as many as one million students a year are victimized by such acts.

The spread and frequency of these campus bias incidents have astonished many within and outside higher education-as have the blunt assessments of several other reports published this year on problems at specific institutions, in specific states, and across the country.

One such study was the California State Postsecondary Commission’s examination of that state’s public colleges and universities. It concluded that the many students and faculty of color feel themselves largely bereft of institutional support, and outside of the campus community socially.

Penny Edgert, a Commission specialist who worked on the study, says, “We don’t believe we’re ever going to achieve our statewide equity goals until the environment on campus becomes more welcoming, supportive and hospitable for all students, but particularly for students of color and women.”

Such studies make clear that what’s going on isn’t just a matter of increased sensitivity to and increased reporting of this kind of antisocial behavior. With their welter of statistics and recounting of specific incidents, these documents quantify the “alarming signals,” in the words of a report the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching issued last spring, “that racial and ethnic divisions are deepening on the nation’s campuses.”

These signals have led some educational experts to assert that higher education is in for a period of turmoil that will surpass the campus disturbances of the late 1960s. Others are more sanguine.

Writing in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Paul R. Verkuil, President of the College of William and Mary, said, “…there is more friction on campus today precisely because we are closer to understanding each other than ever before… For all the dissident voices heard on campuses these days, I believe the American University is closer to the ideal of a time and open community than it has ever been.”

Verkuil’s belief may be correct. But there’s no reason to be Pollyannish about the immediate future; no one believes that the bias incidents have run their course.

“The police will always tell you that less than a third of hate crimes are reported,” says Jeffrey Ross, director of campus affairs for the Anti-Defamation League of B’Nai B’rith, “so, what we have is a conservative approximation of what’s really happening both on the campus and in the larger society. To use a cliche, what we’re seeing is just the tip of an iceberg, and, like with an iceberg, it’s what’s underneath that can really tear your guts out.”

The media has largely covered the campus bias incidents as if only black students, administrators, and faculty are the targets-as if it’s just white students against black. (And the media also has largely ignored the substantial participation of white students in anti-bias efforts at many colleges that have sprung up in the wake of the incidents.)

In fact, a substantial number of these attacks are directed against Asian/Pacific Americans, Hispanic Americans, women, homosexuals and lesbians. (Bias incidents against Native American students are rare, largely because they constitute just 86,000 of the nation’s 11.3 million undergraduates.)

The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force says that campus bias incidents accounted for 14 percent of all anti-homosexual incidents reported last year, a sharp rise from previous years.

Surveys done by the Project on the Status and Education of Women of the Association of American Colleges and Universities indicate that at least 20 percent of women undergraduates and at least 30 percent of women graduate students have experienced some form of sexual harassment, from suggestive comments to rape. Scarily, officials of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica Hospital, which has long been active in tracking sexual harassment in colleges and universities, maintain that 90 percent of campus rapes go unreported.

Reports of anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses as well as in the larger society have also increased.

In 1988, the Anti-Defamation League received reports of 1,281 incidents of vandalism and desecration of property owned by Jews and threats and physical attacks against Jewish people, the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents reported in more than five years. The figures included anti-Semitic incidents on 38 campuses, up from 14 in 1987.

In 1989 the total number of incidents jumped to 1,432, and bias activity was reported on 51 campuses.

Incidents against Asian/Pacific American students have received perhaps the least notice. But Ronald Takaki, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and an expert on the Asian/Pacific American Experience, has said that the gushing praise showered on them-the ‘model minority myth’-has obscured the fact that their growing presence “has been accompanied by the rise of a new wave of anti-Asian sentiment.”

In short, as Reginald Wilson, a Senior Scholar at American Council on Education, a Washington-based education association, says, when it comes to being targets of bias attacks, “Blacks are the most at risk but it’s just a matter of hierarchy. To the bigots, all the other groups come next.”

Higher education was generally slow to recognize the seriousness of these incidents, which began building in the early 1980s. Some officials adopted an ostrich approach and tried to deny that incidents which had occurred were motivated by bias.

Now, however, after a good half-decade of explosive episodes, schools from Massachusetts to California are acting. Stanford University, Middlebury College, Arizona State University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, the state colleges and universities of Virginia, are among the hundreds of schools who already have or are drafting broad plans to promote tolerance-and devise penalties for those who perpetrate hate acts.

Timothy Rey said the top officials of the Bloomington campus were “very supportive” during his ordeal and strongly condemned the vandalism.

Thomas Ehrlich, the president of the Indiana University system, one of higher education’s most forceful proponents of changing procedures and curricula to respond to the campuses’ diverse student and work force.

“We want to take a pro-active stance,” says James W. Dyke, Jr., Virginia’s Secretary of Education, “and state clearly that if a liberal arts education means anything at all, it means learning to value all human beings and the creation of which we are all a part.”

As necessary and valuable as these actions are, however, there is no quick-fix solution to this problem: Bias incidents, significant ones, are going to continue to occur for at least the next several years.

This should surprise no one, because the turmoil on the campuses over race, ethnicity, and gender reflects that swirling in American society as a whole. That broaden turmoil, in turn, stems from complex developments-both technological and political-within the United States and around the world which have disturbed the old order in innumerable ways.

For example, the fierce global economic competition among the United States, Japan, and West Germany has helped push and pull a tidal wave of immigrants to this country from, largely, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean-and stoke a pervasive social and economic uncertainty among many Americans, including college students.

The country’s increasingly mixed character is nowhere more evident than in higher education.

As late as 1965, members of minority groups were all but invisible at most of the nation’s 3,200 predominantly white colleges and universities. This was partly due to their relatively small numbers, particularly for Asian/Pacific Americans, American Indians, and Hispanic Americans-and partly to overt and unconscious prejudice. African Americans were largely confined to the 100-plus historically black colleges and universities. Schools in the South were closed to them by law; overwhelmingly, those in the North and West accepted only token numbers of black students.

Now, although minority students continue to make up a relatively small percentage of students in predominantly white schools in overall terms, many leading institutions do have sizeable numbers: 27% of Cornell University’s 2,920 first-year undergraduates this year are from minority groups; 50.7% of the UCLA’s 23,000 undergraduates are.

That many of these “different” undergraduates insist upon being respected for the ways in which they are different only serves to exacerbate the unease some white students obviously feel at being in such mixed milieus. For them, on the cusp of adulthood, searching for their own identity, and thus, extremely sensitive to the ‘threat’ of difference, the multicultural experience, at least initially, is profoundly unsettling, just as is unsettling to some students of color as well who, like their white counterparts, isolate themselves from the broader currents of the campus.

Further, higher education’s unprecedented growth of the past two decades and the premium placed on faculty research and publishing has shredded what the Carnegie report called the “sense of community” within many colleges and universities, leaving many students with little or no meaningful academic experiences or contact with senior faculty.

One Carnegie Foundation study found that 40 percent of students surveyed said they did not feel a sense of community on their campus and that two-thirds said they had found no professor interested in their well-being.

No wonder students all along the color line have anchored themselves in those student groups based on ethnicity, or gender, or sexual preference (including white fraternities and sororities, which have undergone a revival during the past decade) which now exist in extraordinary variety on most campuses.

That such broad tensions exist, however, doesn’t diminish the catalytic role racism, homophobia, and chauvinist attitudes play in these incidents: In one sense, what else could one expect?

After all, the college students of today came of age during the 1980s: They watched the Reagan Administration insist that white racism was no longer significant in American life-while leading a sustained legal and propaganda assault against affirmative action, and seeking, in the Bob Jones case that went to the Supreme Court, to restore government sanction for segregated schooling, the hallmark of the nation’s past system of apartheid.

Given that kind of national leadership, why wouldn’t white students, most of whom grew up in segregated neighborhoods and attended largely segregated schools, be anything but uncomfortable in multi-ethnic institutions?

Yet, ascribing the bias incidents solely to the prejudice of the young is too facile an explanation. They should also be considered from another perspective: as the latest, necessarily fractious stage of the pluralist movement in American society. Such a viewpoint would suggest that the turmoil in higher education has become so sharp precisely because institutions of higher learning are extending the pluralist ideal across America’s color line.

This effort, in turn is forcing educators and students as well as the society to explore the tensions between individual and group rights, between democratic and meritocratic principles, and between fostering social cohesion and, not merely acknowledging, but celebrating social differences. It’s this “confrontation with ‘difference’ really close up and in significant numbers,” that many find so unsettling, says Robert Zemsky, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’ve yet to figure out what does it take to be really comfortable with someone who is very different, and is always going to be different-and is not going to pretend they are not different.”

Florence Ladd, director of the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, which specializes in research on women, maintains that the very contentiousness of this engagement marks a fundamental shift in how Americans are to perceive their society: not “as a ‘melting pot,’ that combined all ethnic identities into a uniquely American blend, but as a ‘salad bowl’-a container that allows different ingredients to mix together, each retaining its individual flavor.”

As with the larger society, the jury is still out on how the myriad tensions involved in forming this salad bowl in higher education will be resolved.

“I was initially very angry,” said Rey, the DeKalb, Ill. native who graduates this spring with a degree in English and Afro-American Studies. “I had to do a lot of thinking about what it meant to me, and about who I am. But I had a lot of support from my parents. Talking it out with them over the summer helped me deal with it.”

The next September Rey returned to the Bloomington campus-and to Wright Hall. Why? “I liked the location of Wright, and I had a lot of friends there. I just wasn’t going to let other people force me to do something I didn’t want to do.”

©1991 Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels, a reporter on leave from The New York Times, is examining African-Americans in higher education during the last 25 years.