In May I spent three weeks in South Africa, visiting nine universities there to learn about student services work. Along with 20 other masters students, doctoral students, professionals, and faculty from 9 different US universities, I spent time on many different kinds of campuses, including historically Black, Indian, and White campuses, those with extensive resources, and those with so few resources that toilet paper in public restrooms was placed on a single spool outside the stalls. While it is impossible to capture more than a thin slice of my experience in this post, what follows is a few of my reflections about how diversity and social justice issues are being addressed on the campuses we visited.
On each campus I asked student affairs staff members how they addressed issues of diversity. On only one campus did I get an answer I recognized. As you read the following thoughts, know that they reflect that we spent only part of a single day on each campus, that we didn’t know one another, and that the conversations were held in large groups and typically in the presence of people with evaluation responsibility. Also, what I heard was shaped by my own preconceptions and assumptions, including that my own first interest in social justice issues sprang in part from meeting my South African relatives when I was 8 years old. They are also shaped by my coming into these campus visits shaped by my social and professional identities: a White woman student affairs faculty member from the US steeped in a particular way of thinking about social justice issues on campuses. In particular, the social justice work I do focuses more on encouraging people from privileged backgrounds to understand and address that privilege than on supporting people from targeted backgrounds. So when I asked about diversity, what I was listening for, I realize in retrospect, were answers that addressed awareness of and challenges to privilege, and work on intergroup dynamics.
What I did hear from the student affairs staff we met were responses that addressed the academic support needed by students who come from “rural areas,” meaning communities without running water or electricity in their homes, where their schools didn’t always have textbooks (or libraries), and where many classes are taught in English, which rarely is the students’ or teachers’ first language. While this is not the case for all students, roughly 40% of the population lives in rural areas, most of whom experience similar conditions, while the conditions in urban areas are not much better for large segments of the population. It went without saying that these students were almost entirely Black or Colored (the South African term for people who are either mixed race or of Southeast Asian descent). The academic support provided within student affairs divisions was extensive, comprehensive, and often mandatory. The majority of student leadership positions entail various forms of academic mentoring and tutoring, student government delegates come from academic majors, and students typically live groups by academic program.
When I wrote in the previous paragraph that it went without saying that the rural students being discussed were Black or Colored, I meant it literally. While apartheid was frequently referenced, there was a (to me) strange reluctance to speak explicitly of the different experiences people have based on racial identity or economic status (or any other form of difference we in the US commonly use, including gender, sexual orientation, religion, or disability). Rarely was race addressed directly in the conversations in which we took part. Similarly, while there is a growing Black middle class, they went unmentioned. Despite gross differences in wealth, no one explicitly talked about social class as anything other than lack of financial resources. The discourse about diversity is focused, as best I could tell, on academic preparation, issues of “rural” students, and occasionally, issues of linguistic diversity (English and Afrikaans, the two languages of universities, are the first languages of only a minority of South Africans).
Occasionally we heard discussions of gender, mostly in the context of domestic and sexual violence against women. With one wonderful exception, the senior administrators with whom we met were Black and White men, and a few White women. Disability came up only when we asked, and was addressed solely as access for people who use wheelchairs; while HIV is rampant on many campuses, it was not part of the discourse on disability. Sexual orientation was never addressed, although on two of the HAUs (Historically Advantaged Universities, that previously enrolled only White students) we visited there was evidence in student newspapers and on websites of organizations for LBGT students.
Given that South Africa is only one generation away from apartheid, I understand the reluctance to avoid racial labels to explain differences in experience, given their recent usage to oppress, dehumanize, and degrade people. While universities were labeled as historically advantaged or disadvantaged, the people who attended them were not labeled, or even formally identified. What was and what wasn’t discussed, what was and wasn’t labeled, differed from what I am used to, and made me rethink some foundational assumptions about the work I do.
This experience has raised questions for me about whether there is a sequence or progression by which diversity issues get addressed, if there are circumstances under which a both/and approach is or is not feasible or appropriate or desirable, and to think about the privilege inherent in being able to have conversations about intergroup dynamics.
It also made me wonder if there is a sort of Maslow’s hierarchy of diversity issues, with getting disadvantaged students in and through college being the foundation. Maslow would predict that basic safety, food, and shelter needs must be met first. Even on the HAUs there are sufficient numbers of Black students (1/3rd to 2/3rds of the student body, depending on the university) to have a sense of community, to not be seen monolithically. So basic needs of affiliation are being met. Shelter is a problem; campuses rarely can house even 20% of students, and on the HDUs (Historically Disadvantaged Universities, those that historically served Black, Colored, and Indian students) we visited, squatting is a major concern in the residence halls. On-campus housing is subsidized, few students on these campuses can afford market rents, and most students have significant financial need unmet by financial aid. This has led to many students renting space in their residence hall rooms to other students, straining the capacity of systems in the buildings and raising security concerns at the same time it provides housing and income to people with few options. Additionally, on at least one HAU we visited, we heard that there are widespread rumors that campus residence halls were unsafe for Colored and Black students. While we did not hear that there were racial tensions currently, on most campuses the residence halls appeared to be almost entirely Black or White (alongside a small number of international students of various racial identities), reflecting on the predominant racial group on campus.
So back to Maslow’s hierarchy. Perhaps only once Black students make adequate academic progress does addressing intergroup dynamics and issue of privilege become a priority. That we in the US can have these conversations on our campuses is a privilege, a consequence of relatively abundant resources. It also raises questions for me about how much we are willing to focus on the academic success of students who come to us with untapped talents, who have had inadequate preparation, and what they could accomplish if we dedicated the majority of our work in student affairs to everyone’s academic success.
Ellen Broido is a faculty member in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Bowling Green State University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org