Xavier Magazine

Reaching for Diversity

The desk in Cheryl Nuñez’s office is a sea of manila folders broken by flecks of reddish-brown where the sunlight from the tall, lone window strikes the wood surface. Another group of folders peers out of a black bag underneath the desk surround. Still more protrude from the side pocket of Nuñez’s purse. And then there are the file drawers—reams of research underscoring the seriousness of the task at hand.

A petite woman who emanates a focused intellectual energy, Nuñez came to campus last May as Xavier’s first vice-provost for diversity. Her charge is to help pave the school’s path to a more inclusive future. To do that, she’s set to work building bridges and overseeing the creation of a diversity plan that will ultimately impact all aspects of the University. She spends her days mining others’ experiences and burrowing her way through historical documents, reaching for the roots of the existing perspectives, resources and attitudes that lie at the University’s core. And with 175 years of Xavier history to examine—most of it dedicated to educating white males—there’s much to digest.

What’s more, the very nature of diversity makes it impossible to concretely state tomorrow’s goals today. “The idea of a quest for diversity suggests that it’s a product we’re seeking, or an outcome,” Nuñez says. “In fact, it’s a process as well. And it is in many ways in the process that its value really lies.”

Since 1978, the United States Supreme Court has twice affirmed the importance of creating diverse student bodies as a key element in providing a better educational environment for all students, a point that plays directly into Xavier’s commitment to educational excellence—and to the Jesuit commitment to help those groups in society and on campus that have been historically underserved, if not excluded. Adding members of those groups to the campus mix, Nuñez says, helps remedy the situation while opening the door to a greater understanding of multiple perspectives and different ways of learning.

In contemporary jargon, it’s a win-win situation. But it’s more complex than that. Society is always evolving, meaning that anyone attempting to accurately reflect it must try to hit a moving target. Some say that an institution can declare itself diverse when minority enrollment reaches 17 percent, a figure Xavier hit this year. Others, like Marc Camille, the University’s dean of admission, suggest there is no magic number or critical mass, and that the best institutions can do is compare themselves with their surrounding community and similar schools.

“I think that we all struggle with the term diversity, because nobody’s completely sure what that means,” says Kathy Hammett, director for international student services. “When we talk about issues of diversity, we are talking about so many things.”

Among those things, Nuñez says, are culture, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and ability. There are also disabilities and socio-economic factors to consider. And each of these areas can be broad, often overlapping one another. What’s more, diversity goes beyond the student body, to include curriculum and hiring practices for faculty and staff. The fine line lies in inviting and providing for inclusiveness without watering down the definition until diversity means everything, and thus, nothing at all.

Still, for most people, the racial mix of the student body is the easiest starting point in discussing diversity. XU 2000, the University’s comprehensive plan released in 1994, formalized the goal of increasing diversity on campus. And there have been a number of initiatives designed to bring more students of color to campus—efforts that appear to be working. Since 1999, the University has seen a 69-percent overall increase in applications from students of all backgrounds.

At the same time, Xavier has become more selective, its overall acceptance rate dropping from 89 percent to 66 percent. But during this period, the student population has grown more diverse. Students of color now make up 17.5 percent of the freshman population, as opposed to 10.3 percent in 1999. In terms of pure numbers, African Americans show the greatest gains: In 1999, 48 African Americans enrolled at Xavier; in 2005, the figure rose to 85, a 77-percent hike. And more African Americans are applying, with total applications rising from 247 in 1999 to 998 last year, a 304-percent increase.

These figures reflect both demographics—African Americans have long been the largest minority group in Cincinnati —and the University’s historic recruiting philosophy. Camille arrived at Xavier in 1999 and says that until that point recruiting students of color “meant just recruiting African Americans.” But in recent years, the Hispanic/Latino population has emerged as the fastest-growing group, both nationally and locally. This shift demanded broader strategies.

As one example, last year the University rolled out the Miguel Pro, S.J., Scholarship, an award of up to full tuition, aimed at high-achieving Hispanic/Latino students and mirroring the successful Francis Weninger, S.J., Scholarship for African-American students. In the course of six years, the University has increased applications from Hispanics by 352 percent and seen a 144-percent increase in enrollment, though Camille is quick to point out that while Hispanic/Latino students now make up 2.8 percent of the overall student population, only nine enrolled in 1999 and just 22 in 2005.

When professor of English Tyrone Williams arrived on campus 21 years ago, Xavier was a different place. “Going to the cafeteria was a sort of reminder of the division of labor on the campus in terms of class as well as race and to a certain extent even gender,” he says. “It was primarily women who lived in the neighborhood, either black or from Norwood . So when you saw people from there and from the physical plant, the differences were fairly stark, from my perspective.”

In spite of those differences, Williams stayed, largely because of the sense of community he found. Extending that same sense of community to include an increasingly diverse population is a campuswide commitment, and one the University has met with general, if predictably uneven, success. There’s no question Xavier’s a different place.

But there’s more to be done. Across the board, the University has geared up to ensure students succeed once they’re here. Among those efforts is the office of multicultural affairs, which supervises and advises a dozen or so minority student organizations, such as the black student association and the student organization of Latinos, and coordinates programs with the goal of bringing minority students together with members of the larger Xavier family as well as the community at-large. “Everything is about exposing these young people to the broader reality,” says Paul James, director for multicultural affairs.

For the approximately 140 international students on campus, there’s also the Interlink program, which builds community by matching American students with new international students. And as with all students, the office of student success and retention plays a key role in acting as a conduit, greasing the wheels to ensure students get what they need to succeed. Its director, Adrian Schiess, says his office saw 3,800 students and took 6,000 phone calls last year. Part of this success comes from the quality of students the University is enrolling, but Schiess says there’s another secret. “This office is successful because it treats everybody the same.”

These approaches, along with those provided by the learning assistance center, the office of student support services and others, are working. Ron Slepitza, vice president for student development, has been at the University 13 years, long enough to see Xavier’s approach to diversity begin to mature. While admitting there’s much that can still be done in terms of inclusiveness, Slepitza points out that students of color are now retained at a rate equivalent to other students, that they graduate at a rate equivalent to other students, that they have an overall grade point average almost identical to other students, and that the same can be said for first-generation students. “That is exciting,” he says. “We far exceed national averages in regard to that.”

Against this backdrop, Nuñez settles in to work. In December, her diversity advisory council, a group of 25 individuals drawn from across the Xavier community, presented a draft of the diversity plan to the board of trustees’ inclusion task force. Broadly stated, the draft outlines 10 goals across four major areas—student access and success, campus climate and intercultural relations, education and scholarship, and institutional transformation—and provides a framework for meeting those goals and measuring progress.

The plan mirrors the goals of the University’s strategic plan and is designed to allow flexibility in terms of focus areas. It will run concurrently with the strategic plan, both culminating in 2010. When a new strategic plan is drawn up, there will be a new diversity plan to reflect it.

“There’s no formula, no perfect calculus for diversity,” Nuñez says. “When assessments of students, faculty and staff show changes in perceptions, behaviors and skills—and show improvement—then we’ll know that we are moving forward in the right direction.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.