Diversity Wake-Up Call Led To Change At University Of Oklahoma

Nov 13, 2015
Originally published on November 16, 2015 10:30 pm

Protests at the University of Missouri and other college campuses are forcing universities into uncomfortable discussions about race and diversity. One school got a head start.

Earlier this year, the University of Oklahoma came under intense pressure when a video showed two members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity singing a racist chant.

Now, students are comparing the reaction of their university with the recent controversies at Mizzou.

"Their administration isn't as receptive as ours was, not immediately anyway, so we kind of want to give that support and lift our voices all as one," says Naome Kadira, president of the black student activist group Unheard.

In March, University of Oklahoma president David Boren immediately condemned the video and kicked the fraternity out. The two students prominently featured were suspended. But Kadira says punishment wasn't her group's goal.

"We were looking at the bigger picture of making this a learning lesson, waking people up and having them realize that racism does exist. It's here. It's alive. And it's allowed," she says.

Since the video, the university started a five-hour diversity training course for freshmen and transfers. It also hired former state Sen. Jabar Shumate as the university's first chief diversity officer.

Shumate says about 3,100 students have gone through the training, which he says pulls them out of their comfort zone to engage in difficult conversations about race.

"Does that mean we'll never have an incident again? No. What it means is that the way we respond to those incidents will undoubtedly be better. We stopped being reactionary as much as proactive to how we make this campus more diverse and more inclusive," Shumate says.

This year, the administration included minority groups when planning homecoming and other student activities. Shumate says the university also wants to hire more minority faculty members — only 2 percent of full-time faculty are black.

Some students think the University of Oklahoma has taken positive first steps, but more needs to be done — like mandatory diversity training for staff.

"It goes beyond sitting in a classroom for five hours and being taught the rights and wrongs. It's a culture that has to change. It's the way people are thinking. And that goes back to how they are raised; that goes back to how they are brought up. It's going to take some time. I haven't personally seen significant change on campus," Chelsea Davis, a member of Unheard, says.

Davis says that at least now, there's communication between black students and the administration. And there are programs almost every week to talk about race, even though they tend to attract the same group of students.

Criminology major Shaq Harris says before the SAE scandal, students knew racism existed on campus but nobody really talked about it.

"It's kind of bad that it happened and people were hurt, but it's kind of good that it happened. It's like we've grown so much because of it," Harris says.

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon house is in for a change, too. An organization that focuses on diversity will soon move into the former fraternity house.

Copyright 2015 KGOU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kgou.org.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Protests at the University of Missouri and other campuses are forcing schools into uncomfortable discussions about race and diversity. The University of Oklahoma has been having those discussions since March. That's when fraternity members were videotaped taking part in a racist chant. Jacob McCleland of member station KGOU checked back with students to hear how the atmosphere has changed.

JACOB MCCLELAND, BYLINE: About 60 University of Oklahoma students dressed in black line up for a photo.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The first one, fist up - second one, smile - third one, no face.

MCCLELAND: The group, mostly African-American, took the picture last week to spread on social media to support student protesters at the University of Missouri.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Smile.

MCCLELAND: Earlier this year, the University of Oklahoma came under intense pressure when a video showed two members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity singing a racist chant. Naome Kadira is president of the black student activist group Unheard.

NAOME KADIRA: Their administration isn't as receptive as ours was, and not immediately anyway. So we kind of want to give that support and lift our voices all as one.

MCCLELAND: In March, OU president David Boren immediately condemned the video and kicked the fraternity out. The two students were suspended. Kadira says punishment wasn't her group's goal.

KADIRA: We were looking at the bigger picture of making this a learning lesson, waking people up and having them realize that racism does exist. It's here. It's alive, and it's allowed.

MCCLELAND: Since the video, the university started a five-hour diversity training course for freshmen and transfers, and they hired former state senator Jabar Shumate as the university's first chief diversity officer. Shumate says about 3,100 students have gone through the training which he says pulls them out of their comfort zone to engage in difficult conversations about race.

JABAR SHUMATE: Now, here is what is important. Does that mean that we'll never have an incident again - no. What it means is that the way we respond to those incidents will undoubtedly be better. We've stopped being reactionary as much as proactive to how we make this campus more diverse and more inclusive.

MCCLELAND: This year, the administration included minority groups to plan homecoming and other student activities, and Shumate says the university wants to hire more minority faculty members. Only 2 percent of full-time faculty are black. Chelsea Davis is a member of Unheard. She thinks the University of Oklahoma has taken some positive first steps, but more needs to be done, like mandatory diversity training for staff.

CHELSEA DAVIS: But it goes beyond sitting in a classroom for five hours and being taught the rights and wrongs. It's a culture that has to change. It's the way people are thinking, and that goes back to how they're raised, to how they're brought up. It's going to take some time. I haven't personally seen significant change on campus.

MCCLELAND: Davis says at least now there's communication between black students and administration. And there are programs almost every week to talk about race even though they tend to attract the same group of students. Standing near a fountain, criminology major Shaq Harris says before the SAE scandal, students knew racism existed on campus, but nobody really talked about it.

SHAQ HARRIS: It's kind of bad that it happened and people were hurt, but it's also good that it happened because I feel like we've grown so much because of it.

MCCLELAND: And the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house is in for a change too. An organization that focuses on diversity will soon move into the former fraternity house. For NPR News, I'm Jacob McCleland in Norman, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.