University of Michigan students demand campus-wide 'race and ethnicity' courses

Student government leaders at the University of Michigan are seeking to have racial and ethnic requirements, currently followed at the institution’s College of Literature, Science and Arts, reformed and then extended to all of the other colleges at the prestigious Midwestern institution. Drafted by members of the Central Student Government, the proposal would to reform the “identity requirement” that all LSA students must take studies in race and ethnicity in order to graduate. In addition, all students in other colleges – such as Engineering and Business — would be required to take a course focusing on race, if the proposal were approved by U-M faculty. Members of CSG expect to meet with university officials on March 18 to discuss their proposal. They have been meeting since October 2013.
 
The reform is supported by the Black Student Union. BSU activist Shayla Scales said of the proposal “I truly believe innovation lies in the crevices of diversity,” adding, “Making sure that we incorporate diversity in all of our thinking and the way that we see the world will only lead to innovation.” She said business students should be aware of “intersectionality.” Scales is developing seminars focused on diversity and a Management and Organizations course focused on race and ethnicity.
 
Sagar Lathia, who leads LSA Student Government, which is separate from CSG, is also a supporter. Speaking to The Michigan Daily, a student newspaper, students studying business and economics should join their counterparts at LSA in taking race and ethnic studies. Said Lathia, in the March 11 article, students of economics should be aware of “poverty, inequality and labor through the scope of race.” The LSA representative to CSG and current CSG presidential candidate, Carly Manes, said that intersectionality, “is the core component of the educational model.” She expressed the hope that the proposed reform would set down identity themes (e.g. gender, sexuality, immigration status, religion and race)as the core focus of the curriculum at all of the colleges.
 
According to The Michigan Daily, some LSA students have expressed frustration that they had taken certain classes under the mistaken assumption that they fulfilled their racial/ethnic diversity requirement. Lathia said that the certification of these classes should fall to students. This would allow students, he said, to develop requirements and a popular curriculum. Student leaders want a re-examination of the classes permitted to fulfill the R&E requirement every 2 to 3 years, rather than the current 5 year period.
 
The Black Student Union on the University of Michigan campus has had recent success. In January, it was reported that university administrators agreed to a list of demands issued by BSU, including a $300,000 renovation of the university’s Trotter Multicultural Center.  The university acceded to the demands when BSU threatened, on Martin Luther King Day, “physical action” if the group’s seven demands were not met within 7 days. Since that time, BSU has been conferring with university administrators over other the diversity demands. 
 
BSU is demanding tuition scholarships for racial minorities and increased enrollment of minority students. However, the demands may place UM in a quandary since the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to uphold a ban on race-based admissions to public universities throughout Michigan, following arguments it heard in early 2013 relating to Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary (BAMN)  case, which challenge the prestigious educational institution’s affirmative action admission policies.  
 
In November 2013, BSU went to Twitter to raise campus awareness of black students' experiences. Using the hashtag #BBUM,  the BSU-sponsored tweets trended nationally and brought attention to the group's demands. BSU emailed students and faculty to encourage participation. BSU president Tyler Collier was quoted by The Michigan Daily that his group was seeking to collect subjective information that will be added to statistical data to support BSU demands. He complained that minorities have yet to witness results, despite the University's expressed support for diversity. “I would like to see the lives of Black students valued more,” Collier said.
 
"I don’t think this is a problem specific to the University, I think it’s an experience that Black students at predominantly White universities across the nation are facing,” said Collier. 
 
The Michigan Daily quoted student Eric Gavin, BSU public relations director, “Being Black at the University of Michigan has many shades and many levels to what someone might want to speak on it. It can go from someone being the only Black person in their class to someone with no problems at all.”
 
Enrollment of black and Hispanic students has declined over the last ten years at the University of Michigan. It was in 2006 that voters passed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative that barred UM from considering race in its admissions process. At that time, about seven percent of the undergraduate student body were identified as black. By the fall semester of 2013, that figure dropped to 4.65 percent, according to the university. Enrollment of Hispanic undergrads slipped during the same period.


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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