University looks to future as minority population expands

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Marie Wilson

By Paolo Cisneros

Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part series examining the issue of race on campus during the 40th anniversary of Project 500, a program that brought more than 500 black students to the University in 1968.

The University of Illinois is no stranger to demographic change.

In 1968, more than 500 black students were brought to campus in an attempt to diversify its student population in an initiative that came to be known as Project 500. Since then, the University has seen its minority population expand on an annual basis.

Still, white students far outnumber other racial groups.

According to U.S. Census Bureau predictions, however, the racial makeup of the United States may soon shift. University students and faculty say it is important the campus community not be blind-sided by the change.

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    Changing population

    The 2000 U.S. Census found that Latinos made up 12.5 percent of the United States population. In all, they were the nation’s largest minority, slightly ahead of African-Americans, who represented 12.3 percent.

    Despite their current near-parity, the Census Bureau predicts that by 2050, the number of Latinos will have more than tripled to 43 percent of the total population.

    Other minority groups are expected to expand as well, although not as rapidly.

    At the University level, the expansion of programming aimed at promoting cultural awareness will be key to ushering in a more racially diverse – and racially aware – student body, said Nameka Bates, director of the Bruce D. Nesbitt African-American Cultural Center.

    Nathaniel Banks said he agrees.

    Banks was one of the students who came to the University in 1968 as part of Project 500. A need for cultural centers and the programming they provide will exist until race ceases to be an issue in American society, he said.

    “There’s always going to be a group of students coming in that need to be educated about these types of things,” he said. “What the University needs to do is understand that this is a perennial developmental process.”

    Recently, the Inclusive Illinois initiative has acknowledged that the face of the University’s student body is changing, and that the administration and student body should be prepared.

    Such programs, however, have the potential to make white students feel uncomfortable, said Clarence Shelley, special assistant to the chancellor and former director of Project 500.

    “The University needs to find a way to make white students not feel so put upon with diversity efforts,” he said. “I’ve heard from quite a few white students that they feel they are the targets of all things evil.”

    He said he’s unsure, however, of how that should be done.

    George West, senior in LAS and president of the Central Black Student Union, said students at the University too often forget they are part of a larger student population. It’s rare for him to see strangers say hello to each other on the street, or for campus groups to reach across racial divides and introduce themselves.

    He said no matter the changes in demographics, tension on campus will continue to exist until the student body changes the standoffish culture of the University.

    West said he believes that while the fate of race relations ultimately lies on the shoulders of individuals, a more inclusive environment might help spur a positive momentum.

    “It’s a choice each individual has to make, but that choice could be made (more easily) if there was already a community here,” he said. “A lot of people come here and don’t realize that other people think differently than they do.”

    Alumni expectations

    The University is set to host a Black Alumni Reunion on the weekend of Nov. 2. Hundreds if not thousands of former students are expected to attend.

    Organizers of the event hope the alumni will be impressed with what they see.

    “The biggest change for some of them will be the number of black faces they see,” Shelley said.

    But after the weekend ends, the experiences of those same alumni and the stories they tell should be used to advance a dialogue about race on campus and the future of the University, Bates said.

    Their advice will serve as an invaluable resource in making the campus a more welcoming environment, she said.

    Anna Gonzalez, vice chancellor for student affairs, said events like the reunion help reconnect alumni to the University while fostering a sense of campus community, something she thinks is necessary as the demographic of the nation shifts.

    The Chief Illiniwek symbol has become the preeminent tradition of the University, Gonzalez said. But since it fostered a great degree of hostility during its final years, the campus community has a responsibility to forge new traditions that promote inclusiveness.

    One way of doing that is host events such as the Black Alumni Reunion, she added.

    Recruitment efforts

    Gonzalez believes that recruiting a diverse student body can be done, in part, by increasing the number of minority faculty members.

    Non-white professors make up about 39 percent of the total staff for the fall 2008 semester, according to University records.

    As the number of minority students nationwide and at the University increases, its important for them to have someone they can identify with and emulate, Gonzalez said.

    “People often say we need to increase the numbers, but (we need) to be prepared,” she said.

    Jorge Chapa, director of the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society, believes that more research is necessary on racially-themed fraternity and sorority parties that have taken place on campus in recent years.

    He said that while such parties are hardly exclusive to the University of Illinois, they often serve to deter the retention of minority students.

    “There’s no sense in recruiting more students if as soon as they get here they’re driven away by these offensive theme parties,” he said.

    Still, Chapa and his collegues remain hopeful for the future of the institution.

    Margaret Browne Huntt, research specialist at the center, said the University has a long-standing tradition of being an inclusive environment for all its students.

    It is certainly not without its problems, she said, but she believes its history of racial acceptance makes its future look bright.

    “The University of Illinois is known as a leader in terms of public engagement,” she said. She said as long as it continues working to satisfy the needs and wants of the state’s population, it will maintain its reputation as a diverse and accepting institution.

    Either way, the conversation about race must evolve with the student population, Gonzalez said.

    It’s no longer sufficient to classify a person simply as “black” or “white” since the biracial population is on the rise and since doing so ignores other aspects of that person’s identity, she said.

    She added that the ensuring that conversation takes place will be one of the most important factors in determining how the University handles its changing student body.

    She added that doing so won’t be easy. Although the issues of Chief Illiniwek and racially-themed Greek parties may no longer exist in years to come, similar controversies most certainly will, Gonzalez said.

    Melissa Silverberg contributed to this report