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UNLV renews push to pull up the roots of structural racism

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Sign in front of the UNLV College of Engineering

State of the University addresses are, traditionally, fairly bland affairs. They are a chance for university presidents to be boosters, to laud the university’s successes and sell the school’s upward trajectory to an audience of administrators, faculty, students and donors. 

But this January, sandwiched between aspirational calls for a “Top Tier 2.0” plan and the development of a new engineering building were frank words about racism from UNLV President Keith Whitfield. 

“There's inherent, structural racism at this university,” Whitfield said. “We're not unique in that regard. Most organizations have some element of it and in most cases structural racism is unintentional … But if we're going to reach the next level, we need to realize and understand that this is a challenge that needs to be addressed at UNLV.” 

Though colleges and universities have long been at the forefront of discussions of systemic racism, rarely have administrators spoken so plainly about its effects. Among other things, Whitfield praised the work of the university’s Anti-Black Racism and Minority Serving Institution task forces and revived the ombuds office to provide a “more defined avenue” for the community to voice concerns. 

Part of the shift, administrators told The Nevada Independent, is Whitfield himself. A transplant from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, Whitfield was appointed permanent president of UNLV last summer. 

The university’s first-ever Black president, Whitfield arrived at an inflection point, both for the university and the country. The pandemic and the shutdowns that followed were still fresh, and questions lingered over how fall semester would play out. With state revenues gutted by the shutdowns, the Legislature cut tens of millions of dollars from higher education budgets — further eroding the fiscal position of institutions that had already lost millions in revenue. 

And in America’s streets, weeks and months of protest and unrest followed the police killing of George Floyd, a political and racial flashpoint unseen since the Ferguson protests, and later riots, of 2014. 

“I think the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many of the others last year just was that last spark that we needed, across the country, for leadership at the universities to come and step it up,” Tarryn McGhie, a member of the university’s Anti-Black Racism Task Force, said. 

Whitfield declined to be interviewed for this story, but his chief diversity officer, Barbee Oakes, said the core of UNLV’s efforts to address structural racism was a broad shift away from an “equality model,” i.e. the rigid numerical equality espoused by decades-old affirmative action efforts, to an “equity model,” instead. 

In short, Oakes said, that equity would prioritize fairness not by “treating everyone the same,” but by “meeting the various needs that people have within the institution.” 

“That is a massive undertaking,” Oakes said. “And I think of it pretty much like turning a big ship. You don't just decide you're going to change direction and move quickly — that is a major amount of work.”

Fixing the systems at play

It’s no grand revelation that racism remains a central issue of American politics. But while pushes to tear down statues or rename buildings have collided with an all-encompassing debate over “cancel culture” and the political baggage therein — UNLV removed a statue of frontiersman mascot Hey Reb! last June — the core of systematized racial discrimination remains. 

According to faculty, students and administrators interviewed by The Nevada Independent, that big-tent of structural racism covers myriad different, smaller issues. To name only a few: admissions criteria may unintentionally discriminate against some students; remediation programs (which are already being phased out of Nevada colleges and universities) may disproportionately reduce the likelihood that students of color will graduate; a hostile campus climate may negatively affect student performance or otherwise harm student outcomes.

“I think in most instances, I don't think that it's intentional,” Juanita Fain, UNLV’s Vice President for Student Affairs, said. “But that makes it maybe a little bit more challenging to try to get at it, but I think the way you do it is you talk to impacted people — individuals, students, faculty and staff — to get their perspective of what the concerns might be. I think we have tried to start and then actually do audits or you know various policies and procedures.”

Some systems merely need policy-level tweaks. Other issues are far deeper, more complex and may take years to fully address. 

Chief among them is the racial ratio of UNLV faculty to students. UNLV has one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation — nearly 65 percent of students are non-white, including roughly 30 percent who are Hispanic, 15 percent who are Asian or Pacific Islander and 8 percent who are Black — but a majority of UNLV’s faculty is white. 

“It's almost baffling to think, we here at UNLV are a Minority Serving Institution, and specifically a Hispanic Serving Institution, but our faculty and staff don't match up with that,” Darian Fluker, a UNLV student and president of the school’s Women of Color Coalition. “And of course, that just speaks to a ton of different things within the system of higher education and why younger students of color don't continue their education past, usually, a bachelor's [degree].”

Fluker said these outcomes — the lack of educational attainment — were the core of institutional racism, “whether they’re very apparent or not.”

“All of the student input that we get over and over again, one of the main concerns is not having a more diverse faculty that looks like them and represents them,” Fain said. 

Fain added that a key to addressing the faculty ratio problem in the long term could be heading off unconscious biases during the hiring process. To that end, UNLV has developed a pilot program of “search advocates” whose sole purpose would be to provide “consciousness and awareness” of just those issues. 

For UNLV Faculty Senate Chair Vicki Rosser, the faculty-to-student ratio is not only a diversity issue, but a labor issue, too. 

Rosser pointed to pay freezes, furloughs and an end to merit pay increases during the Great Recession as broad causes for “compression,” or the steady narrowing of the salary gap between existing faculty — some who have spent years at the university — and brand new hires. 

“The faculty salaries across the system have fallen below market competition at UNLV and other institutions across the system,” Rosser said. “So it does become problematic when you're trying to hire people, and you've got these existing people who've been compressed for many years — that is a huge issue.”

But as difficult as it may be to find and hire diverse staff, Rosser said another part of the problem is retaining them once they arrive. 

“Let's say we do hire a fantastic person of color. They're top notch, and people want to steal from us,” Rosser said. “Oftentimes, we can't give them a retention offer for the same reason: that they may be paid higher than existing faculty in the unit, and that would cause all sorts of snowballing effects across the campus. This has been a contention for us for years.” 

Issues of pay, unlike other policy issues, go far beyond the purview of the chief diversity officer, reaching instead into budgets where the final arbiters are politicians, not administrators. 

It remains unclear whether the Legislature would move to address the pay issues mentioned by Rosser, as it’s just one of dozens of fiscal issues facing the state’s higher education system through at least the next biennium. 

The difficulties of the discourse 

When Whitfield committed openly and explicitly to addressing institutional racism in his State of the University speech, he lingered, if only for a moment, on one point in particular: Identifying such issues and plying policy-level solutions is one thing; achieving buy-in from the people involved is another. 

“It's perhaps the most difficult area for an organization to change,” Whitfield said. “And I know that this new goal may generate some anxiety, maybe even some skepticism. However, we need to realize our deficiencies.”

Racism, systemic or otherwise, is frequently a discourse hand grenade — a charged subject inherently uncomfortable for many of the people required for the conversation to take place at all.

At the administrative level, Oakes compared it to the “corporate arena,” and said part of the strategy in bringing the reluctant on board was to “build a business case … for diversity.” 

Be it the rapidly diversifying demographic makeup of Clark County or the empirically supported benefits of a culturally and ethnically diverse workforce, Oakes said it remains “critical” to demonstrate the reality behind the conversation. 

“It's about more than the changing demographics, it's also about being better and being more productive,” she said.

While academic discourse on the systems challenges have been at play — faculty disparities, resources issues, remediation disparities or scholarship access — public discussion has more frequently been seized by the unending culture war. As tangible, if extremely unlikely, institutional reform efforts like “defund the police” transferred from activists to the mainstream, so too did a more general activism that took aim at statues, building names and, in the case of UNLV, a mascot. 

Amid 2020’s summer of protest, UNLV took the surprise step of removing a statue of their mustachioed mascot, Hey Reb!, from campus and announcing an internal review of both the mascot and the university’s “Rebel” nickname. 

At the core of the discussion were concerns that “Rebel” and Hey Reb! — though both had long been distanced from the explicit confederate imagery used by UNLV in the 1960s and 70s — still acted as veiled references to the Confederacy.

Though the Rebel name has remained, Whitfield announced in January that Hey Reb! is gone for good. He presented no specific reason why in his letter announcing the move, but prefaced the announcement in his speech by saying: “Our university, our community, our society has changed. We need to be thoughtful and to evaluate, adjust and evolve.”

But in this evaluation, adjustment and evolution are other complex and equally heated questions. Chief among them are debates about the freedom of speech, and the institutional duty — or lack thereof — of institutions like UNLV to step in to police hate speech or otherwise racist speech not limited by the First Amendment. 

As debates over bigotry, racism and hate speech have congealed on the hazy fringes of those First Amendment protections, higher education institutions have increasingly fallen to the fore of free speech discussions. To wit, UNLV just this month rejected a call from two Democratic student groups to oust the university’s student chapter of the conservative group Turning Point USA, in part over concerns about unfairly limiting speech without due process. 

For Mahir Hussein, president of UNLV’s Muslim Student Association, and other students like him, racism is a personal issue with tangible stakes. Outcomes are real, not abstract, he said, pointing to incidents over the last several years in which swastikas were carved in dormitory doors and a threatening note was left for black students. 

“We act like Brown v. Board of Education wasn't 1954, we act like this wasn't that long ago,” Hussein said. “We act like we're not dealing with the repercussions of having to fight for rights in school, the concept of a separate but equal, addressing the school to prison pipeline.” 

Hussein said these issues stretch far beyond the structures of higher education. “It’s a whole system,” he said, that not only disadvantages Black and brown students, but also is designed to end with those students in jails and prisons. 

Hussein and others, including Oakes, said that the issue is broad and complicated, and that UNLV and other universities are often left dealing with problems generated early-on by K-12 systems, among others. Still, administrators who spoke to The Indy had no shortage of planned changes, with more expected as internal audits and reports are completed in the coming weeks and months. 

“What you have to remember is that systems are created by people,” Oakes said. “So if you change the behavior, and change the knowledge of people, then you can change the systems.”


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