Northern California in the late 20th century wasn’t a nesting ground for diversity. In fact, most people in the all-white neighborhood Bruce Shepard grew up in reacted downright negatively toward it.
He remembers when the first Italian family moved in, and “For Sale” signs cropped up on the lawns of some nearby homes. Then the first Japanese family. More signs.
Each time new neighbors moved in, Shepard’s father marched him and his brother across the street or down the block to shake hands and extend a warm welcome.
The Western Washington University president said that he was raised to promote diversity in his community. It’s a mission he has carried with him throughout his jobs in higher education and a goal he believes Western’s students and faculty support. Since he started at Western in 2008, he has repeatedly asked what the Bellingham, Wash. liberal arts university can do to make sure that, in future years, Western is not as white as it is today.
The question itself, however, isn’t what made national morning news last week or finally got the majority of Western students -- and more tha a few others not affiliated with the university -- talking about Western's diversity goals.
On April 15th, Campusreform.org published an article about Shepard's blog post, headlined “University calls the amount of white people on campus a ‘failure,’ asks for ideas on how to have fewer.” Criticism of Shepard and Western Washington University poured, blogged and tweeted in. Parents of high school students asserted that they would never send their children to a “racist” university like Western. Some Western students expressed horror and asked for Shepard to be fired.
Embedded in the campusreform.org article was a clip from a speech Shepard gave in 2012: “Every year, from this stage and at this time, you have heard me say that, if in decades ahead, we are as white as we are today, we will have failed as a university in our commitment to meet the critical needs of our state,” he said in the video.
But the article, and many others, cut off the quote and paraphrased it with lines such as, “President Shepard equates a ‘white’ student body and faculty to ‘failure.’” Backlash on Twitter has included accusations of racism. White supremacist posters have cropped up on Western’s campus, equating diversity with “white genocide.” Widespread criticism has focused not on Western seeking racial diversity, but more specifically on the school trying to be “not as white.”
Shepard says such statements are gross misrepresentations of his actual words, which he intended to be provocative, but not in any way anti-white. He doesn’t want fewer white students, he says, but to attract more students of color to match increasing diversity in Washington state and its high schools.
In response to the criticisms of Shepard, even more students, staff and faculty have come out in defense of him and the university’s values. The chair of the university’s Board of Trustees and the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences have each sent mass emails in the name of Western’s commitment to diversity. About 100 to 150 people attended a student-led meeting on Tuesday in direct response to the white supremacist posters, to brainstorm ways to address the hateful messages and promote and define diversity at Western.
Although the recent controversy has heavily focused on racial diversity, the conversation it has sparked is more broadly about diversity’s many facets. DiversityIsWWU is now both a hashtag and a Twitter handle. At 1 p.m. Monday, a “Diversity Is” rally will march across Western’s campus to “show how hate at Western is unacceptable, not welcome, and will not be tolerated.” These are just the short-term steps the Western community is taking in response to a question Shepard has been asking for years, but that it took media-perpetuated controversy to address.
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