Western Washington University: The surprising new right-wing target

The president of Western Washington University is trying to increase diversity on campus. Why that's making him the center of a lot of negative attention.
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Bruce Shepard

The president of Western Washington University is trying to increase diversity on campus. Why that's making him the center of a lot of negative attention.

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.

Most recently, he asked the question again in a March 18th post on Western Today, the school's online communications publication. The title: “Six questions on the future of Western.”

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.

Though Western’s fall 2013 freshman class was its most diverse in history, the school remains the least diverse of all Washington public four-year institutions. In fall 2012, Western's student body (not including foreign students) was made up of 21.3 percent students of color. By contrast, Washington State University in Pullman reported 26 percent diversity in its latest numbers; the University of Washington, 35 percent. Eastern Washington University also reported considerably greater diversity at 28 percent diversity; Central Washington University and Evergreen State both reported 25 percent students of color.

By contrast, Washington state's overall population is about 28.4 percent non-white, according to 2012 census data, and the gap between Western and Washington high schools is even wider: 40.9 percent of Washington high school students during the 2012-13 school year were non-white, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Washington State Report Card.

Carly Roberts is the president of Western’s Associated Students group, which aims to “ensure a fulfilling college and academic experience” for all of the college's students. She backs Shepard’s words and goal.

“What it comes down to is if we have the same demographic breakdown of our student body in 10 years as we do today, we will not be representing the people of the state of Washington,” Roberts said. “Because more students are graduating from our high schools with diverse backgrounds, students in college should be representing that.”

Kaitlyn Schallhorn, author of the campusreform.org article, disagrees. Shepard’s phrasing, she said, which an anonymous email alerted her to, raised a flag for her because it ostracized a group of people: whites. Schallhorn previously wrote an article criticizing Western’s cultural competency training for Viking Union employees, which she was also directed to by an anonymous emailer.

It is possible not to be diverse enough, Schallhorn said, but she doesn’t equate that with needing to be less white. “I wouldn’t say that is the same thing at all,” she said. “Outreach isn’t bad, but calling the number of one race a failure isn’t exactly outreach.” 

Western senior Taina Tremblay identifies as a student of color, but says she has experienced “light skin privilege” and is sometimes mistaken for white. She is proud of Shepard for his strong stance. “We have to stop using delicate vocabulary for white comfort and stop beating around the bush,” she says. “It’s so sad that [Shepard] is getting threats and being called a racist. It’s disgusting to me that people can’t deal with the reality.”

Some criticism of Shepard has focused on the false assumption that by seeking to be less white, Western lets race factor in to its admissions. Earlier this month, he and Roberts sent an email to all students to clear up any confusion. Western does not consider race in its admissions process, they wrote, and it never will.

Instead, the university is focusing on outreach programs that encourage students of color to consider a college education.

Campuses where faculty and staff are more diverse have greater success in attracting and maintaining students who are diverse, Shepard said. “Our campus is responding to that not by setting quotas, not by discriminating, but by searching to find the best people we can in the world,” he said. “The campus’ faculty and staff are becoming more diverse.”

While much media early coverage focused on the most inflammatory criticisms from students and readers, Shepard has been overwhelmed by the support students have shown for his direct approach to the issue in emails and social media posts.

“I know race is one of those issues we like to keep swept under the rug,” he said. “One way to bring this up is to speak directly and simply about terms and not to use euphemisms. We have been using euphemisms about diversity for more than a decade.

“I believed I was expressing the values of our university, and that has been confirmed through this,” he added.

As for the public criticism? He thanks it for bringing attention to an issue that needs to be talked about. And he's not phased by the the threats and calls to retire he's received.

“You can’t do this job if you want it too much,” he said. ”You have got to be willing to put things at risk. That’s what leadership is about.”


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