Emerson strives for diversity

by Beacon Staff • September 28, 2005

When Dr. William Smith arrived at Emerson, the mantra of the school's administrators regarding race relations on campus was "a piece is missing," Smith said. Now, as Smith enters his second year as executive director of the college's Center for Diversity in Communications Industries (CDCI), Smith said he is trying to increase racial diversity at Emerson.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Emerson's undergraduate population is 77.8 percent white. Some students feel the lack of diversity is denying them a dimension of their education.

"[Emerson is] trying to compensate for diversity with diverse classes, such as jazz and [those] involving slave literature," sophomore marketing communications major Elizabeth Teschler said. "We're supposed to be a diverse campus, but I think over 90 percent of the population here is white."

Attracting nonwhite students may prove difficult as the current lopsided racial composition drives some students away.

"About half of the black students I knew have transferred out," said junior Peter Dunn, a media arts and writing, literature and publishing double major.

According to NCES in the fall of 2003, the latest data available, 1.8 percent of enrolled students identified themselves as "black non-Hispanic."

Last year, racial slurs were written on the door of an African-American student's room. The student was Dunn's friend. "Since then, the school has been making more of an effort, as it finally made them realize [the presence of racism]," Dunn said.

Smith said that what he called the "long-term evil influence of racism in the city" also hurts Emerson's chances of becoming more diverse. The violent battles over desegregation of busing in the downtown area in the last half of the twentieth century have created a poor perception of Boston among minorities across the country, Smith said. In the early 1970s, Boston underwent forced busing in West Roxbury, Roslindale, Hyde Park, Charlestown, Dorchester, the North End and South Boston, in an effort to make its schools more racially balanced. The subsequent racial tension in those schools helped color Boston as a racist city.

Smith recalled a phone conversation with an African-American prospective student from Nashville who told him, "There are no black people in Boston!"

Cynthia James, a freshman African-American student, said she heard the same statement before she came to Emerson.

"I knew what I was getting into," said James, a writing, literature and publishing major. "People [at Emerson] look at you cautiously because they're afraid to offend you."

Smith said Emerson is launching a "special effort" to recruit African, Hispanic, Asian and Native American students to the college in the coming years.

He also said the CDCI would play a role in making diversity more apparent and increasing students' awareness about those of other ethnic backgrounds.

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