Cal Poly looks to address campus diversity

This fall’s freshman class was the most ethically diverse in Cal Poly history, and students seem to think Cal Poly is paying more attention to issues regarding gender and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, according to a recent Mustang Daily poll.

Holly Dickson

In general, Cal Poly is a school known more for its architecture and engineering programs than for diverse students, faculty and staff. That being said, this fall’s freshman class was the most ethnically diverse in school history, and students seem to think Cal Poly is paying more attention to issues regarding gender and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, according to a recent Mustang Daily poll.

Although students’ poll responses indicated they think Cal Poly is doing a better job paying attention to diversity than they were two years ago — it increased from 42 percent in 2011 to 48 percent this year — the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) noted during its accreditation review of Cal Poly in spring that the university is in need of more diversity.

Cal Poly is responding to that assessment in part by filling a new administrative position which will spearhead the diversity mission at Cal Poly. The Office of the President hopes to have the executive director for campus diversity and inclusivity in place by early 2013, Employment Equity Director and Special Adviser to the President for Diversity Martha Cody said.

‘Small town atmosphere’

Although positive responses to the question of Cal Poly’s ability to address diversity still totaled less than half, it’s an improvement from the 42 percent who felt that way two years ago.

Cody said improvement may be because of the extra efforts Cal Poly has taken to build diversity on campus, though the local demographic sometimes lends a measure of difficulty to these efforts.

“It’s an uphill battle because the surrounding community in (San Luis Obispo) is not the most diverse,” Cody said. “It’s a little bit of a small town atmosphere. But we can’t say, ‘Well, it is what it is,’ and stop right there. We have to keep trying.”

Though the number of visible ‘hate’ incidents has gone down, Cody said she still hears about small comments here and there.

“I do hear anecdotal reports, from students, about insensitive comments being made, whether it’s by faculty or classmates,” she said. “I think a lot of students of color just learn to put up with those things as part of being here. And I think it’s really unfortunate, they shouldn’t have to do that.”

Cody said the crop house incident in 2008 was the last hate crime occurrence which rose to a high level of publicity.

Diversity is not just about ethnic diversity though, other traditionally marginalized demographics such as the LGBT community are also targeted.

The homophobic slur written on a sign on campus in October was a very negative incident and Cody was glad Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong spoke out forcefully and swiftly against it, she said.

Former Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence David Conn agreed Cal Poly was fortunate to not have a large number of major incidents, but said the smaller ones form a difficult climate for diverse students.

“I think a lot of climate issues come from ignorance, misunderstanding and a lack of awareness of how different actions or speech can affect people,” Conn said. “For the most part, I think everyone recognizes it’s inadvertent, but whatever the motivation, it’s the impact that counts.”

Though this year saw Cal Poly’s most ethnically diverse freshman class, Cal Poly still has a hard time attracting more students of color, Conn said — this fall’s freshman class is the least Caucasian, and most Hispanic, Asian and non-resident class ever admitted to the university, according to a report.

Conn said Cal Poly can’t compete with University of California (UC) schools in financial aid and scholarships, and recruits less ethnically diverse students because of that. Socioeconomic status, sometimes, but not always, correlates with color, he said.

“We actually admit a significant number of students of color who meet all our criteria,” Conn said. “But students who can get in here often get into UC’s too. Then (the) UC comes along with lots of money, which we don’t have.”

And when it comes down to it, Conn said, “people like to be with people who look like them, and that can be difficult here.”

The WASC committee noticed the lack of diversity while they were on campus this past spring to make sure Cal Poly met all accreditation requirements.

Cal Poly is now expected to submit a report on its progress toward more diversity in a few years, Conn said.

“We need to show the creditors (WASC) that we’re interested in doing better, and do better,” Conn said. “It didn’t come as any surprise to me, or anyone else, I suspect, that the commission wanted a progress report.”

‘Coming out at Cal Poly’

WASC may be looking for a progress report, but the Mustang Daily poll indicated students think Cal Poly has already made marked progress in paying attention to the LGBT community in the past two years.

Seventy-four percent of students polled agreed Cal Poly does a good job addressing the LGBT community, while only 57 percent said the same two years ago.

Multicultural Center and Pride Center coordinator Erin Echols said although she has seen the attitude toward LGBT students change dramatically since she began working with the Pride Center seven years ago, she hasn’t witnessed the same change in attitude toward students of different ethnicities. She said she thinks the difference lies in what gets more attention.

“Every time something comes out within pop culture, it can be helpful,” Echols said. “There’s a lot of (LGBT) issues in politics, so people have to take a stance.”

Students are saying “I chose this school because of the LGBT resources that are here,” whereas seven years ago, the general sentiment might have been, “I’m coming to Cal Poly. I’m not going to be out. I don’t know if it’s going to be accepting,” Echols said.

In comparison to other California State University (CSU) schools, Cal Poly is at the top, along with Cal Poly Pomona, in terms of full-time staff members, physical space on campus and the number of programs for LGBT students, Echols said.

She said the support Armstrong has displayed for the LGBT community has been helpful.

“The students feel it, I feel it,” she said. “He’s just across the board been great. We did a video about coming out at Cal Poly, and he did a large segment about his experiences with the LGBT community and people coming out to him.”

Echols said through speaking with students now as compared to seven years ago, she’s noticed a change in the perception of the LGBT community.

“I’ve gotten a different feeling from the students who are here,” Echols said. “From their experiences on campus, why they chose to be here and how they’re involved.”

Addressing gender

Gender — male, female and transgender characterizations — also plays a role in diversity issues at Cal Poly.

Sixty-eight percent of students polled agreed Cal Poly does a good job addressing gender issues. Though that number increased by approximately 5 percent from two years ago, it was the smallest increase found in the three poll questions.

A large issue in the topic of gender discussion is sexual assault risk, prevention and reporting.

Geneva Licht, an Americorps member serving with Safer, said a lot of fear still remains around sexual assault and reporting it.

“I think that was shown by the article about the alleged sexual assault at PIKE,” Licht said. “The whole situation is that there’s still a lot of victim blaming happening … In some places we see improvement, but the fact is it’s really scary when sexual assaults happen and that’s just part of it — wanting to hide it and have it not be a part of the culture here.”

Safer offers crisis counseling for those impacted by sexual assaults and has seen approximately 15 students already this quarter, Licht said. Licht said although it seems like a lot of students for the first quarter, she’s glad people are coming in to talk about it.

“We know it’s a good thing people are coming in,” she said. “Because we know it’s happening. It’s just whether they’re coming to talk to us about it or not.”

Licht said diversity has improved within the Gender Equity Center itself. The center changed its name from the Women’s Center because the center wanted to expand its breadth to deal with all types of gender diversities, Licht said.

The Gender Equity Center now employs men as well as women, and offers programs in masculinity and transgender awareness in addition to its programs for women, she said.

Change is in the air

Though each particular diverse group faces its own distinct problems, Cal Poly is looking to connect these groups through the new executive director for campus diversity and inclusivity.

Cody said the new administrative position will act as a “clearinghouse” to make sure all programs are connected and working together toward the same goals.

“They’re going to be looking at how diversity and inclusivity fit together with the overall campus strategic plan,” Cody said.

Cody said she was also pleased Armstrong committed to making the Diversity Colloquium an annual event. It will be held Feb. 5 next quarter, and they hope to have a panel discuss diversity issues in Cal Poly and the San Luis Obispo community, Cody said.

“I’ve been very impressed with both President Armstrong and (Provost Kathleen) Enz Finken,” Cody said. “They really do care about it, it’s not just lip-service.”

Besides the new administrative position and the continuation of the Diversity Colloquium, the Student Success Fee, implemented this past year, is also generating revenue for the Multicultural Center, Pride Center, Gender Equity Center and Safer, according to a memo given to Cody by the Student Success Fee Allocation Advisory Committee.

Cody said the allocation of Student Success Fee revenue is a step in a positive direction.

“I think it’s very clear that the money is being put where the mouth is, so to speak,” Cody said. “There are some pretty significant financial commitments being made to these areas.”

Echols said the money allocated to those programs will be used to hire assistant coordinators for each program by the beginning of 2013.

Conn said one of the changes at Cal Poly he’s most excited about is the addition of intergroup dialogues. It will be added as a course in psychology (PSY 303) in Spring 2013 and he hopes it will eventually gain USCP status or satisfy a GE requirement so more students can fit it in their schedule.

“This is a pretty major initiative to address what I think is a really thorny issue here,” Conn said. “Because it won’t happen by osmosis here at Cal Poly. You’ve got to be intentional about it.”

The course is based on face to face discussions between people of differing social identity groups — ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.

Cal Poly is beginning to chip away at the problem, but has a long way to go to reflect the rest of the state or world, Conn said.

“Our students are entering a world that doesn’t look like Cal Poly,” he said. “Particularly in the state of California, our numbers are so dramatically different from the population of the state. The issue for us is, ‘Are we adequately preparing them to do well in that kind of world?’”

  • Drew

    It’s certain when I graduate in engineering recruiters will want to see on my resume the diversity figures for Cal Poly.

    Quick question? Why is Cal Poly not considered diverse with 60% of its population is white but UC Davis is considered diverse when 55%+ of its student population is Asian/Hispanic.

    Also, how is it that colleges such as Wellesley, Smith, etc, are ranked above Cal Poly when they have no men attending and are mostly white?

    Just wondering how this diversity thing really works?

  • Bob

    Why is cal poly considered non-diverse? The census information of california is about in line with the cal poly student body’s makeup:

  • Bob

    Why is cal poly considered non-diverse? The census information of california is about in line with the cal poly student body\’s makeup:

  • Tim

    What is it with college students and multiculturalism? Cal Poly is a school. You go there to get an education. You have 32 other public universities to choose from if for some reason you feel uncomfortable around certain races.