Coby Chuang | Mustang News

Zane Ellis-Rector remembers how relieved and excited he felt walking at his graduation ceremony last year in June. Most importantly, his family was there to see it all — including his 82-year-old grandfather. 

He could hear his mother cheer excitedly in Spanos Stadium when his name got called. When he met up with her later, she was in tears. 

Amidst all the emotion that day — and the 80-degree heat — Ellis-Rector didn’t know a photographer had snapped a picture of him in his graduation cap and gown as he walked up to the ceremony’s stage. 

He also didn’t know that about 10 months later, the university would put a picture of him on two banners on campus. 

Ellis-Rector found out when one of his friends still attending Cal Poly sent him a photo of one of the banners in early May. At first, Ellis-Rector, who identifies as Black, liked that he was featured on the banners. He also questioned why out of all graduates, he was one of 12 featured. 

“What are their true intentions? Is it to honor and celebrate students or is it to present the university in a certain way?” Ellis-Rector told Mustang News. “I think it is important to ask that question and be somewhat skeptical of those things.”

In May, Cal Poly put up banners of 12 recent alumni, featuring them at their graduation ceremonies. Each alumnus is featured on two banners, totaling 24 that currently hang on light posts.

The banners begin on South Perimeter Road near Spanos Stadium and run through campus by the Recreation Center, University Union and continue on Grand Avenue past Grand Market and the yakʔitʸutʸu dorms. The banners are placed on areas of campus that have high foot and car traffic; they also intersect with tours given to prospective students and their families visiting Cal Poly for the first time. 

Mustang News conducted a review of all the banners and found that exactly half of them feature white-passing people and the other half are visibly people of color. That ratio is slightly more diverse than the student demographic: last year, Cal Poly students were about 54% white, according to Cal State enrollment data.

Mustang News also found that 25% of all the banners depict Black graduates, even though Black students comprised about 0.8% of the entire Cal Poly student body last year. 

None of the graduates featured on the banners who spoke with Mustang News said Cal Poly communicated with them or asked them for explicit permission to use their picture in a university branded banner.

Cal Poly spokesperson Cynthia Lambert said signage at graduation ceremonies alert all those who enter that filming and photography taking place. By entering a graduation ceremony, Lambert added that students consent to “any use of their image in such photography and videography in all Cal Poly publications or productions in perpetuity.” 

She added that signs are placed at several entrances and students are told about the waiver process as well. 

Lambert said the banners have been an annual tradition since 2013. This year, they cost more than $3,600. Each banner is 2.5 feet wide and a little longer than 7.5 feet. On the bottom, each one reads either “Mustang Pride,” “Mustangs Forever,” “Congrats Grads” or “Cal Poly Proud.” 

When asked why Black students are overrepresented on the banners, Lambert said representing the student body in university marketing material is a “delicate balance” and that it is important to celebrate the campus’ diversity. 

She added that it’s also important to “show what we aspire to be — a more diverse campus that better reflects the state that we serve.”

Lambert said no alumni have ever reached out with criticism or concern about being featured on them. 

Ellis-Rector, who is on one banner on Grand Avenue next to the yakʔitʸutʸu dorms and another by the University Union, said he does not think it should be up to the fine print for Cal Poly to be able to use students’ image and likeness in branded material, especially when it comes to Black students. 

“I’d say it’s an obvious and clear tactic,” Ellis-Rector said. “They’re very aware of what they’re doing in terms of showing Black students on campus.”

Ellis-Rector said during his second year at Cal Poly, he questioned whether he wanted to keep attending the university. 

“If you talk to Black students, they all have some story as to how they felt not welcome or feel like they didn’t have a sense of place,” Ellis-Rector said. “I’ve had friends that left the school completely and dropped out.”

Considering Black students’ experiences on campus and little improvement from the university in changing that reality, Ellis-Rector said the university should not be using Black students to show that the student body is diverse before making an actual difference for them on campus.

Nicole Herhusky | Mustang News

Appearing diverse means overrepresenting Black students, study says

The phenomenon of using Black students to present a diverse campus is not limited to Cal Poly. A 2013 study from researchers at Augsburg College and Rice University examined materials from 165 four-year universities and found that institutions across the United States consistently misrepresent the diversity of their student body in recruitment brochures and viewbooks sent to prospective students, enough for the researchers to conclude that the pattern is intentional and near universal.

“It is clear that racial diversity is being used as a commodity in the marketing of higher education and presenting an image of diversity is more important than accurately portraying the student body,” the study reads.

It also noted that the greatest misrepresentation was the depiction of Black students in the marketing material. They made up an average of 7.4% of the student populations at the institutions examined, but comprised double that proportion — 15.1% — in photographs used in the marketing material. 

The study also noted how the concept of diversity has become defined by many universities as having a sizable proportion of African American students. Hence, some institutions seek to show diversity by overrepresenting Black students in recruitment brochures. 

The pattern of using students of color in marketing material is problematic and paradoxical, said Amanda Frye, a liberal studies professor at Cal Poly who studies the sociological intersections of race and education. 

Diversity is framed as a 21st-century skill, and universities treat it as something they have and something they want to show, Frye said. But when universities portray students of color in branded or marketing material, Frye said they are transformed from being people into being an embodied form of diversity that can make a university appear diverse, which can have unintended consequences.

“The intention might be to create a more welcoming and inclusive-seeming environment,” Frye told Mustang News. “But what ends up happening is that the students of color — who have been commodified, feel alienated and less welcome — end up feeling even more marginalized as a result.”

Inaccurately depicting the diversity of a student body can also be counterintuitive if prospective students decide to attend Cal Poly under the impression that it is much more diverse than it is, said Megan Lambertz-Berndt, a Cal Poly professor who studies organizational communication and how individuals communicate social identities within organizational contexts.

“Having signage that does not accurately represent the student body at Cal Poly creates an unrealistic expectation of the on-the-ground experience,” Lambertz-Berndt told Mustang News. “This may cause individuals to either not stay, or have a less rich experience as one would have thought or hoped for based on the false ideas of what it was going to look like.”

Zane Ellis-Rector featured on a banner near the University Union. Ellis-Rector told Mustang News he was never contacted by Cal Poly before being put on two banners on campus. Omar Rashad | Mustang News

To Chloe Wardrick, the president of the Black Student Union at Cal Poly, the banners don’t just tokenize the students of color on them; they almost invalidate the actual work and social change done by people like herself who have tried to create and foster community for students who come from marginalized backgrounds.

Wardrick, who knows Ellis-Rector personally, said she is glad to see him up on a banner but said it’s hard to think of it as anything more than a tactical marketing strategy from Cal Poly. 

“They’re capitalizing on our effort, our pictures, our accomplishments,” Wardrick said. “It just kind of leaves a bad taste in the mouth, honestly.”

On two banners and ‘stripped of power’

After a long day at work in early May, Kadin Stephens was with his girlfriend watching a reality tv show. At around midnight, he got a text message from an old friend. 

It was a picture of one of the banners on campus featuring Stephens, smiling in his graduation cap and gown. Before receiving that text, Stephens had no clue that Cal Poly put a picture of him on two banners on campus. 

At first, he thought it was cool. But then he thought more about it and talked it out with his girlfriend, including the fact that he had no choice in his image getting printed on two banners. To some degree, it felt exploitative, he said. 

“It’s almost like, you’re stripped of power in a sense,” Stephens said. “I didn’t have a say at all.”

If Cal Poly had reached out to Stephens before putting him on a banner, he would’ve asked the university to not use his photo because he didn’t even like the photo they used. More than that, Stephens said he doesn’t want Cal Poly to be able to just use his photo and show that the university is a great place for Black students. 

Stephens transferred to Cal Poly in 2018 as an electrical engineering major after attending Moorpark College. Soon after he had accepted his offer to attend the university, a member of Cal Poly’s Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity wore blackface to a racist gangster-themed party.

It was traumatizing for Stephens when he stepped foot on campus in fall 2018. It took a while for him to find a sense of place. Discovering two clubs on campus — the Black Student Union and the National Society of Black Engineers — helped with that. 

Stephens said he got a great education from Cal Poly. He formed lasting bonds and relationships with a few professors, some who he never took a class from still gave him guidance and inspiration. But he also experienced racial bias in class from professors and peers. 

Instead of putting him and other Black students on banners around campus, and overrepresenting the Black student population, Stephens said university administrators should find other ways to make a meaningful impact. 

Hosting a panel of Black students who share their experiences — the good and the bad — could be one option, especially for prospective students, he said. 

“I feel like that’s more effective than just hanging my image up there,” Stephens said. “Why not hear from the source of my thoughts and opinions about my stay?”

But Stephens said he doesn’t think university administrators would be a fan of that idea. 

“They’re scared of students not coming to the campus because they don’t feel represented,” Stephens said. “They want to try to put up a front for everybody and say, ‘Hey, look, we have Black students here.”

This story comes from The Hill, a team of data analysts and reporters focused on data-driven and investigative stories at Mustang News. Click here to read more stories from The Hill.