Iowa's black college students: We don't feel welcome
Part of a continuing series exploring the disadvantages and racism African Americans face in Iowa
CEDAR FALLS, Ia. — When freshman Alexis Tellis and other members of the University of Northern Iowa’s Black Student Union performed a step routine last fall at a dance competition that’s part of the buildup to UNI’s fall homecoming, they were showered with applause and cheers.
But it was the reception Tellis received once she returned to her dorm room that left her stunned.
Her roommate told her: “It’s exactly what I expected to see from black people,” Tellis said.
Hurt and offended, Tellis requested a new room, and when the university found her one a few days later, she and a friend met with her would-be roommate.
“In the middle of the conversation, she just said, 'I don’t like black people, and I don’t want a black roommate,'" Tellis recounted, remembering how she and her friend stood in silent disbelief.
MORE IN SERIES:
- 4 students' stories: Feeling racism on campus
- 'Can I touch your hair?' and other racial microaggresions
Tellis' experience was one of dozens that students shared last semester at UNI forums focusing on the campus' racial climate. Similar conversations at Iowa's other public and private universities have led to a similar disturbing conclusion: Many black students say they feel isolated and unwelcome on campus.
"I feel like an outcast," Tellis told The Des Moines Register in an interview.
After her second race-related run-in with a roommate, Tellis called her mother in tears: "Come get me."
Though Tellis eventually decided to stay at UNI, she couldn't shake what had happened. While growing up on the south side of Des Moines, she had never felt like such an outsider, she said.
“It ruined college for me in one semester,” she said.
Ferguson, University of Missouri fuel debate
UNI's ongoing discussions on race intensified last fall after racial tensions boiled over at the University of Missouri, fueling a national debate on racial attitudes in higher education.
In the wake of unrest in cities such as Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore over accusations of police brutality against black men, tensions persist on many campuses, including in Iowa, local administrators and students say.
"I think both Ferguson and Missouri are sort of touchstones," Grinnell College President Raynard Kington said. "I think there isn’t a college in America that hasn’t been affected by both of those."
It doesn't help that the opportunity for a higher education is tilted against black students, data show. In Iowa, black students are less likely to graduate from high school and pursue higher education than whites.
While more than 92 percent of Iowa's white students graduated high school on time in 2014, the figure was 77 percent for black students, according to the most recent data in the state's Annual Condition of Education Report.
Among those graduating seniors, 82 percent of white students planned to pursue higher education or training, compared with 75 percent of black students.
That contributes to low black enrollment at Iowa's public universities.
In 2015, the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and UNI had 2,256 black students among them — making up less than 3 percent of the 80,000 students enrolled at all three schools.
Once in college, the odds of staying in school and graduating are stacked against blacks as well. Over the past five years, they've been less likely than whites to return for their sophomore year and less likely to graduate from the state's public universities.
At Iowa State, for example, 75 percent of black students returned for their sophomore year in fiscal year 2015, compared with 88 percent of white freshmen.
And while about 70 percent of white students graduate from the University of Iowa within six years, that number drops to less than 50 percent for black students, Board of Regents data show. That gap is similar at ISU and UNI.
Video: ISU students talk about racism on campus
An unwelcoming environment
Students point to a multitude of slights and outright racism that they say have inhibited their success by fostering an unwelcoming college environment. Some have been called racial slurs. Others say campus authority figures have given preferential treatment to whites.
Most commonly, though, black students say they weather a constant barrage of racially tinged insults, some of them unintentional but no less hurtful. That includes incidents on campus where white students, occasionally without an invitation, will reach out to touch black women's hair.
While such issues have brewed for years, if not generations, students say their complaints are receiving more attention this academic year in the wake of protests at the University of Missouri. Members of the football team there threatened to boycott games until the university system's president stepped down. He did, two days later, along with the chancellor of the Columbia, Mo., campus.
Missouri's demonstrations, protests and even a hunger strike proved to students that they could force administrators to address festering racial issues, including those at Iowa universities, students, faculty and administrators at those institutions said.
"Drake could easily become Mizzou," Drake University senior Jacqui Branch said. "Maybe not as intense, but I think that we’re definitely dealing with the same sort of issues."
America's colleges and universities, including in Iowa, have pushed to diversify their student bodies, and they now enroll more African-American students than ever, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
But for younger generations of students, expectations have changed, Kington said.
When he attended college three decades ago, Kington, who is black, said he expected to encounter issues because of his race.
"There's less willingness to accept the array of problems as just inevitable," he said. "And I think the students deserve credit for saying, 'Yes, we’ve achieved progress, but there are real problems here.'"
'Paper cuts' add up
At UNI, those problems coalesced into student protests, followed by months of debate and discussion that have laid bare just how disenfranchised many black students feel.
Ethnic Student Promoters, a volunteer recruiting group of multicultural students, boycotted a recruitment day last fall that was specifically targeted at bringing in minority students. Students in the group said they were excluded from other recruiting opportunities and were trotted in only at opportune times to help the college's goal of recruiting minorities.
"We feel like if they’re not giving us equal opportunity, what is the point of them in using us on that day to say, 'Look, there are all these multicultural students here,'" said Julia Gand, a senior from Iowa City.
Gand, who is majoring in social work, transferred in as a junior and said she immediately felt that the racial climate was hostile.
"If I had started here freshman year, I would have transferred somewhere else," she said.
UNI senior Mason Greer produced this film exploring racism on campus:
In 2014, a round of anonymous messages on social media, many stamped with "#KeepUNIWhite2014," stirred the UNI campus.
But most incidents are less blatant, students say. They call them microaggressions, slights that make minority students feel isolated and set apart.
"They’re little paper cuts," said UNI adviser Colice Sanders, who is black. "But when it's happening on a daily basis, especially by faculty or people of power, it really adds up."
During a November forum, Provost Jim Wohlpart acknowledged the problems and said the "system" had failed minority students. He promised more than cosmetic change.
Now, UNI is looking through its curriculum, reviewing its student housing department and hiring new leaders to focus on diversity. Similar reviews and conversations are ongoing at Iowa State and the University of Iowa, as well as at private colleges across Iowa.
"This is not about repainting the wall a new color," Wohlpart said. "This is about knocking down the walls of the house and building a new house together."
Video: ISU students on overcoming lack of opportunity
'I solved my own problem'
Tellis, the UNI freshman, was ready to leave Cedar Falls at the semester break. But she resolved to stay, though she still largely distrusts the administration.
University officials acknowledged that her situation took too long to resolve.
When reached by the Register, her first roommate confirmed the story of their run-in, though she said she never intended her comments about the dance routine to be offensive and thought Tellis overreacted.
After Tellis' incident with the second roommate, she found a vacancy in another room, sorting out the paperwork for a move herself.
"I see it as I solved my own problem," she said.
Officials started reaching out to her and apologizing only after she had gone public with her story, she said.
More broadly, Tellis said university leaders just don't comprehend what it's like to be black at such a predominantly white university.
"They've never been in this situation, and they’ll never have to be in this situation," she said, "so they don’t understand where we’re coming from or how to make us feel more comfortable being here."
Racial incidents on Iowa campuses
• October 2014: Students at the University of Northern Iowa discover racist, sexist and anti-Semitic posts on the anonymous social network Yik Yak. Some of the posts included: "#KeepUNIWhite2014," "If you ain't white, you ain't right" and "I chose uni because I didn't see a single black person on my visit day."
• December 2014: A visiting University of Iowa art professor displays a Ku Klux Klan figure on the UI Pentacrest, in the same spot where hundreds of protesters had gathered the night before. UI officials had not authorized display of the sculpture. The artist says the sculpture was meant to highlight ongoing racial violence in the U.S., but many members of the UI community saw the sculpture itself as a threat. The incident sparks campuswide debates over the conflicts between the university’s commitment to academic freedom and its responsibility to ensure a safe and welcoming campus for all its students.
• September 2015: Iowa State University students say they were subjected to racist and bigoted remarks as they silently protested Republican Donald Trump's campaign appearance at a Cy-Hawk tailgate. A forum that same month draws hundreds of students who expressed their dismay at racism they saw.
• October 2015: University of Iowa Student Government issues a statement condemning a series of comments, posted by UI students on several social media platforms, targeted against international Asian, Asian-American and Pacific Islander students.
• October 2015: Members of the University of Northern Iowa's Ethnic Student Promoters group boycott a multicultural recruitment day, saying they won't help administrators recruit students of color until the school's racial climate is addressed.
• November 2015: University of Iowa Police investigate racist graffiti discovered on a bathroom door in Spence Laboratories. Police don't release the exact language used but say they are investigating the incident as a possible hate crime.
Grievances in Iowa City
Largely in response to events at the University of Missouri, diversity officials at the University of Iowa held three listening posts in November in which dozens of black students shared their experiences and concerns about life on the predominantly white campus.
Nadine Petty, director of UI’s Center for Diversity and Enrichment, said feedback from students showed that the university needs to do a better job of communicating with students about what is happening with any complaints they have lodged concerning a fellow student or instructor. The students also raised concerns about lower retention and graduation rates for black students than nonminority students at all three of Iowa's public universities.
Other recurring themes among the participating students, according to the UI Chief Diversity Office, included:
- Discrimination experienced at local bookstores and other retail venues
- A feeling among black graduate and professional students of being siloed
- The lack of consequences for the use of hate language
- The need to arm faculty to know the difference between free speech and hate speech
- Challenges in residence halls
- Microaggressions in class and public discourse
- The constant centering of whiteness
- Calls for action and not just conversation about equity
- The need for more black faculty
- The poor physical condition of UI's Afro American Cultural Center
- The lack of focus on providing black students with survival strategies at a predominantly white institution
- The need to educate fraternity and sorority life organizations