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A College Says It’s Fighting Racism. Critics Say It’s Failing.

When Ohimai Ojeikere was researching colleges in the U.S., the Nigerian student saw online comments expressing concerns about diversity at Texas Christian University, a private college in Fort Worth. But he felt like he could handle it. He’d been one of the only Black students at his international high school.“Then I go to Frog Camp,” Ojeikere said, referring to TCU’s new-student orientation named after its mascot, the horned frog. “In a group of about 200 kids, there were like only seven Black kids.” That’s when he thought to himself: “Man, what had I gotten myself into?”Frog Camp, an experience designed to set the stage for student life at TCU, was also the place where Ojeikere, who graduated in 2017, began to see a pattern emerge. There, he said, students of color “had to bond in order to survive. It was very much an us-versus-them mentality.” Interactions between white and Black students were strained, he said. Years later, when he became a camp facilitator, he said he was asked to participate in a skit that involved reading aloud racial slurs.It was one of many interactions over the course of his student career that could be called, at best, misguided and uncomfortable, and, at worst, overtly racist and xenophobic. In one case, a white staff member threatened to call the police during a conversation in which Ojeikere tried to clear up a misunderstanding over his work schedule. In another, a white professor told the class, without offering an explanation, that Black people were more likely to spend money they didn’t have. Time and again, he encountered other students making comments based on racial stereotypes, including a white student who joked that Ojeikere must have a large penis.“I didn’t file enough complaints. I just let stuff happen to me,” Ojeikere said. At the time, he thought he couldn’t change TCU. He was just one student.Since then, he’s joined a chorus of students and alumni calling for Texas Christian to recognize and reform what they say is a culture of racism on campus, particularly toward Black students. A federal lawsuit filed in January by five anonymous current and former students accuses the faculty and administrators of race- and gender-based discrimination. The university tried 14 times to get the suit dismissed. Meanwhile, students and alumni have presented the administration with suggestions to deal with racism on two separate occasions this year.“There’s definitely 100-percent commitment on the board to address as many of these issues as possible,” said TCU’s chancellor, Victor J. Boschini Jr. The university created a cabinet position for a chief inclusion officer in 2016, an Office of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, and an elective race and ethnic-studies course.

Amy Peterson, TCU Victor J. Boschini Jr., chancellor of Texas Christian University.

TCU also received a Higher Education Excellence in Diversity award from Insight Into Diversity magazine in 2018, 2019, and again in 2020. This year, TCU became the second university in Texas to join the Universities Studying Slavery consortium. Yet some students and alumni called these efforts too little too late and said their suggestions have been largely ignored. Faculty members, too, told The Chronicle that when they tried to raise concerns about a racist campus climate they were brushed aside, not supported by the administration, or began to fear professional retaliation. The dissonance at Texas Christian — between an administration that says it’s committed to correcting racial inequality and a student body that says the college is unwilling to change — underscores tensions playing out on campuses across the country. As the national reckoning with racial injustice continues, colleges are under increasing pressure to take immediate action on demands for radical change. Their actions, however, often leave campus critics dissatisfied, exemplifying the challenge for many predominantly white colleges: They must try to not only understand the difficulties faced by students and faculty of color but also to make change that is felt by them. Sometimes, even their well-intentioned actions backfire. The death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in police custody in May, reignited such efforts on many campuses, and prompted students, faculty, and staff to talk openly about the racism they’d experienced. But calls for change at TCU date back years.In 2016, the hashtag #BeingAMinorityAtTCU began circulating on Twitter, with students using it to vent their frustrations and describe their experiences at the university. Among them:White students hosting Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations dressed in minstrel and stereotypical costumes. Slurs uttered in class. Constant assumptions that Black students were athletes or “charity cases.” Campus police tailing Black students to their cars.

Jack HowlandProtesters in Fort Worth, Tex., kneel in honor of George Floyd. In June, they marched to Texas Christian University to call out incidents of alleged racism on campus and push for changes.

Diona Willis, a Black student who graduated in 2017, helped organize protests, sit-ins at football games, and a list of 14 suggestions— including campuswide sensitivity training and hiring more faculty of color — for the administration to contend with racism on campus. The response, she said, was “just a lot of smiling and a lot of meetings.” The lawsuit brought those issues back to the fore. Filed on behalf of five African American students and alumni, the suit alleges that TCU violated Title VI and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race; Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination; and the Americans with Disabilities Act.The plaintiffs, identified anonymously as Jane Does, allege there is a pattern of systemic racism at TCU, and each one accuses faculty members of racist actions. One Jane Doe alleges that, as the only Black student employee at the Honors College, she was underpaid compared with her white coworkers, had her hours unfairly reduced, and was forced to do primarily manual labor. Another Jane Doe claims that the culture of racism she experienced on TCU’s campus led her to develop Type 1 diabetes. The complaint also alleges that the Title IX office did not take the Jane Doe’s complaints of harassment seriously.The lawsuit calls TCU’s DEI office “fraudulent and self-serving,” and the institution itself “bigoted, narrow-minded, and hypocritical in its treatment of racial minorities and women.”TCU and the attorney for the Jane Does declined to comment on the pending litigation.After the lawsuit became public, TCU held “listening sessions” early in the spring semester to hear students’ experiences and concerns. Hundreds of students attended the sessions. The picture they painted of the campus was far from ideal.Of the dozens of students and alumni interviewed by The Chronicle, many said that the majority of the racism they experienced was at the hand of fellow students — usually white ones.According to TCU’s Office of Institutional Research, in fall 2019 about 67 percent of its 11,000 graduate and undergraduate students were white. That’s down from about 73 percent in 2011, thanks, in part, to a growing number of Hispanic and Latino students, who made up 14 percent of the student body last fall. The proportion of Black students has remained mostly stagnant, hovering around 5 percent, for the past decade.Morgan Olivia John, an Indigenous woman who graduated in 2017, said she felt studied by other students during her four years at TCU: “It was weird; it was like being an ant under a microscope.”John described her classmates as “a lot of really privileged students who haven’t really interacted with people not like them.” She said she and her friends who are people of color trained themselves to enunciate more and speak more slowly to blend in after watching other students react negatively when they spoke with an accent.“A lot of my time there I spent questioning if I belonged in an academic environment,” John said. “I felt like an alien, to be honest. It was pretty isolating.”John said that, despite experiencing microaggressions and racist comments, she didn’t pursue a formal complaint process: “I didn’t think I had anything to complain about. I just thought this is how it was everywhere.” She didn’t realize that was not the case until she spoke with friends at more diverse institutions, she said.Students have taken notice of a lack of diversity among TCU’s faculty, too.According to the Office of Institutional Research, of tenured faculty in fall 2019, just 3.5 percent were Black — something Boschini, the chancellor, said they’re trying to change partly by ensuring their faculty search committees go through diversity training. A faculty member, who asked to remain anonymous because of concerns about retaliation, said that TCU has struggled to recruit minority faculty members. They described it as an endless cycle: Faculty of color are underrepresented, which makes it harder to recruit more because they perceive that they are unwelcome or won’t be happy teaching at TCU. Existing faculty members of color are asked to serve on every committee, they said. But if you’re on multiple committees and on the tenure track, you’re too overworked to produce the publications required to make tenure and teach at the same time.Ojeikere, the Nigerian graduate, said he noticed the stagnant percentages of Black faculty members; he had one Black professor. “TCU doesn’t understand the importance of diversity in tenured positions,” he said. “I think it would go a long way if those numbers rose.”Ojeikere recalled a time when a white professor was discussing Ebola in class. He said the professor looked at him and asked “I hate to be ignorant, but you don’t have Ebola, do you?” Ojeikere said he took this comment on the chin, saying “Ma’am, if I had Ebola, I think I would be too busy dying to be in your class right now.” He said he did not make a formal complaint but shared the incident when he spoke on a panel for international students at TCU.This spring semester, TCU students upset by the racial climate on campus formed the Coalition for University Justice and Equity. In February, students published an open letter calling for the termination and resignation of several TCU employees named in the lawsuit, and the renaming of a building to honor an African American man, Fred Rouse, who was lynched in Fort Worth in 1921.So far, the university has acted on none of those proposals.On several occasions, students and alumni told The Chronicle, TCU has tried to publicly address racial injustice but missed the mark.Some of them called the university’s efforts performative — made only for show and to appease the community. One example that came up repeatedly: TCU’s Black Lives Matter social-media posts.On June 5, TCU posted an image with the words that have come to represent the racial-justice movement on a horned-frog-purple background.Eric Cox, an associate professor of political science, called the branded post “quintessential TCU, about the appearance not the actual action.” He echoed a frequent complaint: Above all, TCU is focused on its public image first. The chancellor, on the other hand, said he thinks it was effective, though he noted that a statement alone is not enough to respond to concerns about racism. “Do I think it’s sufficient? No one initiative is sufficient,” Boschini said.Several students and alumni have expressed frustration with the chancellor’s responses to their criticism.Bailey Betik, a 2015 graduate, was among the alumni who emailed the TCU administration in June after Boschini sent a statement of solidarity with Black and marginalized students following the murder of George Floyd. In his email, Boschini wrote that “it can be difficult, but not impossible, to discuss issues of race, violence, and privilege in America. We can and must have these important and valuable conversations. We also must identify and implement solutions. I know many are hurting and while I do not have the same lived experiences, I will do my part to make our campus community a welcoming place for all.”Betik and others urged him to do more, including examining numbers of leaders of color on campus, using communications platforms to advocate for Black scholars and voices, examining TCU’s Confederate legacy, and providing mental-health and wellness resources to students of color.Boschini replied to Betik’s email, writing that “we have a ton of good-hearted people literally knocking themselves out on campus to help our marginalized — and all for that matter — students,” and that “we are just working as hard as we can and hope that people will give us a little grace. If not — that’s up to them. I am only one person and can only do so much.”That, Betik said, “felt very dismissive and very defensive and reminiscent of an ‘all lives matter’ rhetoric.”She took issue with his saying he was just “one person” and that he wanted “grace” when people were “literally being murdered.” “He is one of the top-paid chancellors in the nation at a very wealthy school,” she said. TCU’s endowment is $1.71 billion.In a subsequent email exchange shared with The Chronicle, Boschini wrote that Betik was “trying your best to bully me into your viewpoint.”“The accusation of me bullying one of the highest-paid chancellors as a 27-year-old grad student is pretty absurd and indicated a level of defensiveness and white fragility,” Betik said.

Allison V SmithJonathan L. Davis, a 2013 TCU alumnus.

Jonathan L. Davis, a Black alumnus who graduated in 2013 but has been active at TCU ever since, met with Boschini for an hour and a half in early June to discuss TCU’s response to racism on campus.Davis said that in the meeting he went over the list of suggestions he and other alumni created for TCU to improve the discriminatory culture on campus, which pointed to other universities, companies, or major organizations that had already taken these steps.Davis said Boschini rejected complaints that the Title IX office was ineffective and that the university needed an ombudsman office.Boschini told The Chronicle he is happy to work through these complaints with Davis and Betik, but not through the news media or social media.Davis had believed TCU leaders didn’t understand how bad the climate on campus is, he said, but after speaking with Boschini, “what I emphatically believe now is that the university 100 percent knows what is going on,” and it is “at best dismissive” of concerns about a racist culture.Many faculty members have heard from minority students living on campus that they don’t feel comfortable or accepted. Cox, the political-science professor, described his Black and Hispanic students, in particular, as exhausted: “I’m a middle-aged, white faculty member. I wouldn’t know this stuff if students didn’t confide in me.”One of the complaints he’s heard a lot, Cox said, is that if you’re a Black student, it’s assumed you’re an athlete. “It’s furthering the idea that that’s how you earned your place as a student and not your intrinsic value as a student. It’s little assumptions.”“I have loved working at TCU … but when you love something, you want it to be better,” he said.Boschini insisted that TCU has worked hard to respond to complaints about a racist climate on campus. “The issue is just vital,” he said. “Of vital importance to the campus, but also to me personally.”Every student should have “a place at the table,” he said, and the university has already taken “20 different steps” to move forward.“Obviously we need to do more,” he said.Starting this fall, as a direct result of the 2016 list of suggestions, it will be mandatory that all faculty, staff, and students are trained in diversity, equity, and inclusion.There will also be a “thorough examination of TCU’s history and recommended actions that provide for a more complete acknowledgment of the university’s past,” a university spokesperson said. TCU was founded by former Confederate soldiers in 1873, and a statue in the center of campus pays homage to the founding brothers.Yet critics remain skeptical that these steps will amount to real change.“Everything the university has done is performative. I’m not really confident anything is going to change,” Davis said. “I don’t know if leadership is suitable for the climate and conditions. It may just be they can’t, and won’t, get it, and it’s possible.”Krista Kee, a 2016 graduate who now works with The Posse Foundation, an organization that supports underrepresented students, sees TCU grappling with many of the same challenges other colleges are facing.“I feel like a lot of institutions of higher education are really struggling to address the harm they’ve caused,” Kee said. “They will stay neutral enough as not to upset donors and racist students.”Rasaan Hatcher, a junior, is among the students who doubt that meaningful change is afoot at TCU.“Will they [change]? Never in a million years,” he said. “I would not hold my breath on it because I would be a dead man.”But he noted that Frog Camp no longer features a skit using racial slurs. He said that orientation tradition, titled “More Than Words,” was designed to demonstrate the harmful effects of racist language. Performers read news headlines and used racial slurs in reference to events. But seeing a white student on stage yelling the N-word upset the students the performance was meant to protect.“People were kind of traumatized by this,” Hatcher said.This skit was phased out last year; his freshman year was the last class to experience it.But just last month, the N-word was again the subject of controversy on campus. TCU’s football coach, Gary Patterson, made headlines for using the slur in a conversation with a Black player. Like the Frog Camp skit, the coach’s comments were intended to discourage the use of racial slurs: Patterson was reportedly scolding the player for saying the N-word in team meetings. A spokesperson for the university said, “the language that coach Patterson used is never acceptable, regardless of the context. He has apologized and is working with the team to move forward, together.”Patterson, who is white, wrote in his apology on Twitter that “we are committed as individuals and as a program to fighting racial injustice of any kind.”Whether students of color will see results from that commitment is another matter entirely.Correction (9/23/2020, 12:50 p.m.): In a prior version of this article, a quote from Jonathan L. Davis included the word “impossible.” Davis said “possible.” The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

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