At open house, students draw attention to Tufts race relations

A group of approximately 40 students during Friday’s April Open House (AOH) events gathered on the Academic Quad to inform prospective students about what they perceive to be a misrepresented racial climate on campus.

The students mingled among accepted students and their parents for about an hour, most of them wearing white T-shirts reading either “Ask me about white privilege at Tufts” or “Ask me about being a student of color at Tufts.”

The students also distributed flyers listing details of their individual experience at Tufts, both as white students and students of color.

One of these students, senior Carolina Ramirez, said the group joined together through a common interest in improving the academic and social atmosphere for students of color at Tufts.

By appearing on the quad and initiating conversations with attendees, they aimed to both educate prospective students about a discrepancy between the experiences of white students and students of color on campus, as well as alert the administration to what Ramirez called the “desperate” need for an Africana studies department at Tufts.

“Initially, the biggest reason why we chose to go speak to prospective students [was] to just try … to give them a holistic image of Tufts,” Ramirez said.

Some of the students on the quad were part of a group of approximately seven students who conducted a similar effort during AOH events last year.

“When students come to April Open House, a lot of the times they get only positive things about Tufts … like, ‘Tufts is so great, it’s so diverse, they’re all active citizens,’ which in some sense is true, but they don’t get the other side of the story,” she added. “They don’t get the racial tensions that are going on on campus, the negativity that students of color face on a regular basis.”

Beyond raising a discussion about the racial climate on campus, the creation of an Africana studies department remained key in the group’s minds.

“What we did on Friday would also show that we as students desperately need this Africana studies department. It would show our invested interest not just for students of color but for white students as well,” Ramirez said.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Lee Coffin said that while he has established himself as sympathetic to these concerns, he considered AOH an inappropriate venue by which to air them.

“I’m offended by it,” Coffin said. “I think what’s difficult for my role at the university is to understand how their issue intersects with the undergraduate admissions open house.”

“In the eight years that I’ve been dean, I’ve worked very hard to promote diversity, to hire a staff that embraces it in our admissions DNA, that works hard to get the aid resources to make diversity possible, to run programs like [AOH] where an element of it was our diversity acceptances,” he continued.

The group of students selected AOH specifically, Ramirez said, to raise racial awareness among potential incoming freshmen, in addition to current students and administrators.

“If we are able to reach out to students that are coming here, we can sort of plant seeds within them just to be more conscious, since we are a school that prides itself off of active citizenship,” Ramirez said.

Coffin said that such an effort may have hindered rather than furthered the students’ goals.

“I think sometimes when you’re feeling like you’re a marginalized member of the community, which is what I’m reading as this protest, you have to also practice what you preach,” he added. “I don’t feel like it was an act of good citizenship today, to insert themselves into this day as they did.”

Coffin added that the students’ approach did not allow for a comprehensive depiction of the racial climate at Tufts.

“I think [it’s] a difficult message for an external person to receive,” he said. “Just walking around the quad … to me, [it’s] the wrong venue for what they’re trying to do. Someone coming from a high school in another part of the country doesn’t have the nuance of Tufts, so having a conversation in the middle of the community fair doesn’t give the applicant a fair understanding of the campus.”

Coffin worried the students’ actions may have an impact on AOH attendees’ decision to come to Tufts and especially on the racial makeup of the incoming class.

“I will be saddened if the class of 2015 is less diverse as a result of it,” he said. “It’s possible.”

The students involved recognized that possibility but saw the need for a conversation about the role of race in campus social life and policies as more important.

“I’d rather our numbers go significantly down and … the system actually support the students that it does have,” Ramirez said. “I think that yes, numbers matter; I think that yes, we need black students to be here, and I think that students of color need to be here, but I also think that the support and the systems to support them need to be created.”

Alex Lis-Perlis, a sophomore who was involved in the effort and spoke to visitors during AOH, said the students’ message did not include any implication that they did not recommend prospective students to enroll at Tufts. Her intention was more to fill the gap left by the mainstream admissions programs, she said.

“I think that sometimes there’s this … disconnect between what you’re told coming in and the image that you have of Tufts as a prefrosh and in your freshman year,” she said.

Dean of Arts and Sciences Joanne Berger-Sweeney in February created a task force aimed at determining the best way to incorporate Africana studies into Tufts’ curricula. The task force, chaired by Wellesley Professor Emeritus Wilbur Rich  and comprised of two Tufts undergraduate students, seven Tufts faculty members and administrators and three faculty members from Dartmouth College and Harvard and Brown Universities, is expected to present its findings to Berger-Sweeney next month, at which time she will decide whether to promote the creation of an Africana studies department.

A group of students, of which Ramirez was one, was invited by the task force to speak with Rich earlier in April and discuss their views on Africana studies at Tufts. Ramirez said in speaking with Rich, she got the impression that he had not been adequately informed on undergraduate students’ views.

“It seemed that the administration was lacking in providing him information of the student voice,” Ramirez said, explaining that Rich was not provided with the November Senate resolution in support of the establishment of an Africana studies major and department and that he sought to know further how students feel.

“With that meeting, that sort of sparked our interest in making sure that he had a holistic view before he wrote a recommendation for the task force,” Ramirez said.

She expected word of the students’ actions at AOH to reach Rich and affect the tasks force’s recommendation.

“We’ll also make it a point to make him know … what we did,” she said.

Lis-Perlis said that regardless of Berger-Sweeney’s decision regarding the department, the conversation about race relations at Tufts should be ongoing.

“It’s going to take a lot more than one year to fix something like that,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s something that can be fixed and resolved in the end. We believe that there are changes that can be made in the institution, in the curriculum, in the way that each student in the university thinks about their own racial identity and its importance in our society and our community.”

She added that prospective students were interested in their message.

“Some students were saying, ‘I was so scared to ask these questions; I’m so happy I got to speak to you,'” she said. “A lot of parents were engaged. They were very … open to what we were saying. A lot of them left more enlightened and more educated about Tufts.”


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