Op-eds, Opinions

Thompson GS, Lomax GS, Ferdinand-King GS: The URC must do more to support graduate students of color

By , and
Op-Ed Contributors
Wednesday, March 6, 2019

In 2017, the Brown University Graduate School welcomed its “most diverse class to date,” boasting that 12 percent of incoming graduate students identified as members of a historically underrepresented group. This increase followed the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan’s goal to increase the numbers of HUGs within graduate programs at Brown. The growth in graduate student diversity here at Brown is an enormous step in the right direction and has been a source of pride throughout campus, even touted regularly by the Office of the President and the Office of the Provost.

Despite Brown’s public commitment to diversity and inclusion, however, the University Resource Committee has failed to institutionalize funding and support for three programs that serve to support HUG applicants and students in graduate programs at Brown.

The improvement in HUG representation since the DIAP’s implementation about three years ago can be largely attributed to three opportunities directed by the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion in the Graduate School. Before students begin their graduate coursework at Brown, they can take advantage of Diversity Preview Day, a preliminary campus visit for HUG potential students during application season to explore opportunities specific to underrepresented groups. In addition, there is a Graduate Students of Color Orientation, which welcomes new graduate students to Brown and provides an introduction to the support structures and resources available to them. After these same students arrive on campus, they are supported by a third diversity initiative, the GSOC RESET Series, which helps students navigate issues specific to HUGs. Created by the Office of Associate Dean Marlina Duncan and aided by the efforts of other on-campus partners such as the Brown Center for Students of Color, these programs were designed to recruit and retain graduate students of color who face challenges related to their unique identities.

Despite the success of these programs, when the URC released their approved budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year, the budget did not include funding for any of the aforementioned programs  for the second year in a row.

While these programs were given pilot funding to determine their value, the URC has since failed to extend ongoing funding for these initiatives, which clearly shows that the University has yet to appreciate their merit and, by extension, the merit of its graduate students of color. This sentiment is best exemplified by the fact that the amount of funding allocated for Graduate Student Diversity Initiatives has remained relatively unchanged for the past three years, in spite of the fact that the number of students who identify as members of HUGs has increased from 12 percent of the incoming class in 2017 to 14 percent in 2018.

As members of a historically underrepresented group, we know firsthand how meaningful these programs and initiatives are. Of Preview Day, first-year Anthropology graduate student Sarah Davenport PhD ‘24 states: “As a student from a historically underrepresented background and also as a student arriving from a state school, I was very hesitant to apply to Brown because I thought I would not be admitted and, even if I did get in, I was afraid I would not fit in. However, after attending Preview Day I decided I would not only apply to Brown but also Brown would be at the top of my list. At Preview Day, I connected with an individual who would later be a colleague in my PhD cohort. Additionally, I was able to connect with other students of color who have become my close friends, classmates and study partners. Preview Day is not simply about getting students to apply, it is about putting Brown at the top of the list for students of color applying to graduate school and establishing long term relationships that are essential for our success.”

Given the proven effectiveness of this type of programming, we are troubled by the hesitation on the part of the URC to institutionalize funding for these events and others like them. Students from historically underrepresented groups have proven time and time again that they are accomplished researchers who accrue millions in grant funding and garner academic awards for the University, a fact that the University is so inclined to exploit and advertise for their own benefit. So with this, we are left with more questions than answers. If it is proven that these initiatives are working, why is the administration continually choosing not to invest in us? Why, as students, do we have to tirelessly argue — to the point of exhaustion — that these initiatives for graduate students of color are important? That we are important?

This situation is made all the more frustrating by the knowledge that the URC is not unfamiliar with the idea of diversity programming. In their 2019-20 budget, the URC frequently highlights the International Student Orientation as a “community-building initiative” and allocates $125,000 to this event, while simultaneously denying funding for a similar opportunity to students from historically underrepresented groups. Thankfully, for the second year in a row, the Office of the Provost and the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity saw fit to right this wrong. After considerable effort on the part of Duncan, Provost Richard Locke P’18 and OIED Vice President Shontay Delalue allocated $50,000 to facilitate Diversity Preview Day and GSOC Orientation for the 2019-20 academic year.

It should be noted that we are not only writing this op-ed to request institutionalized funding for these programs but also because this particular issue is as an outgrowth of a larger root problem. Before Brown can meet any of its ambitious DIAP goals, we must make fundamental changes to current campus climate and culture, starting with the administration. As the number of HUG students continues to rise, the University must follow through with their pledge to diversify and include. If one of the stated goals of the University DIAP is to double the number of HUG students, what is being done once these students are finally here?

It is not enough to attract potential students with photographs of “diversity” on the Main Green in brochures or by sprinkling terms like “most diverse class” on the university website. Administrators must demonstrate that they care about these issues by outlining concrete plans to hire additional faculty, support affinity groups at the undergraduate and graduate level and, of course, encourage and support programming proven to increase and retain the numbers of HUG students pursuing degrees at Brown.

By ignoring these issues, the URC not only conveys a seeming lack of interest in continued support for their graduate students of color but also minimizes the importance of our presence on campus. The university benefits tremendously from the unique research of graduate students of color and in return, we simply ask for respect and support for programming that helps our students adjust to graduate life at Brown. So, if the URC really cares about their students of color, they will put their money where their mouth is and stop treating graduate students of color like just numbers in their diversity quota.

Kathryn Thompson GS, JJ Lomax GS and Melaine Ferdinand-King GS can be reached at kathryn_thompson@brown.edu, jeremy_lomax@brown.edu and melaine_ferdinand@brown.edu, respectively. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

Correction: A previous version of this op-ed incorrectly spelled Melaine Ferdinand-King’s GS name as Melain Ferdinan-King. The Herald regrets the error.