“The First of a Thousand Steps”: Bucknell’s Struggles for Greater Diversity

The University has been proud of its recent record-breaking statistics as a result of the university’s soaring applicant numbers. Earlier this year the university published a release noting that applications saw a “7.5 percent increase from students of color and an 18.5 percent increase from students who would be the first in their family to attend college.” These are numbers that will, if accepted students choose to enroll, contribute to a gradual shift in the University’s student body; one that strays away from being a largely homogenous group of white undergraduates to a campus populated by a more accurate reflection of national demographics. 

But the truth is that the university is far from achieving its desired diversity goals. According to the University’s own factbook, 72 percent of enrolled students identify as White, a glaring statistic that pales in comparison to the national average for baccalaureate colleges, where around 54 percent identify as White. Though many universities across the country continue to grapple similarly with adequately meeting the need for greater diversity and inclusion, the University stands notoriously above many of its institutional peers as an overwhelmingly uniform group of students. It is a campus that demands radically different approaches in order to cultivate a more welcoming campus for minority and underrepresented students.

Nikki Young, Associate Provost for Equity and Inclusive Excellence, highlighted several of the University’s critical measures to promote inclusion at the university such as the T.E.A.M. Mentoring program, the Engineering Success Alliance and RAMP Up. Many of these programs accommodate students from underrepresented backgrounds to become more acclimated on campus, but doubly serve as part of a measure to help students preserve their own identities. “Bucknell is navigating the tension between creating spaces for people to exist in groups in which they identify,” Young said, “and also creating a diverse enough community that when we step into a whole, we don’t step into a melting pot where we lose our identity.”

That need for safe spaces is a subject elaborated upon further by Young, who stressed the importance for students to establish cohorts and communities on campus where they could feel comfortable while pursuing their education. “We’re learning that when students identify with and have a pocket, sort of a crew of folks, we’re retaining them better. So we’re curating programs that sustain that kind of retention.” Though she cited no specific data, she offered that students associated with a cohort are less likely to transfer than those who are not. 

There is a crucial balance between being a part of the whole and a part of small collectives; Young hopes to achieve the former through the established programs and organizations already available on campus. However, this is an effort that must be coupled with broader outreach efforts from enrollment to bring in more students from varied backgrounds in order to better match the ever-shifting demographics of the national population. “The country is becoming more and more people of color, and so over time, the demographic in general, who’s going to college, from what communities, and from what parts of the country, is shifting a little bit, and we will have to shift with it,” Young said. 

While Young did not feel there was concern over retaining faculty members from underrepresented groups more so than any other university, she recognized the contributing factors that may have led to departures. “In a context where racial reckoning is much more public, and much more visible, there are jobs all over the country in higher education that are attractive to, and are attracting minority or underrepresented faculty.” 

Young noted that the current group of faculty were “probably the most diverse class of new faculty that is coming in that we’ve ever brought in.” But Assistant Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies Erica Delsandro argued that the support system for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ faculty remains lacking because there is no immediate group of similar professors that welcomes and embraces new hires, a concern given that many of these same professors serve as support systems for minority students, though this work is often unrecognized.

The costs of a higher education is another aspect demanding consideration in the efforts to improve upon the campus’ diversity. “One of the things that we have to consider is what our full comprehensive fee is in relation to our financial aid packages, and also how we can create lower debt risk for our students.” Young pointed to a broad, campus-wide effort, ranging from financial aid to admissions to the President’s office, to make the University a more accessible campus for a broader group of prospective students. 

“Bringing people here is the first of a thousand steps,” Young said. In order to ensure that underrepresented students can consider this a welcoming environment, the University has to continue to establish programs and organizations that can not only serve as appealing communities, but also as a method of educating others in order to, as Young refers to it, “build a foundation on cultural humility.”

Programs that work to foster inclusivity and equity are critical to ensuring the University’s community takes comfort in presiding here, a sentiment that extends to systems that serve to protect students on campus. Director of Institutional Equity and Title IX Coordinator Samantha Hart recognizes that there is often an intersectionality when it comes to discrimination or harassment. “There’s an intersection in terms of when we’re talking about race or other protected characteristics, because when someone is experiencing discrimination or harassment, or their educational opportunities, it could be for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s not just gender-based, it might be gender and race-based.”

Hart’s position as both Director of Institutional Equity and Title IX Coordinator is a relatively new one. The establishment of her role as recently as last August is a step she finds to be the mark of a campus looking to streamline a process for those seeking solace and aid after a traumatic experience. “Because somebody may feel like they’re being discriminated against or harassed based on a number of different things, you’re not having to go down different policies and different avenues to report concerns.” 

The need to address intersectionality is one compounded by a demand to establish trust for the systems meant to provide safety and protections for members of the community, particularly students from underrepresented communities. “We also know from research over the years that individuals that are part of minority groups are even more reluctant to come forward,” Hart said of national statistics. “They’re experiencing this conduct on a higher level.”

Many of Hart’s recommendations for improvements to the University’s systems and procedures will partly be compliance driven, centered around the federal and state policies demanded to be enforced. But a more thorough understanding on her part of the University’s campus culture and its values is also critical in order to recognize how best to improve upon the University’s policies and procedures. That campus culture is undoubtedly comprised heavily by Greek life, an institution that, despite four fraternities being shut down in the past five years, continues to endure as a cornerstone of the University’s social life. 

Associate Provost Young recognized the manner in which fraternities and sororities may provoke a level of exclusivity that fails to accommodate the campus at large. “Students recognize that our Greek system is a microcosm of the sort of exclusive spaces that recreate structures of inequity and inequality in general.” Young notes the ongoing student-wide reevaluation of the University’s systems, one that is questioning if institutions such as Greek life serve the community in the manner that the population wishes it to. While Young intends not to demonize the institution as a whole or any particular fraternity or sorority, she ultimately acknowledges that “they also represent a series of investments related to, lets say gender binaries, or racial segregation, or oftentimes class distinctions.”

Keri Gilligan ’24, an Asian-American sophomore from a diverse high school, acknowledged that the University was never on her college search list. But she was selected as a Posse Scholar, a program that brings student leaders and scholars to campus, and it was a position that would cover her tuition. Gilligan was worried she would have to assimilate to the predominantly wealthy white majority in order to fit in, feeling that many students assumed that Posse Scholars were students of color from a low-income background. A student in the Management School, Gilligan has noticed that opportunities in the area of management and finance can lean heavily on connections, where many students rely on their personal networks to secure jobs or internships that often come from connections to prestigious people. Students from underrepresented backgrounds are not always a part of these elite networks, making the intern and job search look different and sometimes more difficult.  

When first considering joining Greek life, Gilligan felt hesitant to take part in a system based on exclusion. Yet she found that the negative values people often associate with sororities were not true in her experience, joining a welcoming group of women while being able to keep Greek life a fraction of her life, and not her whole identity. Gilligan has benefitted from Greek life on campus, but many POC first year students share the same apprehension as she originally did. Vivian Kuang, an Asian-American first-year student, is unsure if she wants to go through recruitment. Kuang grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, and so is already accustomed to the norms found at the University. The lack of diversity on campus has instilled a greater appreciation for her own, as well as stronger connections with those she is similar to, but Vivian worries she may not fit into Greek life. “Looking at the pictures from the sororities’ Instagram accounts, it is obvious most members are white,” Kuang said. She explained that many students of color, particularly those who grew up in diverse areas, have not once considered joining, aware that it is not an environment that they feel will fit them. But this can create an isolating environment and a hierarchy within the student body given Greek life’s social relevance at the University and to those it appeals to most. 

The University has taken major steps to make Greek life a more welcoming and inclusive sphere. Olivia Libby, Director of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, shared recent successful DEI initiatives, such as a Greek Week wherein Lawrence Ross visited to discuss racism on college campuses. The PanHellenic executive board and sorority and fraternity chapters have added DEI positions to their leadership boards, and diversity education is a required field to remain in good standing with the university. FSA’s chapter expansion policy recently brought back Kappa Alpha Psi, a Divine Nine African-American Fraternity. 

But Eliza Ray ’24 , a cofounder of Bucknell Advocates for Diversity, says that the problem remains the University’s culture. “As a white woman, I have racial privilege at Bucknell… it is common to hear of students of color who do not wish to attend Bucknell, given its reputation as a predominately White, upper-class institution, and I have many friends of color who have struggled endlessly during their time here.” She admits that the main problem B.A.D. faces is the question of changing “a culture when there are people who do not necessarily wish to change.” B.A.D. works to reshape this culture, and she and her teammates believe that while these changes are possible, they must happen before the University can attract and retain students and faculty of color.  

In regards to bringing underrepresented students into the community and the University’s record number of minority student applicants, Young said “if I was talking to a single individual coming into a predominantly white place… no, I wouldn’t do it. But would I say come in with 50? Absolutely. That’s different, and that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re not trying to take in one by one, we’re trying to take in 50, and that’s the difference.” 

“Diversity is a fact,” Young said. “It is about difference, and what we have to do is recognize it, respond to it and celebrate it. But equity is a choice that we have to make for the ways that we are engaging with one another, for the policies that we have, the processes that we use to engage one another.” To the associate provost, the path towards greater inclusion is one paved by all of the community working together to ensure that the University can foster a sense of belonging for all those who choose to reside on our campus.

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