SHERIDAN — The University of Wyoming officials tout a long list of initiatives aimed at fostering diversity.
Employment recruiters attend out-of-state conferences and advertise job openings nationwide in an attempt to reach more diverse applicant pools. The school has hosted a mentorship program for incoming freshmen from racial minorities since 1997. It offers academic concentrations or classes in Latino, American Indian and African-American studies. Students who wish to file a discrimination complaint can do so with the diversity and employment practices office.
Sara Axelson, vice president for student affairs, said the school emphasizes not just racial and ethnic diversity, but diversity of ability, veteran status and sexual orientation.
Yet despite these attempts to make campus more inclusive, Marlin Holmes, former president of the Association of Black Student Leaders, said that when he arrived on campus as a graduate student, he did not feel he was offered the support he needed.
“No, I had to find it on my own,” he said.
The issue of race in higher education has come into the limelight once again in recent weeks, as the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in a case challenging affirmative action policies at the University of Texas at Austin. Affirmative action policies seek to improve access to educational, employment or other opportunities for demographic groups that have historically been excluded.
Eight states currently have a ban on affirmative action policies: Washington, California, Arizona, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Michigan, New Hampshire and Florida. The University of Wyoming does not have an affirmative action policy for students.
As some seek to do away with such policies — which some view as benefitting solely minority students — Holmes, now in his third year in the graduate program in mechanical engineering, said the whole conversation has one glaring deficiency.
“People are attacking affirmative action when legacy clauses have existed forever,” Holmes said in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s a really interesting and kind of cloudy debate in some ways.”
Legacy clauses in school policies offer benefits to those students whose parents also attended the institution. The University of Wyoming does not offer admissions benefits to legacy applicants, but it does offer them some scholarships and tuition benefits.
Axelson said these benefits do not conflict with the university’s overall fairness. She also stressed her responsibility to respond to such complaints.
“I think we always have to keep [our] watch on to make sure we’re not awarding privilege,” Axelson said.
She noted that any legacy student can receive those benefits, regardless of race, and that they must maintain a minimum GPA to keep it.
She said the school’s “broad portfolio” of financial aid assistance includes other scholarships aimed at racial or ethnic minority students — although those, too, can be given to any applicant, regardless of race.
But for Holmes, it’s not just the official actions of the university that matter. It’s also what happens on a smaller level, interpersonally. He said that as an African-American student on campus, he’s often assumed to be an athlete, or even a rapper.
“I’m like 5-9 and 180 [pounds],” he said. “I’m pretty sure I don’t play football.”
Holmes also saw problems with the way school officials recently tried to start a discussion about diversity with minority student groups on campus.
While it may have been well-intentioned, Holmes said, it did not work to ask all minority student groups to convene together on what they viewed as the president’s turf. Holmes would have preferred groups meeting individually with UW President Dick McGinity in a location the group selected.
“It’s almost like trying to have a conversation about sexual assault in a town hall,” he said.
The students invited to the Nov. 17 discussion organized a walk-out to demonstrate their opinions.
The prior Friday, the school had announced it would hire a chief diversity officer and develop a plan to reinforce its commitment to diversity.