Diversity at Drake: Perception, Reality and Challenges

What Drake does well — and what we can do better

— Tim Schmitt, GR’08

Reality failed to meet expectation when Lawrence Crawford came to Des Moines and Drake University. It suddenly seemed too white. He felt like an outsider and wondered if he made the wrong choice. “I was mad about being here at first because no one was like me. I didn’t think I was going to have any fun,” he recalls. “I thought I would have to change to fit in — to change the way I act, talk and dress.”

On her first day as a Drake graduate student, Michelle Laughlin, GR’08, couldn’t get to class. She had no way of getting to the second story room in a building that wasn’t handicap accessible. “My first impression of Drake was that there was no access,” she says. “And in a lot of ways, this first impression was correct.”

Brittanie Pearson arrived on campus and didn’t think twice about being another white student in the crowd until a class introduced her to the concept of white privilege. “I began to look at myself and how white privilege affected my experience on campus,” she says.

Each of these members of the Drake community has faced different challenges on campus. And each has come to understand where they fit in and what their varied experiences offer each other, the University and the community as a whole.

“Race became something I could look past,” says Crawford. “I learned that diversity in and of itself is just being different. Our student body might not look diverse, but it really is.”

Some might question this statement. After all, most Drake students identify themselves as white, and only about 9 percent identify with underrepresented populations (see sidebar).

“In the ideal campus environment, Drake would be home to 3,500 students who had nothing in common except their choice of University,” says Drake University President David Maxwell. “That is diversity in the greatest possible sense.”

Though Drake hasn’t become that ideal environment, and few would argue that it is as diverse as it can be, the numbers might surprise some people. Drake’s minority population of 9 percent (not including international students or those who choose not to identify themselves) is comparable to the state universities and the state of Iowa, though smaller than the city of Des Moines.

But those are only numbers. And the numbers tell only a small part of the story.

The Bigger Picture

“We’re trying to get away from this narrow view of diversity,” says Wanda Everage, vice provost for student affairs and academic excellence. “It is not just racial and ethnic, though that is a part of it.”

Diversity, in the most basic sense, means different. And those differences can be tied to ethnicity, religion, disability, race, sexual orientation, gender and any number of other factors that humans use to define themselves.

And Drake students, no matter where they end up, will share the world with people from different cultures, backgrounds and world views, explains Michael Renner, provost. Helping them understand how this benefits them, personally and professionally, is an important part of what Drake is trying to do.

“Ten years ago we were talking about globalization in the future, about living in a world where international borders don’t mean much, and it happened much faster than we expected,” says Renner. “It’s important for our students to be prepared to live and work in the real world, and Drake should be a microcosm of the world at large.”

And though Drake does not yet reflect the level of diversity it would like, much has been done to bring more students from underrepresented populations to campus and to increase diversity in every sense of the word among the Drake community. And this means reaching out far beyond the borders of campus.

Action and Effort

If creating campus diversity were as simple as recruiting students from different backgrounds, bringing them to campus and setting them loose to interact and succeed, there would be no need to discuss the issue further. The admissions staff has long focused on recruiting from underrepresented populations, and there are programs, student groups and campus organizations in place to help all students feel at home.

If only it were so easy.

“The challenge with increasing diversity is a systemic one,” says President Maxwell. “If we focus our discussions solely on Drake, we’re going to be having the same conversation in 20 years that we had 20 years ago.”

Nationwide the high school graduation rate for African American and Hispanic students is about 15 percent lower than that of Caucasian students. This means there is an extremely limited pool from which to recruit qualified students, and the competition  for these students is fierce.

“The bottom line is that all schools are competing for the same small group of students,” says Tom Delahunt, vice president for admission and student financial planning. “Our responsibility is to be a positive influence for the community, and it is imperative that we help ensure the citizenry are better educated than they would have been without our presence.”

And if Drake is only focusing on recruiting from the same limited applicant pool without working to increase the flow in the pipeline, nothing will change. So the question becomes, “How do we affect the pipeline?”

In an effort to address this issue, Drake is in the early stages of developing a comprehensive program to bring more minority students to Drake and empower them to help further increase the pool of qualified students from underrepresented populations by sending them back into the community as representatives of the University.

“If we succeed in this and students end up going somewhere else, it is still a win,” says Renner. “Of course Drake would hope to receive many of them as students as well, but that’s not the entire goal of the program.”

The University’s academic and administrative units have also put into place several other programs that allow faculty, staff and students to bring students from these populations to campus and help demystify the college experience.

Among them:

  • A summer camp hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences has local students from underrepresented populations working with faculty on research projects.
  • The College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences’ Gear Up program brings diverse high school students to campus to learn about pharmacy and increase interest in applying for college.
  • The Urban Education program in the School of Education helps future teachers understand the challenges of diversity in a teaching environment. The recent Teacher Quality program brought diverse students into the education program, then placed them in Des Moines schools as teachers who can carry the ideas forward to more students.

“There isn’t a silver bullet solution or a magic button to the diversity question,” says Renner. “There are many things we need to be doing. We do some very well, and some we still need to work on.”

Diversity Through Experience

Though the word “diversity” is not used specifically in Drake’s mission statement, its importance and necessity are expressed in the first sentence: “Drake’s mission is to provide an exceptional learning environment that prepares students for meaningful personal lives, professional accomplishments and responsible global citizenship.”

And this sentence is the driving force behind the efforts to promote diversity at Drake.

“David Maxwell tries to put ownership of diversity on everyone’s shoulders so no one can say, ‘That’s not my job,’” explains Sentwali Bakari, dean of students.

This decentralized approach means that there is no single person, university-wide committee or working group in charge of diversity efforts. Though this may seem like a shortcoming at first glance, it is an intentional and strategic effort to make diversity everyone’s responsibility.

“I have long said that if Drake went the way of having a minority affairs office, I would leave,” says Everage. “It might work at some places, but people tend to send all their problems to that one office. When people take ownership of it, it becomes an integral part of who we are.”

This approach allows and encourages each department, college and school to take charge of its own diversity goals and provide experiences for students. But perhaps the most important result of this approach is that students have the opportunity to take charge of the issue as well.

“Students are telling us that this needs to be part of everything we talk about and included in all our classes,” says Lori Blachford, the Fisher/Stelter Chair of Magazine Journalism. “They say they know what diversity is, but now they need to feel it and to have hands-on experiences.”

Changing Minds

Lawrence Crawford learned soon after arriving at Drake that diversity meant more than he first realized and discovered this by getting involved with a wide range of organizations.

“It didn’t take long to be comfortable here,” he says. “I branched out into a lot of different activities. I stumbled along the way, but I figured it out.”

After Michelle Laughlin finished her graduate program with a degree in counseling services, she took a job at Drake where she is now coordinator of student disability services.

“If I can use my experience to influence how we operate, then that is a powerful thing,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of positive change here, and we still have a lot of homework to do. But Drake is asking the right questions.”

Brittanie Pearson turned her concern about white privilege into a two-day conference: “The Race Card: Who Holds the Privileged Hand?” The conference included discussions, a keynote speaker and workshops to help participants develop tools to combat the problem.

“I think there is space here at Drake for this type of activity,” she says. “I thought I would have to fight to get a conversation about race that might be critical of Drake, but all the faculty were really supportive.

“My biggest fear is that the conference would take place, and then the conversation would be over,” she adds. “I don’t think that’s happened, and I hope other undergrads and the administration will step forward to embrace the differences in the Drake community.”

The Never-Ending Quest

The conference created and led by Pearson, says Bakari, demonstrates how students embrace diversity and lead the University. But it also demonstrates how Drake faculty and staff create a welcoming environment for students and encourage them to pursue their interests and share their experiences.

“A lot of times universities are reactive,” says Bakari. “If an issue pops up, we get to work on it and really focus on what we’re doing and come up with solutions. I think we are doing some terrific, proactive things, but we can always do more. We can always think more strategically.”

The acknowledgement that more can be done about diversity is widespread on campus among students, faculty, staff and administration. But rather than a statement of shortcomings, it’s more a nod to the reality of the situation and an acknowledgement that the quest for diversity is never ending.

“There is more we can do of course,” says Blachford. “But it has to be in every class and part of who we are and what we do. It’s an ongoing process. I don’t think you can ever understand enough about the world.”

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3 Responses to “Diversity at Drake: Perception, Reality and Challenges”

  1. It’s good to know Drake is thinking about this and recognizes that it’s not perfect. It is the middle of Iowa so you can’t really expect a whole lot, but at least they are trying.

  2. The Science Center of Iowa is preparing to open the summer travelling exhibit “RACE: Are We So Different” on May 1st. We’re also planning to have two different race discussions one on June 24th and a second on July 29th, open and free to the public.

    Great article!

  3. Diversity as a topic in general needs to be retooled in a way to present real benefits to people. Only when the benefits are realized will people truly embrace it.