By Grace Austin
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a prestigious institution celebrated for being the best in nearly every area possible: academics, sports, and even diversity. Indeed, UNC is known for having relatively large minority populations, an involved international community, and a wide variety of political and social views amongst the student body. The November hiring of Taffye Benson Clayton as vice provost for diversity and multicultural affairs further demonstrates UNC’s current and growing diversity.
“[In my tenure] I hope to create an institutional diversity strategy that’s comprehensive and demonstrates the institution’s commitment to diversity and inclusion,” said Clayton. “I think [one of the challenges] is articulating a definition for diversity where everyone can see himself or herself in it. We define diversity broadly, but it’s a matter of making sure the campus community knows that, and they feel a connection to the work.”
Clayton is a natural fit for the role. Not only is she an alumna of the institution, but prior to her appointment Clayton acted as East Carolina University’s associate provost for equity, diversity, and community relations and chief diversity officer. The search for the new diversity leader was lengthy, beginning in early 2011, and ending in Clayton’s appointment in November 2011. Led by Professor Paul Godley, executive associate dean for faculty affairs in the School of Medicine, Godley was impressed with Clayton’s accomplishments at East Carolina, passion for diversity in higher education, and her understanding of North Carolina, according to a university press release.
UNC at Chapel Hill: A Snapshot
UNC at Chapel Hill (often called Carolina) is a public university, albeit one known for its difficult admissions more akin to an Ivy League institution. Indeed the school, founded in 1789, is recognized as one of the original eight “Public Ivy” universities, along with schools like the University of Texas at Austin, University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley. The university counts more than 18,000 undergraduate students and nearly 11,000 post-graduate students, a considerably large graduate population. This copious amount of graduate students has as much to do with UNC’s 107 master’s degree programs as to its status as a corner of the “Research Triangle” (along with Duke University and North Carolina State University).
In terms of athletics, the Tar Heels have long been collegiate standouts in men’s basketball, women’s soccer, and men’s lacrosse. Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Michael Jordan, and Mia Hamm were all Carolina sports stars. The rivalry between nearby Duke and Carolina is storied, particularly in athletics and specifically in men’s basketball.
Consistently ranked among the top 50 national universities by U.S. News and World Reports, statistics also show high freshmen retention rates (nearly 100 percent) and graduation rates at the institution (86 percent of students will complete their education and graduate with a degree).
Diversity on Campus
Carolina arguably is at the forefront of diversity among national universities. Despite this, the university has attempted to improve the climate and diversify the campus through the student body, staff, faculty, and leadership. For Clayton, these initiatives and changes at Carolina have both promoted educational benefits and positioned Carolina in a place of diversity prominence and action.
“We’re on a continuous improvement model as it relates to diversity, so we’re always looking for a great compositional [diversity] mixture that helps ensure our students are able to get the educational benefit of diversity that’s from a multicultural and international approach,” said Clayton.
Carolina is home to significant minority populations. Minority students comprise 30.8% of UNC’s undergraduate population. African Americans are the largest minority, while Asian Americans represent 7.4%. The numbers of Hispanic students have steadily increased within the past 12 years. Despite these statistics, Carolina is still a majority white campus. In response to this, the university hopes to attract and retain more minority students in the future.
Campus recruitment plans have been solidified within recent years to reach out to African American, Native American, and other minority students from high schools across North Carolina, with most UNC schools participating in active recruiting efforts. Other programs, like The Scholars’ Latino Initiative (SLI), focus on minority high school students. SLI does so through mentoring, while Research Rocks! targets public high school students in Orange, Chatham, and Durham, introducing them to college-level work and opportunities.
“We look to serve first-generation and low-income students, and some of those students come from historically underrepresented populations. As a public institution, we are not able to enroll a certain amount of out-of-state students, so much of our recruitment efforts are North Carolina-centered,” said Clayton.
In terms of gender diversity, women outnumber men at the university, with a ratio of 59:41, a reflection of the national average. The university has more female staff employees than male employees, too. Male professors, though, represent more of the institution’s professors than women do. To counteract this, Carolina’s various schools have made more concerted efforts to hire people of diverse backgrounds, including openly gay, African-American, Asian-American, and woman professors, while often emphasizing tenured and tenure-track faculty. This discrepancy is something Clayton hopes to further challenge through her developing diversity strategy.
“We’re working collaboratively with several colleagues, the executive vice provost, Ron Strauss, as well as Director of Faculty Recruitment Gwen Burston. We want students to have that educational benefit. We find that more and more students are becoming very selective of where they choose to go to school, and for many of them, understanding that this is a multicultural and global society, they wish to go to campuses where they will have the most diverse, productive, and interesting experiences. We consider this critical,” said Clayton.
Student organizations of all kinds give students the opportunity to connect among their own ethnic groups while also educating others. These groups, like MASALA, UNC’s multicultural organization, hold many events during the year, including educational forums, food and dance events, and an annual spring fashion/variety show. Similarly, the Campus Y, formed in 1859, is the center of “social justice and innovation” on campus, home to diverse entities like Big Buddies, HOPE (Homeless Outreach Poverty Eradication) and Nourish UNC. The Campus Y prides itself in being at the center of racial integration in the mid-1950s and the establishment of the Sonja Haynes Stones Center for Black Culture and History.
“Things are getting better every day and we are working towards that; we’re cognizant of the improvement we need to make as an institution. Organizations like the Campus Y are striving to always make sure the university knows that the status quo isn’t where we should just be complacent, but where we should be striving towards being more diverse in all aspects of identity,” said Junior Jagir Patel, co-president of the Campus Y.
While Carolina represents students from all 50 states, and over 100 countries, a large majority (in fact, a state-mandated 82 percent of the freshman class) are in-state students. This means most students are from the state—fostering a heterogeneous but North Carolina-based population.
What this heterogeneous population has in relative ethnic and racial diversity it often lacks in socioeconomic diversity. Some students are financially comfortable, their parents college graduates, while others come from low-income backgrounds. In attempts to counteract this trend, Clayton and the diversity department are working with University Development to provide financial assistance and additional incentives for lower-income, first-generation, and rural-based students.
A special recruitment program, Carolina Firsts, focuses specifically on first-generation and low-income students. The $10 million Carolina Covenant, a landmark initiative at the institution, enables those from low-income families to attend the school debt-free. Of the 2009-2010 class, 65 percent of Covenant Scholars were of color and 57 percent were first-generation college students.
Associate Provost and Director of Scholarships and Student Aid Shirley Ort is the author of the Carolina Covenant.
“The [Covenant Scholars] have been highly successful, and we’ve dramatically improved their graduation rates since the beginning of the program. We’ve had astounding results, and we think that’s in part because we’ve removed the financial barriers, but also because we’ve wrapped a whole network of academic and personal support services around these students.”
Education, Metrics, and Marketing
Clayton’s future goals are ambitious, but not impossible. She hopes to use education, metrics, and marketing to improve diversity on campus.
Educating the student body is a priority for the new diversity head. Organizations like the Sonja Haynes Stone Center supports the black community by inviting guest speakers to campus and showing documentary movies. Clayton hopes to bring speakers like this to a wider population.
“I’m looking forward to totally revamping the education strategy at UNC. [I would like to] bring in internationally- and nationally-renowned speakers, thought leaders in diversity, and authors who can speak to contemporary issues in higher education as it relates to diversity,” said Clayton. “Folks like Frans Johansson, Daryl Smith, Scott Page, and many others can speak to this work quite insightfully.”
Metrics are a large part of the university’s diversity goals and plans. Clayton would like to measure minority success, including experiences in the classrooms, housing, and campus community, through defined metrics.
“Being able to look at data and progress in aggregated and disaggregated ways lets us make decisions on differentiated groups of individuals, be it Native Americans, young women, or minority males. We have to be able to look at the diverse array of individuals on campus and see how they are progressing. We need to be able to support that to meet the needs of any group,” said Clayton.
Marketing is the final aspect of Clayton’s diversity plans.
“Diversity is in many ways an integrated process. It’s important that we market and message appropriately. It’s important that we develop a strategic approach, and assess and measure our progress as well,” said Clayton.
Adds the new diversity leader about her new role: “It’s just a great opportunity. I’m quite excited to be back at Carolina and helping to make a difference here.”