This article is the third and final installment of a three part series: Examining Elon's Social Climate.
Sophomore Tres McMichael is a gay, black performing arts student who is also in a fraternity.
It is this blend of identity and experience that makes him a unique figure on Elon University’s campus. When he first arrived, though, he felt people had tried to place him into a series of boxes — each box exclusive from the other.
“People are surprised when I do certain things that aren’t typical of someone that looks like me,” McMichael said.
Trying to strike a balance between theater productions, Black Student Union and Phi Beta Sigma has been no easy feat. These three groups have little overlap, and there are clear differences in what they expect from their members.
McMichael views this challenge as an opportunity to offer something new to each group.
“Sometimes me being in a theater production or me being in the performing arts or me being in a fraternity can spark up a different idea or a different conversation in another space that wouldn’t have existed had someone not been a part of either one of those groups,” he said.
Tony Crider, associate professor of physics, is working to find out how Elon can improve its social climate so more students can have diverse experiences like McMichael.
Though he is pleased with students' level of engagement and involvement on campus, Crider is concerned some are closing themselves off from new experiences.
“We like to be part of small groups where you have something in common with the people there,” Crider said. “But that means that you’ve maybe shut people out from that group.
“Inclusivity is the opposite of that where you allow everyone in, but then you might not have that thing in common where you can make that a meaningful group in the first place.”
Crider is co-chairing a 10-member team implementing a comprehensive social climate task force report released in April 2016.
The report provides 42 recommendations on a host of topics ranging from improving students’ college transitions to reviewing and revising university policies. Conclusions were drawn based on data from a combination of group interviews, campus surveys, town hall forums, campus ecology experiences and idea walls.
Though a substantial portion of data was not available in the report itself, much information was provided through the release of executive summaries in the student and faculty/staff surveys.
“We were certainly fairly transparent in putting that data out there and letting people know where this came from,” said Jon Dooley, assistant vice president for student life and co-chair of the Presidential Task Force on Social Climate and Out-of-Class Engagement.
Themes of inclusivity and belonging consistently emerged in the report.
Of the nearly 900 student respondents, 17 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that they belonged at Elon and 23 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that the social climate was very welcoming to them. More than a third of respondents said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with campus climate related to diversity.
The results are not necessarily reflective of the entire student population because they were gathered through a convenience sample — all undergraduate students were invited by email to take a voluntary survey. Still, it is clear many students believe Elon lacks diversity and is not inclusive to all.
Lack of belonging and unity the real issue
Diversity is about much more than demographic trends and student backgrounds. It is also about the shared experiences of the community as a whole. This is the true root of the problem Elon is facing.
How can more students come together? How can siloed groups become unified? How do you encourage students like McMichael who want to break out of the boxes people have tried to confine them into? These are the questions the university is asking, and the questions are largely unanswered.
Sophomore Kenneth Brown benefited from Elon’s commitment to promoting diversity and is very much appreciative of the opportunities he has earned; yet one interaction reveals much about his experience. Asked if he feels he belongs, a lengthy pause ensues.
“Do I belong here?” he asks himself, looking up at the ceiling in search of an answer.
“Do I belong here?” he repeats, still unsure of how to respond.
“I don’t know just yet,” he concludes.
“I just haven’t had a moment where like, ‘Wow, I’m here and I feel like this is for me.’ I feel like I’ve had small outbursts, but not like an epiphany where like, ‘Wow, I’m here and I can fit in here.’”
Brown is a hyper-involved student on campus. He can often be seen watching Elon athletic events or hanging out at the Center for Race Ethnicity, and Diversity Education (CREDE).
He also serves as sophomore class president in the Student Government Association and is involved in Black Student Union. When he is not participating in activities or walking to and from events, he can typically be seen talking with his fellow students.
“You’ve just got to be nice to people,” he said. “Whether it’s saying hi or saying a kind word, for me, that’s what my parents taught me growing up. Treat others the way you want to be treated, smile, say please and thank you and be nice. You know, all you’ve got to do is say hi to people.”
Brown being unsure about whether he belongs at Elon could come as a surprise to people and reflect the magnitude of the problem the university is facing in fostering an inclusive climate.
“Inclusivity, to me, is the ability to be able to have tough conversations, talk to people who are different than you, but at the end of the day, you still have their back because you’re a Phoenix, I’m a Phoenix, we all are Phoenix,” Brown said.
Elon students are mostly white, female or come from North Carolina or northeastern states. Elon has heightened its efforts in the past several years to recruit people of more diverse backgrounds.
Brooke Barnett, associate provost for inclusive community, is in her 16th year at Elon and said she has seen the university’s representational diversity increase within that period of time in terms of the number of non-Christian students, students of color and first-generation students.
Earlier this academic year, Greg Zaiser, vice president of enrollment, called the Class of 2020 the “largest and most diverse in Elon history.”
Even so, the university reports an ethnic diversity of 18 percent. Six percent of students are black and 5 percent are Hispanic, according to The College Board.
Brown represents Elon’s relatively small black population. A highly involved and motivated student in high school, Brown benefited from the university’s efforts to bring more diversity to campus.
He was named an Odyssey Scholar and given a scholarship, in part, because of his ability to overcome adversity growing up in a household with a low socioeconomic status.
“Elon has taken major steps to ensure that not only students who are minorities on this campus feel included within major university goals, but also even that white kids here feel included,” Brown said.
“Elon is doing a great job of making sure that everyone is at the table and that everyone has a seat or a couple of minutes to talk about how issues affect them.”
The issue of diversity proved to be a polarizing subject in the task force report. Some students reported a notion of a “typical” student and a “country club” feel to the campus.
Brown is among those who believe in the existence of a “typical” Elon student. He characterized such a person as “someone from a middle class or an upper middle class background, someone who’s typically white, someone who comes from two parents, from two siblings, from the northeast area.”
Junior Rachel Hobbs is among the majority of the students. She is white, female, from the northeast and heavily involved on campus.
She came to Elon from Pennsylvania, works as a tour guide, serves as the junior class president and is a Delta Delta Delta sorority member. She was also one of the 29 members on the Presidential Task Force on Social Climate and Out-of-Class Engagement.
“I have had a great overall Elon experience,” Hobbs said. “I’ve met a lot of great people, I’ve had a lot of incredible professors. I’ve learned so much, but I think there’s a lot of things that we are working on as well.”
Hobbs said she had a smooth transition and has been fortunate to make new friends and develop student and faculty mentors.
“For a lot of people, when they’re involved, that helps them to feel connected,” she said. “That helps them to feel like they’ve found a home on our campus.”
ASSOCIATE PROVOST FOR INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY
Hobbs did not say whether she considered herself a “typical” student, but she did claim a wide range of perspectives are represented at Elon.
“We have a variety of students on this campus, and that’s what makes it such a great place to be at.”
Even students who feel they do not belong on campus still have strong friendship networks. About three in four student survey respondents reported feeling part of a group of friends and able to find companionship when they want. Eighty-four percent said there are people at Elon they feel close to often or all of the time.
In terms of organizational involvement, just 4 percent did not consider themselves to be an active group member — meaning they did not participate in an organization at least once a month.
The problem students are facing is connecting outside of their social circles and feeling like they are a part of the larger university community.
“People are remarkably successful based on the surveys that were done last year at Elon in finding friends, and they’re successful, but not as successful, in finding groups,” Crider said. “Connecting to that broader university is a little bit trickier.”
McMichael, Brown and Hobbs are all incredibly active students on campus. Besides that, they represent many different organizations and many different perspectives. One universal point of agreement was the sentiment that a sizable portion of students is not connected to the university as a whole.
“Sometimes we’ll talk about our students identifying more with their organizations instead of, ‘I’m an Elon student. I’m a part of the student body,’” Hobbs said.
Bringing people of different backgrounds together is at the core of addressing inclusivity. One solution Hobbs encourages people to consider is co-sponsoring events.
Some respondents expressed concerns that organizations close themselves off from one other rather than partner together.
“With so much emphasis focused on cohorts (including student organizations), students expressed a desire for more campus traditions and events open to all students, noting that many of the existing campus-wide traditions require organization affiliation for participation,” read the report.
Barnett took note of a trend she has observed of majorities questioning the involvement of minorities instead of looking at themselves.
“It is often people from majority groups questioning why people from non-majority or underrepresented groups want to be with people like themselves when you’re doing that all the time and not necessarily thinking about it,” Barnett said.
Forcing the diversity conversation
A major perception outlined in the report was the notion that Elon’s administration and faculty do more talking than action about the university’s diversity.
Barnett acknowledges these concerns, noting that the university sees “students from non-majority or marginalized groups who are articulating that they are having a less positive experience on our campus.”
Though Dooley recognized the majority of students are white, female, straight, cisgender people, he said demographic trends prove Elon is diverse.
“Within each of those different forms of social identity, we actually have a range of diversity,” Dooley said. “I believe that students do have the ability to have as rich and meaningful an experience as they want to seek out.”
ASSISTANT VICE PRESIDENT FOR STUDENT LIFE
In the student survey, a small number of students expressed frustration with political correctness and wished the university would stop forcing the issue of diversity.
In an open-ended question on the survey, a student wrote, “Stop blaming the majority for issues with the minorities.”
Another added, “Stop requiring diversity training classes, we are old enough to know who we want to hang out with and who we want to be.”
Concerns about diversity extend far beyond Elon, according to Barnett. It’s a national issue across many college campuses that has generated few solutions.
“We’re always trying to think of places that have done that successfully and why, and there aren’t particularly stellar national models of how to have a better experience ... Everybody’s asking the same question.”
Passing the baton to students
Elon’s social climate encompasses a wide range of topics.
Helping students transition to college, looking further into the role of Fraternity & Sorority Life, evaluating existing student resources and examining issues of inclusivity and diversity are just a few of the many subjects worth analyzing when evaluating the university’s social climate.
Administrators, faculty and staff have their share of issues to work out, but it is ultimately up to the students to establish the campus climate of their liking.
Students will have to fight harder to be a part of the conversation taking place from the administrative side. The Presidential Task Force on Social Climate and Out-of-Class Engagement had 29 members. Only three of them were students, and only one of those three was an underclassman at the time of the report.
The 10-member implementation team has just one student, and that student is a senior who will not be around long enough to see the implementation go into effect.
“Although there were three students on the task force, and they tended to be fairly involved, they represented voices of lots of different kinds of students on campus,” Dooley said.
Hobbs, who was one of the three students on the task force, said everyone worked hard to hear as many opinions from the student body as possible.
Even so, the 29 people who made recommendations and the 10 people who are now implementing those recommendations, tend to be heavily involved members of campus.
As representatives of the university and the larger student body, they agreed students should be at the discussion table as future dialogue takes place.
“In addition to the existing involvement of faculty and staff, the task force believes the primary agents of change in social climate at Elon must be students,” the report read. “To that end, as responsibility for implementing the recommendations in this report is assigned to departments or working groups, they must include students in that process.”