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Diversity Wake-Up Call Led To Change At University Of Oklahoma

Protests at the University of Missouri and other college campuses are forcing universities into uncomfortable discussions about race and diversity. One school got a head start.

Earlier this year, the University of Oklahoma came under intense pressure when a video showed two members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity singing a racist chant.

Now, students are comparing the reaction of their university with the recent controversies at Mizzou.

"Their administration isn't as receptive as ours was, not immediately anyway, so we kind of want to give that support and lift our voices all as one," says Naome Kadira, president of the black student activist group Unheard.

In March, University of Oklahoma president David Boren immediately condemned the video and kicked the fraternity out. The two students prominently featured were suspended. But Kadira says punishment wasn't her group's goal.

"We were looking at the bigger picture of making this a learning lesson, waking people up and having them realize that racism does exist. It's here. It's alive. And it's allowed," she says.

The University of Oklahoma student group Unheard, an alliance of black students organized for change within campus administration and atmosphere, gathers to show solidarity with Mizzou students at a meeting last Thursday.
Jacob McCleland / KGOU
The University of Oklahoma student group Unheard, an alliance of black students organized for change within campus administration and atmosphere, gathers to show solidarity with Mizzou students at a meeting last Thursday.

Since the video, the university started a five-hour diversity training course for freshmen and transfers. It also hired former state Sen. Jabar Shumate as the university's first chief diversity officer.

Shumate says about 3,100 students have gone through the training, which he says pulls them out of their comfort zone to engage in difficult conversations about race.

"Does that mean we'll never have an incident again? No. What it means is that the way we respond to those incidents will undoubtedly be better. We stopped being reactionary as much as proactive to how we make this campus more diverse and more inclusive," Shumate says.

This year, the administration included minority groups when planning homecoming and other student activities. Shumate says the university also wants to hire more minority faculty members — only 2 percent of full-time faculty are black.

Some students think the University of Oklahoma has taken positive first steps, but more needs to be done — like mandatory diversity training for staff.

"It goes beyond sitting in a classroom for five hours and being taught the rights and wrongs. It's a culture that has to change. It's the way people are thinking. And that goes back to how they are raised; that goes back to how they are brought up. It's going to take some time. I haven't personally seen significant change on campus," Chelsea Davis, a member of Unheard, says.

Davis says that at least now, there's communication between black students and the administration. And there are programs almost every week to talk about race, even though they tend to attract the same group of students.

Criminology major Shaq Harris says before the SAE scandal, students knew racism existed on campus but nobody really talked about it.

"It's kind of bad that it happened and people were hurt, but it's kind of good that it happened. It's like we've grown so much because of it," Harris says.

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon house is in for a change, too. An organization that focuses on diversity will soon move into the former fraternity house.

Copyright 2015 KGOU

Jacob spearheads KRCU’s local news effort. His reporting has been heard on NPR’ Morning Edition and All Things Considered, PRI’s The World, and Harvest Public Media. In addition to reporting, Jacob directs KRCU’s team of student reporters and producers.
Jacob McCleland
Jake is a 2000 graduate of Southeast Missouri State University. As Host Producer, McCleland coordinates all of KRCU's local programming; he works with hosts, producers, and audio engineers to enhance the quality of in-studio productions. Additionally, McCleland works with station staff and community volunteers to develop new ideas for programming on KRCU. He also records and produces feature stories that are heard locally during Morning Edition and All Thing Considered.