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On Race Relations, Colleges Are Learning Hard Lessons : Education: Schools try to meet needs of minorities, but some fear multiculturalism is going too far.

January 04, 1992|LARRY GORDON and DAVID TREADWELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Multiculturalism. Political correctness. Affirmative action. Ethnic studies. Diversity. Separatism. Harassment. The Western tradition.

Just the mention of those buzzwords is likely to provoke emotional and divisive debates at most colleges. But behind the arguments is a deeper dilemma--how to ensure minorities access to higher education while promoting ethnic harmony on campuses--and a deepening reality--that universities have become a focal point for the nation's racial tensions.

With the strength of numbers behind them at many schools, minority students are demanding--and getting--reforms in admissions policies, financial aid, student services, faculty hiring and the handling of complaints about racism. In addition, the multicultural movement, which is aimed at incorporating more non-Western, non-traditional texts and courses into studies, is gaining ground.

But a backlash of sorts has been spawned among some white students, who resent special admissions policies for minorities, and some faculty members, who charge that the ethnic-oriented curricula undermine the foundations of a common, Western culture.

The experience has been unsettling for campuses that like to portray themselves as immune to many ills plaguing the society outside their walls.

In a survey last year by the Carnegie Foundation, about one-fourth of all university and college presidents said racial tensions were a moderate to major problem on their campuses. Some experts insist that actual harassment of minority students has increased in recent years. The National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence, a Baltimore-based think tank, estimates that about 20% to 25% of students at U.S. colleges experience some form of ethnic or religious prejudice.

Glenn Ricketts, research director of the National Assn. of Scholars, a conservative organization based in Princeton, N.J., blames the multicultural movement. "It's just made people more race-conscious and sets up group differences that might not be there otherwise," he said.

Ricketts and others said those differences are accentuated by the proliferation of ethnic clubs on many campuses, amounting to self-segregation.

However, Troy Duster, a sociology professor and director of UC Berkeley's Institute for the Study of Social Change, contended that minority students have always grouped together for self-affirmation and discovery of their heritages--as well as in reaction to exclusion from Establishment clubs.

"What ultimately bothers today's critics most is not the racial or ethnic segregation of students' social lives, but the challenges that the growing numbers of Asian, Latino and African-American students pose to the faculty once they find their ancestors' histories and contributions largely ignored in the classroom," he said.

"In the past, what we had were campuses that were basically white, essentially monocultural," said Jeffrey A. Ross, national campus affairs director for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. "They have become diverse, but the arrival of diversity provides opportunities and challenges. It provides for a social richness, an enriched cultural mix. It also presents dangers of a withdrawal into group enclaves. Rather than a cosmopolitan atmosphere, we could create a series of ghettos."

To provide a closer look at how the issues of diversity and multiculturalism are being played out on college campuses today, The Times sent reporters to four different campuses: UCLA and San Francisco State, two large state universities in California with exceedingly diverse populations; the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a large state university with a relatively small minority student population; and Wesleyan University, an elite, private liberal arts college in Connecticut where minorities make up almost one-third of the students.

Here are the campus portraits of the "new diversity."

UCLA

UCLA's Bruin Walk, the hillside thoroughfare at the heart of the Westwood campus, was once lined with recruiting tables for sports and political groups. Now ethnic organizations dominate: a black sorority, a Vietnamese student group, organizations for students from India, for Jewish students, for American-born Chinese, for mainly foreign-born Chinese, for Mexican-Americans.

"UCLA's very diverse, but it's also really segregated," said Jimmy Hsie, an official of the Chinese Student Assn. "It's good in that you learn a lot about your own identity. It can be bad because you don't learn enough about other people, and that's when the stereotypes begin to fly."

Demographic shifts at UCLA have been dramatic in the last decade. The percentage of Anglos among the nearly 24,000 undergraduates has dropped from 70% to 44%. Asian-American and Filipino representation has zoomed from 17% to nearly 32%, and Latinos increased from 6.5% to 16.6%; black percentages grew only slightly from about 5% to 6.3%. Among new freshmen this year, Asian-Americans outnumber Anglos by 36.9% to 34.2%, officials reported.

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