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Welcome to Multicultural U.

John Slaughter Has Transformed Occidental College From a Lily-White Institution Into a Campus That Reflects the Changing Demographics of L.A. Is Everyone Happy? Not Quite.

May 02, 1999|CAROL LYNN MITHERS | Carol Lynn Mithers is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her last piece for the magazine was a profile of human-rights activist Pippa Scott

But to laugh at this excess is to miss the fact that something intriguing is happening at Occidental. Diversity may be the rule in a magnet school or Cal State classroom, but that's not the case at higher-echelon colleges that produce America's upper-middle classes. Here, however, where a disproportionately high number of graduates get PhDs, a sociology course may be taught by an assistant professor whose parents are working-class Mexican immigrants to students who include the scion of a wealthy Eastern family; a first-generation college kid, whose father's yearly income is less than Occidental's $21,000 tuition; and an extremely bright inner-city valedictorian who arrived not knowing how to write a term paper. This mix hasn't produced paradise; in recent years several interracial fights and outbreaks of racist graffiti have occurred, and some white students complain that "if you say anything against multiculturalism you're seen as a racist." But most students I talked to say they are glad to be there. "To be honest, before I came here, I was afraid of white males," says Sandra Gallardo, a 20-year-old senior. "And now there are several who are my friends. I learned that I can trust."

Iasha Warfield, 21, grew up in the Moreno Valley, and "in theory, my high school was 'diverse.' But I was the only black woman in my honors class, the only black woman in the gifted program. I never even met the black teachers because they were teaching remedial classes. I'd never met a black professional until I came to Occidental."

Moreover, against the common argument that high minority enrollment invariably equals low academic standards, U.S. News & World Report rates Occidental among the nation's Top 40 liberal arts colleges. It has a 78% six-year graduation rate, roughly equal to that of UCLA's. And in the past decade, 10 of its students have been chosen as Rhodes, Marshall or Truman scholarship winners, an impressive number for such a small school.

A reaccredidation committee for the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges was "genuinely impressed" when it visited the school in February, says Ronald Thomas, chief of staff for Trinity College President Evan Dobelle, the committee's chair. "They have done what many small private institutions have tried to do and failed, or to which they've simply paid lip service. The team thought it [the combination of strong academics and strong diversity] was a remarkable success."

This success is generally credited to Slaughter, an engineer by training who didn't even enter the academic world full time until he was 41. The move toward diversification was by no means his idea; it began in the 1960s, when the college obtained sizable scholarship grants specifically targeting minority students. In 1978, the faculty voted a two-course "non-Western civilization" requirement for graduation. In 1987, it started a free six-week program designed to keep minority students by helping them adjust to college life, and opened a "multicultural" residence hall. "By then we saw the demographic changes coming in Los Angeles," says Eric Newhall, professor of American studies and English (and an Occidental alumnus). "Put simplistically, the argument was, rather than acknowledge these changes when we're forced to do so, why not plan for them?"

But it was Slaughter who turned what had been a well-meaning but not terribly coherent effort into the heart of the school's identity. Within 18 months of his appointment, the school had written its "mission statement," which declared that an outstanding college was one that combined academic excellence with ethnic, racial, religious and gender equity, creation of "community," and civic service.

Slaughter considers this statement one of his major accomplishments ("I wanted something that defined what we stood for"), and, indeed, it became the core around which the school mobilized. Recruiters began targeting high-achieving minority students. Admissions officers reduced reliance on SAT scores (Slaughter dismisses them as "as good as a coin flip" in determining a student's college success) and increased emphasis on high school performance, essay writing and strong letters of recommendation. Professors began experimenting with different ways of teaching, such as lecturing less and stressing "active learning" techniques. Faculty research committees aggressively sought out women and minority candidates. The latter effort, adds Slaughter, was absolutely crucial to the plan.

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