Measuring the progress of any place can be challenging because there is no definitive procedure and the topic can cover a wide range of social, economic and political issues. Social surveys and statistics can help but are not always accurate. However, being aware of different people’s viewpoints can help us develop our own. Keeping this in mind, I tried to figure out how progressive the University of Rhode Island is in terms of diversity, ethnicity, gender sexuality and politics.
Founded in 1892, URI was dominated by white Americans until 1914 when the University hosted its first African American graduate, Harvey R. Turner. Today, more than 23 percent of the students and faculty members identify as people of color or from various ethnicities. The percentage of international students has also increased over the decade. The question is whether this data truly reflects progress in all social, economic and political fronts.
“I believe we do have a very diverse group of students on campus, in all categories,” Melissa Dehsus, coordinator of the International Center at URI said. “It is progressive. I see it a lot more now than over a decade ago when I was an undergraduate student.”
On the basis of gender and sexuality, the viewpoints amongst various levels, from students to faculty members in different positions, seem varied.
“I definitely think it is progressive,” freshman Whitney Deshong said. “We just got the Gender and Sexuality Center which I think is very cool. I go to SAGA (Sexuality and Gender Alliance) there.”
“I think having the first dedicated building built from the ground up for LGBTQ student is huge,” Racine Amos, coordinator for the Violence Prevention and Advocacy Services at the Women’s center said. “That also goes along with the health insurance and how gender reassignment surgery is covered in our student health insurance which I don’t think is done by a lot of schools. They’re working on students [being able] to use their preferred name and gender identity on their official records.”
On the contrary to progressive facilities, some minorities and students of color around campus say they still experience subtle cues of intolerance.
“In Balentine, I’ve seen that there is no diversity, maybe a couple of minorities in class,” senior business major Janet Stone said. “As a professor, you should use your authority to make your students aware of these issues and not add to it. We have tenured professors joking around about racial issues which is not funny.”
One student who wished to remain anonymous said, “I worked at the CVS at the top of the campus. They hired a new manager, he’s not there anymore. I was specifically treated a certain way because of my skin color. I worked there for three years and he basically called me a “dog” because he was threatened by my progress in the field.”
Some faculty members believe that past experiences are not the only indicators of lack of progress within the community. The overall ignorance towards improving strategies for all members of this University, in response to the nation’s socio-political climate is also equally significant.
“From a policy and procedure perspective, and behavioral, oppressive place that I’ve ever worked in for women and people of color,” a URI administrator said. “When President Trump threatened to take away transgender rights, there should’ve been a statement that came from our president or division of student affairs, to extend support the transgender community and their allies who felt unsafe. That’s what a progressive institution does.”
Some believe that, with the rapid change in the country’s demographics, a more complex and updated learning strategy about diversity and social class is necessary to make this generation more aware of them.
“There are many departments that have asked the Women’s Center for unique workshops. How are we supposed to interact with women, you know with respect to the #meetoo movement, so that we don’t get charged accidentally,” said Penny Rosenthal, Director of the Women’s center. “The students’ lived experience is different, but we’re teaching them as if it’s the same that we had. That is a very elementary diversity training. We have to complicate that more.”
On the political front, URI has two different equally represented political groups on campus: College Republicans and URI Democrats. “I don’t think there is a specific trend at the University one way or another,” said Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz, associate professor of Political science. “I think that the campus reflects the country-there are conservatives and liberals, there are moderates, and mainly there are people that have no developed political preferences.”
The sources were never ending and one lead almost always merged into another, amongst different categories. However, listening to different voices really did change my perspective on how certain issues affect people from different backgrounds. Perhaps it would be best to say, as Professor Pearson-Merkowitz puts it, “the campus is not any more ‘progressive’ than the country as a whole and really is quite reflective of the country itself.”