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  • Writer's pictureAmelia Walker

CofC grapples with diversity gap

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

By Amelia Walker

If you glance over CofC's Instagram or website, you may presume that every friend group, classroom, faculty, and organization has plenty of diversity.

But if you take a closer look, the College has a long way to go before the reality of day-to-day life on campus matches the image set forth to the world.

In 2021, CofC recorded a Black student population of 6.3%. This statistic often surprises many people around campus, even those who agree that our college is homogeneous to the naked eye.

A college campus's diversity environment is rarely boiled down to simply numbers or percentages - it means resources, safety, inclusion, and understanding one another.

"Of course, diversity is much more than headcount, but headcount is what you see. And then you assume, probably mostly rightly, that what you see is proxy to identity," says Renard Harris, former chief diversity officer at the College who recently left to head a diversity consulting agency.

"Based on that, it needs to do better," says Harris. "For the city, for the state, for the region, for the nation, for the world."

Students from different majors and backgrounds can see around campus that CofC is not necessarily diverse in a numerical sense, even though images on social media might portray a different image.

"People want to go to places, be with people, be in organizations, go places, things like that, where they see themselves represented," says Alec Pourmoghadam, CofC alumni and a former social media intern for the College. "But as a person who has ethics in the marketing community, you want to accurately represent that."

As a social media intern, Pourmoghadam would shoot video content, schedule posts, manage content, and research how to increase a following across different platforms.

"There were a couple projects that we would work on where we would have a completed product and someone would voice a concern that there wasn't enough diversity," Pourmoghadam says. "I understand the mission behind it. To increase diversity on campus, we have to display diversity, but it just didn't accurately represent what day-to-day life was like."

The intent is clear - CofC wants to be a diverse campus, and everybody from the president to incoming freshmen can get behind that.

However, when the desired level of diversity doesn't exist, the standard approach is to show what diversity could look like.

Various members of the Office of University Marketing declined to be interviewed on this topic, citing that they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the College.

Marcia White, executive director of college marketing, echoed this as well.

"Marketing doesn't actually make the call you seem to think we do," says White.

When asked about the role of the Marketing Department in displaying diversity, Harris explained that he understands their difficult position. While the goal is to improve diversity overall, there is little to work with, given the College's numbers.

However, he recognizes the importance of accuracy.

"Be transparent about how this student is an asset and contributing to the community. Be transparent in what the full numbers are," says Harris. "I think people think that will run kids away, but it might say, if you're interested in being around something where you're not that many, but you're around a safe, healthy place to engage with people, come on in."

Andrew Hsu, current president of CofC, also spoke on this when he recently came to talk to a Senior Communication Scholar class.

He explained that there is no one ‘right’ way that the College should display and discuss diversity across social media.

"It is a way to recruit," says Hsu, but acknowledged later that "we are nowhere near where we need to be as a college."

But for the university president, only highlighting white students doesn't showcase the inclusive environment the College promotes.

“We, as a university, have to use all of our tools in our toolkit, so to speak – such as social media, marketing, events and programming, both inside and outside of the classroom, says Hsu. “Our campus is diverse and, therefore, our imagery and storytelling should reflect that. And our work in these areas is ongoing.”

Less than 60 years ago, the first Black student to ever graduate CofC walked across the cistern in a white dinner jacket, a mere 18 years out from when the College converted into a private institution to evade integration.

Today, the College boasts many resources for minority students, including a Multicultural Center, an Office of Institutional Diversity, and many clubs and organizations.

"If you don't have the resources on campus to support what you're posting about, you shouldn't be posting about it," Pourmoghadam says.

Beyond the Speedy Consolidation and Transition Program, or SPECTRA, the Black Student Union, the Multicultural Center, Legacy 1967, and other organizations across campus, the College is also adding new resources every year to protect and foster inclusion.

Dr. Harris expressed his excitement about opening the new CougarCutz Barbershop on 97 Wentworth St.

"Let's go beyond the hair, I tell you, Black male culture in a barbershop is a thing," says Harris ecstatically, "If you've ever been, we save all the world's problems in a Black barbershop!"

"I remember getting in the car with my friends and going, you know, 15 miles to predominantly Black neighborhoods to get a haircut," says Harris, when honing in on the importance of easily accessible resources. "It's more just about how we engage with the world in our own space and how we interpret the world."

"You have ownership, you make claims, you, you know, you laugh and joke, you crack jokes. You just, there's no apology," Harris laughs, "hell, maybe it's our own bar mitzvah!"

While the College is undoubtedly making significant strides to promote diversity and inclusion, the barbershop being one of them, some students cannot see the yield of those strides.

"If you're just a student going to class, just going through the motions, I think it is a little bit more difficult to see the change or be a part of the change," says Lauryn McCloud, CofC senior and director of communication for the Black Student Union. "There are resources and there are people out there who are willing to help, but you also have to reach out. You have to find them, and you have to feel comfortable even asking for that help."

McCloud believes it is imperative to educate other professors and students on race and privilege, along with the repercussions of the lack of understanding.

"Same shit, different day, just like lack of just basic knowledge, which is not people's fault and you can't blame them," says McCloud. "I would just say just ignorant comments, lack of comments when something is happening and I don't know, like feelings of maybe loneliness or lack of representation."

McCloud feels that although the College is putting in work to educate and train professors on how to treat minority students, there are still improvements to be made.

"Even when professors do try to talk about race and the background of it all, sometimes their lack of understanding makes students like me have to speak up because it's like, I would rather you not teach our whole class this," says McCloud.

She recognizes the spark within the College to create change but sometimes disagrees with how they go about it.

"I don't know if I'm supposed to talk about this, but they're making a race, equity, and inclusion curriculum that's gonna be enforced at the College of Charleston. And so I'm on the board for that now and I think that's a positive change to get students truly thinking about privilege and life and racism," says Lauryn. "They want to infuse it in every single way possible. Which I find really like a daunting task."

However, McCloud explains that professors implementing this new curriculum throughout their classes would undergo very minimal training before making the change.

"If these teachers are not gonna be trained, then it will be hurtful and not a safe space, and it's not gonna give progress," says McCloud. "I am appreciative of the idea, but not of the way they want to execute it. So far."

Simon Lewis, a CofC professor, speaker of the faculty senate, and member of the Advisory Committee for this new curriculum, spoke on some of these doubts.

"Not all classes will meet those criteria, so only a relatively small subset of faculty will be teaching REI-approved courses," says Lewis. "We are currently working on ways to ensure that all instructors who do teach REI approved courses are fully competent (and confident) to do so."

Lewis expressed his excitement for the initiative, saying it was one of the most significant curriculum shifts he's seen in his 26 years of teaching at the College. He hopes the student body can get behind it.

While the conversations about improvements that the College can make continue on campus, there are still problems with how CofC markets these improvements that worry students.

McCloud is familiar with how colleges will tokenize Black culture to increase their diversity demographics.

As a Freshman, she went to Wofford College, where she believes they gave inaccurate information about the environment for Black students like herself. After the second semester, her feelings of loneliness and exclusion came to a pinnacle when she decided to transfer to CofC, which was closer to home.

"It was a big decision for me between HBCU, or another predominantly white institution, even if they had good diversity," McCloud recounts. "So when they are misrepresenting that diversity, it kind of takes away that choice that we're making until we get there and we feel out what's going on. We've paid money, we've moved in, we're kind of comfortable, and then it's not true."

But McCloud often thinks of a phrase her family likes to remind her.

"The world is not an HBCU," she says, thinking of her decision to come to CofC and do what she can to make a difference.

Many believe there are still many improvements to be made in how the College procures new students.

One individual who is doing her best to rewrite the story is Jayla Burton, a CofC senior and Vice President of the Charleston 40 Tour Guides.

She became a tour guide initially because she didn't see herself represented on campus when she was prospecting for future colleges.

That wasn't until she went on a tour with a Black female tour guide and realized how comfortable and confident she seemed.

"I wanted to give that experience to other students who are probably in the same situation as me, who love CofC, but didn't think they'd be represented here," says Burton.

When going on a tour with a current student as a prospective student, you can choose who's tour you would like to go on after hearing about them. That way, new students are matched with whom they feel will be able to answer their burning questions.

As for the questions regarding diversity on campus, they fall into a category that C40 promptly has named 'discretion questions'.

"Obviously, my answer will be different because I am a Black woman, so I think I've mastered the art of answering the question, what's diversity like here on campus?" Burton says. "And I honestly say like, no school is perfect. CofC isn't perfect, but if you're trying to stay in state or if you're looking at schools in South Carolina, College of Charleston is probably gonna be your best option because at least we're doing our best to promote diversity on our campus and really challenge students and professors to have those difficult conversations."

Burton is extremely honest with herself and her peers about her experience with diversity at CofC, the positives, and the negatives.

She hones in on a theme that many staff and students would likely agree with- that the College has changed dramatically in recent years.

There were moments in her collegiate journey when she felt that people with different backgrounds were not making enough effort to merge or understand each other. Still, she recognizes how differently she feels now as a senior and vice president of an organization with a conscious grasp of the diversity gap.

"I still feel like there has been a shift in the way we interact with each other and obviously like there's still kinks to work out, but I feel like we've gotten better at having those difficult conversations," says Burton.

She also speaks about the difficult conversations with the higher-ups at C40, noting that there is an apparent effort to understand her point of view as a black student.

"I think, any school, any job, any company is gonna do this. Kind of like paint the perfect picture and make it seem like the school is much better than it actually is," Burton says. "You need to talk to students to kind of have more of a candid view of what it's like and they can tell you in all honesty. Like, this is what I've experienced, this is what I've learned."

The desire for more student voices to be heard does not stop with Burton. Pourmoghadam agrees on this front, speaking on how nobody will be able to tell the truth about an institution quite like the students who are attending.

"I was in the thick of it every day. Whereas as a full-time employee, you don't get that view," Alec says while talking about his time in the marketing department. "I think the more students you get involved, the more accurate depictions of campus that are gonna be."

In many cases, an accurate depiction of what the institution may lack can help the College procure new diversity.

Dr. Harris had a significant anecdote to share, explaining that sometimes, it's beneficial to exist in a context where you might be the minority as long as you feel you have a seat at the table.

When interviewing for the position at CofC 17 years ago, many of his Black peers told him he shouldn't go to CofC.

"I said, 'really?' No. That's a bunch of rich white kids. And it's a private school!" Harris recalled.

But despite the nervous chatter, he decided to come to Charleston.

"I felt like, 'oh my God.' I mean, sear-sucker suits, afros, skateboards, you know, business, musicians, all in one place. I fell in love with that," he said.

"Some people want to be with people who are just like them. Some people are like, well, this is freaky," Harris explains. "I've never seen this before. Can I come in? You know, so you don't know until you make that invitation. I think there's a little hesitation in all universities to make that invitation."

He also points out the considerable transition that the country has gone through after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

"We've had a lot of heavy trauma in our nation the last five years," he says. "Are we marketing and promoting what that means to us?"

Dr. Harris recognizes that diversity is oftentimes talked about in terms of the macro. He mentions how especially here in Charleston, diversity is also discussed in a historical context.

"The story has to be told. I'm not saying you should take a story out. All those stories are important, but you've gotta tell what's beneath that skin, which is some pretty amazing folks doing pretty amazing things of all walks, all skin colors," says Harris.

His passion for inclusion and understanding one another is plain to see.

"Give me all the information and let me, to really respect and value who I am as a human being, give me all the information," says Harris, going back to the marketing and admissions dilemma. "I'll make that decision. You don't need to give me what I need to decide. And I think anti-diversity does that. I'll tell you what to decide. I'll tell you what to think. I will build the world for you. Put you in the world to be built."

His overall goal is an increased push for conversations, understanding one another, and putting diversity in the center of the conversation, where it deserves to be.

He realizes that the most significant change he has seen since coming to the College 17 years ago is that the topic has moved from the margins to the center.

"You gotta be careful that it doesn't, you know, get to the center and get pushed back," he says. "It's that interest and passion is right there in the center where people who are decision-makers are conscious and aware of it. That's important."

While students across all identities are still reluctant to call CofC diverse, there is no doubt that the College is changing.

"I would say there's tons of improvements that can be made. I think College of Charleston is going in the right direction, I don't think quickly enough, but they'll make it there eventually." Says Pourmoghadam.

Rollover among senior staff is one thing that Pourmoghadam cites when looking at ways the College could see improvements.

"We definitely do have tough conversations but they're real conversations and I feel like that's much better than like, sweeping under the rug and trying to be like, yeah, our campus is perfect, right?" Says Burton with a hopeful gleam.

Harris agrees, and his hope, passion, and love for this school ring through when he speaks about the future.

"People start using this tone of voice when they talk about it, and they talk about it sometimes, like it's a negative," says Harris. "Diversity is a beautiful thing. Diversity is a solution. It's not a weight, you know, it's a freedom."

He leans into the table and lowers his voice.

"'He's white, LGBTQ, he's Muslim…' like why are you whispering?!" Harris exclaims. "You know, why are we whispering? This is a good thing. 'Am I invited?' Sure, you're invited. You got a heart beating, you're walking on two feet. You're part of it, you know!"


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