Bryn Mawr Battles Bigotry On Campus

Posted: February 12, 1989

Racial and sexual slurs aren't what most people expect to hear at Bryn Mawr

College, one of the nation's most prestigious women's schools.

But over the last year, such epithets have surfaced in graffiti and anonymous notes directed at members of the college's 1,202-member undergraduate student body.

Incidents of bigotry are not unusual at colleges and universities these days, according to experts who have tracked a rising number of racial incidents and harassment against minorities on campuses across the country.

The difference at Bryn Mawr is that college officials are embarked on one of the country's most sweeping programs - including mandatory workshops for all entering freshmen - to help everyone from students to trustees deal with the problems.

"We are a remarkably diverse institution," said Mary Patterson McPherson, Bryn Mawr president. "We have made a great deal of progress. But we, like others, are feeling growing pains and tensions."

Last spring, those tensions boiled over in a petition to McPherson, signed by more than 300 students, that chronicled incidents of alleged discrimination and institutional racism on the campus.

Among the incidents: Expressions such as "nigger lover," "spic" and ''lesbians are maggots" were scrawled in graffiti or included in unsigned notes to students.

The student petition called for the hiring of more minority faculty members, increased pay for the school's largely black housekeeping and food service staff, and seminars to make the entire campus community more sensitive to issues such as race and class.

In response, the Bryn Mawr administration has instituted a comprehensive program aimed at helping students, faculty members and staff deal with their differences based on race, sex, class, sexual orientation, religion and physical ability.

Last fall, all entering freshmen ("freshwomen," as the students prefer to call themselves) took part in 12 hours of workshops aimed at helping them examine their biases and develop a common language to discuss cultural differences.

The workshops, which are to be held for each entering class in coming years, have also been extended on a voluntary basis to current sophomores, juniors and seniors.

Many faculty and staff members have also gone through the workshops, as have most of the college's trustees. Follow-up workshops on specific topics, such as homophobia, are now under way.

All told, more than 700 members of the campus community have taken part in the program, which is being funded with the help of a $200,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

As part of its effort, the college is also striving to diversify its curriculum to include the study of minority groups and non-Western culture, and it is attempting to recruit more black and Hispanic faculty members in tenure-track positions.

McPherson said she regards the effort as an important part of the college's responsibility in educating students for life in the 21st century.


She noted that by the year 2000, one in three people in the United States will be a member of a minority group. By 2080, she added, only 15 percent of the U.S. workforce will be made up of white males.

"Is the U.S. ready to educate a pluralistic society for its own leadership?" McPherson asked. "I don't think it is very ready."

Bryn Mawr's effort is one of the most comprehensive programs at any college in the country, said Jean Wu, an associate dean at Brown University who helped the college set up its workshops.

"Bryn Mawr has certainly taken a leap forward at a time when many other schools are just beginning to think about the same issue," Wu said.

Founded in 1885 to give upper-class women the same opportunity for a classical education as that afforded to men, Bryn Mawr has long been a force for progressive social change. Nonetheless, the college has also reflected the biases of its times.

Speaking to an incoming class in 1916, M. Carrie Thomas, Bryn Mawr's second president, commented on what she regarded as white intellectual superiority:

"If the present intellectual supremacy of the white races is maintained, as I hope that it will be for centuries to come, I believe that it will be

because they are the only races that have seriously begun to educate their women."


While Bryn Mawr never had quotas for Jews, as did many of its sister colleges, it wasn't until 1931 that the college graduated its first black student.

Today, 19 percent of Bryn Mawr's undergraduates are members of minority groups, including three American Indians, 49 blacks, 36 Hispanics and 143 Asian-Americans. An additional 10 percent of the undergraduates come from abroad, including such countries as Bangladesh, Kuwait and Zimbabwe.

While Bryn Mawr has a more diverse student body than many other elite private schools, student activists complain that the campus is inhospitable to those who are outside the mainstream culture.

"If you are willing to play the game and conform to white male standards, then people react very well," said Denise Tuggle, a black student who heads a coalition of minority student groups. "If you are not willing to play the game, the environment is fairly hostile."

Tuggle, who helped spearhead last spring's petition drive, regards the

college's new pluralism workshops as an important first step in improving the climate for racial minorities, lesbians and other members of minority groups on campus.

During a workshop on homophobia one night last week, 15 students, most of them freshmen, crowded into a chilly dormitory sitting room for a two-hour session led by Associate Dean Karen Tidmarsh.

In an introductory exercise, Tidmarsh asked the students to list all of the expressions they could think of for homosexuals. For gay men, the students came up with everything from "fairy" to "sissy." For lesbians, the students' list included "butch" and "radical feminist."

"Do you see any pattern to the lists?" Tidmarsh asked.

"They're all negative," one student replied.

College officials say that workshops such as these are aimed not at getting everyone to love each other, but at helping students learn to talk openly and honestly about cultural and racial differences.

"This approach may not lead to immediate results, but in the long run there may be real institutional change," said Joyce Miller, director of minority affairs at the college.

While freshmen gave the pluralism program high marks in an evaluation conducted after last fall's orientation, the effort has also created some backlash among white students.

"I'm seeing average, middle-class, white students feeling like their voices aren't being heard," said Linda Friedrich, Bryn Mawr student body president.

Added Sia Nowrojee, a senior from Kenya and co-organizer of a student group called Color: "We are being hit by a lot of backlash. Last semester was incredibly hostile. But it's a necessary state we have to go through."

After a fall workshop that focused on race, Christina Rivera, a freshman

from San Gabriel, Calif., received an anonymous note under her dormitory door calling her a "spic" and urging her to leave the college.

Since then, she said, she has been the target of continued harassment, which she declined to discuss in detail.

Rivera doesn't know whether open discussion of racial issues has prompted someone to harass her or whether the harassment would have occurred regardless of the emotions churned up by the pluralism workshops.

But she is convinced that the workshop sessions are helpful in getting students to air their feelings. "If people are just holding it in, it's going to come out in a lot more negative ways," she said.

Besides race, sexual orientation has surfaced as a key issue on the campus.

In an effort to counter anti-lesbian graffiti, last fall a group of students plastered washrooms in the student center with affirming statements about lesbianism.

In response, McPherson, along with other administrators and student leaders, led a nighttime assault on the wall slogans.

Armed with cameras and paint brushes, the group took photos of the graffiti, painted over it and put up a big notepad where students could write comments without trashing college property. The photos later went on display in the student center.

The incident has drawn criticism from some students, who fault the administration for declaring war on graffiti only after it turned pro-lesbian.

But McPherson defended her action.

"Graffiti is not the way to have a dialogue in the community," she said. ''It had just gotten totally out of control."

While McPherson acknowledges that last fall was "a tough semester," she said the school had not lost any students or seen a decline in alumni giving

because of its stepped-up focus on cultural pluralism.

"I would far rather be a campus that is attempting to deal with these issues than one that is not dealing with them at all," she said.

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