Campus racial climate change?

Oak Grove preacher Ed Neimann, right, discusses race with members of the IUP Racial Justice Coalition for Change in front of Stapleton Library, Jan. 23, 2019, Photos by Justin G. Cobb.

By The HawkEye staff

INDIANA — On Wednesday, an Oak Grove preacher approached a group standing in front of the library at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. They were holding signs expressing opposition to racism and hate. He was saying racism is a “two-way street.”

“The discussion had the potential to go in a lot of different directions,” IUP sociology professor Melanie D. Hildebrandt, co-founder of the Racial Justice Coalition for Change group, said in a Friday phone interview.

But by all accounts, the conversation went in a good direction. It addressed African-American and Muslim students, and it was civil and respectful. Preacher Ed Neimann, reached at his North Huntingdon, Pa., home on Friday, said the exchange was “very cordial.”

 

IUP sociology professor Melanie D. Hildebrandt, co-founder of the three-year-old Racial Justice Coalition for Change group, Stapleton Library, Jan. 24, 2019.

SINCE JANUARY 2016, Hildebrandt and other RJCC participants have made lunchtime stands in front of the library at the start of every month during fall and spring semesters, facing anger and apathy, in weather fair and foul.

She co-organized the series following two events — release of a fall 2015 preliminary study of the university’s racial climate and the Dec. 8, 2015, publication of a racist photo on social platform Snapchat, the first of two to roil the campus.

In December 2016, the final campus-climate study, based on campus-wide surveys, focus groups and interviews, reported that campus life was “segregated” and diversity efforts were “insincere” and “fragmented.”

The study concluded: “Respondents perceived a lack of interest or concern, a willful ignorance if not downright hostility, coming from both people in authority positions, including some upper level administrators and faculty, as well as majority groups on campus.”

 

HILDEBRANDT WAS CAUTIOUS this week about claiming change in the campus climate. But she said the group’s commitment is unchanged.

“People know we’re there,” she said Friday. “People know they can come when they want to express feelings about inclusion, diversity, to stand against hate. A place to go and grieve.”

In the three years since its founding, RJCC members have had much to grieve — Charlottesville, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh. But the tragedies make it “more important now” to make the stands, Hildebrandt said.

“We are not demonstrating,” she said. “We’re not debating. We’re just a counterweight to what’s happening in the country.”

Administrator Christina M. Wiggins, left, professor Bennett A. Rafoth and math and sciences dean Deanne Snavely stand in front of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania library on the third anniversary of the start of regular demonstrations over the campus racial climate, Jan. 23, 2019.

She quoted a colleague: “Standing up to hate is everybody’s job.”

For the new year, Hildebrandt described a university administration in flux on its approach to the issues of race, diversity and inclusion. And she expressed hope for more student involvement.

“We would welcome partnering with students,” she said. “That would be fantastic.”

The IUP student body has grown more diverse. In fall 2010, the university reported 13 percent of enrolled students were minorities. By fall 2018, the figure had risen to 20 percent.

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