Last Friday, I caught a livestream of President Nemec’s Inaugural Ceremony. It was a beautiful ceremony filled with pomp, song and glee. Campus and community leaders gave congratulatory introductions that stressed the unique qualifications of President Nemec and the institutional importance of Jesuit values. The vast majority of speakers mentioned the University’s core mission of molding men and women for others. Most also mentioned the importance that the University places on diversity. Yet the choice of speakers seems to be incongruent with all this talk of diversity and molding men and women for others.
The demographics of the student body also seem to contradict these tropes. Only 6 of the 17 of the inaugural speakers were women; and only 1 of the 17 inaugural speakers were people of the global majority. And although women make up around 60 percent of the student body, I think someone should remind the University that the concept of gender diversity includes women of color. Through these speeches, the Fairfield community seems to be saying, “Pay attention to any and every form of diversity, except racial because we clearly don’t have that.” Yet without racial diversity any and every conception of diversity is incomplete. Could there be an African Methodist Episcopal Church without Africans? Can you really claim to be geographically diverse if you don’t recruit from black ghettos? At Fairfield, we constantly hear about the value of diversity. We even have a diversity requirement in the curriculum. Yet when it comes to the University’s lack of racial diversity we only hear silence. It seems to me like we need a racial diversity requirement in the administration, student body and board of trustees.
President Nemec’s inaugural speech did no better with respect to acknowledging Fairfield’s half-hearted commitment to racial diversity. This was surprising considering that the first major controversy of Nemec’s tenure involved parental objections to a speech given by Professor Kris Sealey on white supremacy and hegemonic power. Nothing quite screams “diversity problem” like a deluge of calls from irate white parents desperate to maintain the racial privilege they hold so dear. Besides making evident that Fairfield U isn’t diverse enough to sustain an open and honest dialogue around racial inequality, what does this incident say about our University? It says that Fairfield isn’t and probably has never been serious about its racial demographics issues.
The president’s inaugural speech revolved around highlighting how the University’s continued commitments to lifelong learning, holistic formation and extensive and expansive partnership would lead to Fairfield’s transformation into the premier Jesuit university. His connection of these commitments to the Fairfield Rising campaign was a nice segue into expressing the University’s desire to transition from a regional university to a national university. Obviously President Nemec has high hopes for the University. Yet how can the Universtiy be trusted to fully tap into the diversity of the nation when it’s clearly failed at tapping into the diversity of the region? Fairfield’s expanded tuition programs for Bridgeport’s high school graduates is just a small step in the right direction. This program could be expanded to include all Bridgeport residents. I know as a former Fairfield Prep student that there are a number of Bridgeport students at Prep who would give Fairfield a more serious consideration if it were more affordable. Hell, the program should be expanded to include majority-minority cities around the region if we’re truly striving to become a national model of racial diversity.
The University’s tuition remission program is another existing model that should be expanded to recruit a more diverse student body. Professors and University employees and their spouses and children currently have access to this program which, through University funding, allows them to return to school to finish or further their education. Yet the key detail in this program is that you have to be a University employee to qualify. Employees of subcontractors like ABM, Sodexo and Dattco don’t count. I doubt it’s a coincidence that the occupational categories strongest associations with women and people of color would be excluded. If one conducted a racial headcount of the support staff and University employees at Fairfield, would you find many people of color? And how many of these folks already have college degrees? Aren’t Jesuit values supposed to extend to the University’s employment practices?
As a former full-time campus worker at Sodexo, I am painfully aware of the tragic irony the University’s tuition remittance programs being aimed at the on-campus employees that need it least. From this experience, I also became aware that these issues go way back. Every May, we worked the 50th Reunion dinner. The event organizers would plaster these large poster boards filled with old portraits of the surviving graduates all over the hall and walls. I would always play the game of “Find The Black Person!” with myself to pass the time. It ended up being a very challenging game, as apparently the University didn’t accept many black folks in the 1950s and 60s; it didn’t accept many women either. In fact, most of the black graduates seemed to be student-athletes. Some stereotypes and funding patterns die hard, huh? This is a trend you see across the nation. Universities constantly complain about the difficulty they face when trying to find “college-ready” students of color — in this case, college-ready means qualified and with resources — yet whenever they need to fill a sports team, suddenly these funding and talent pool issues miraculously disappear. Silly me thinking it would be easier to find college-ready students of color than it is to find college-ready, student-athletes of color. Black neighborhoods can no longer be mined for athletic talents, service opportunities and good publicity.
Service and mission trips that lack genuine efforts to change the surrounding structural conditions must be exposed as utter garbage. They do nothing other than reinforce students’ white savior complexes. Half-assing outreach and assistance programs will get us nowhere except on the road to another ghetto party. When we tell folks that the University strives to mold men and women for others, I think we should ask, “Well, who exactly are these others? And how do they relate to our core mission and way of life?” A serious examination of these questions should lead to the conclusions that the “others” are generally people of color and our economic fortunes rest on their material deprivation. I write this piece in an effort to echo President Nemec’s “call to be deliberate about our future.” In this case, we must recognize before we deliberate. We must analyze before we approach. People of color make up the majority of the global population. Therefore if we are to become the modern Jesuit Catholic University, if we truly hope to “be national in scope, global in outlook, and unbounded in approach,” we must sincerely address the lack of racial diversity at Fairfield.