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Beneath the Surface: Segregation at UR, Part One

<p>Graphic of Boatwright Tower created by Nolan Sykes. Collage by The Collegian.&nbsp;</p>

Graphic of Boatwright Tower created by Nolan Sykes. Collage by The Collegian. 


In our inaugural episode, this Collegian UR podcast explores the Princeton Review's ranking of the University of Richmond as fourth among colleges with little race and class interaction within the U.S.

Hosted, edited and produced by Conner Evans. Arrman Kyaw assisted in reporting. Eli Kline, Sana Azem and Brendon Kim assisted in editing. Music created by Nathan Burns. Podcast art created by Nolan Sykes and The Collegian. 

Listen on Spotify | Listen on Apple Podcasts | Listen on Podbean


CONNER EVANS: According to the Princeton Review, in a lot of ways the University of Richmond is a great place for students to live. In the 2020 edition of its guidebook, “The Best 385 Colleges,” the University of Richmond is ranked as having the 7th best classroom experience and the 5th most beautiful campus. Student happiness is 9th at UR, quality of life is 10th. UR also ranks 12th in the category “Lots of Beer.” 

But amidst all of these rankings and categories is one that’s much less positive. According to the 2020 guidebook from the Princeton Review, the University of Richmond also ranks 4th in “Little Race/Class Interaction.”

[music plays]

EVANS: Welcome to Beneath the Surface. I’m Conner Evans, an editor at The Collegian, the University of Richmond’s independent newspaper. And on this podcast, we’ll be diving deep into campus issues, and use this as a platform to tell stories in ways The Collegian never has before. And in this inaugural episode, we’ll try to examine how segregation takes shape at UR, and what students see as the driving forces of this issue. 

I will say at the top here, we started this project last year, before racist epithets were graffitied on UR students’ doors this past January. Those cowardly, hateful attacks rocked our campus, and led to inspiring demonstrations, forums and conversations among students, faculty and administration. 

It’s still unclear what precise policy changes will come from those demonstrations, but it was made clear that issues of race and student segregation at UR are serious — and were serious even before January 2020. 

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Through this episode of Beneath the Surface, we’ll try to show perspectives on segregation at UR from different students and professors, and we’ll try to get a better understanding of the Princeton Review’s methodology. What does segregation among students really look like at UR, what impact does it have and what can be done to improve inclusivity? 

[music plays]

EVANS: UR’s leadership has not ignored news of this ranking. University President Ronald Crutcher spoke about inclusivity in direct response to the Princeton Review ranking in last September’s Colloquy during his State of the University address. 

RONALD CRUTCHER: Yet this is not really news to us. This is why we made ensuring a thriving and inclusive community a pillar of our strategic plan. It is sobering how this ranking suggests we are not yet harnessing the power of diversity to enhance the educational experience, and of course it also perhaps indicates that we have heightened our students’ awareness and made them even more discerning about inclusion, diversity and equity — and that’s a good thing.

EVANS: UR hired an interim senior administrative officer and a university-wide council in an effort to increase conversations about race and build policy to promote inclusivity. And Crutcher acknowledged how difficult this work will be. 

CRUTCHER: This work will be — will not be easy. It will ask much of each of us, but if we truly commit to these goals, then I am confident that we will succeed in living up to our promise as a truly intercultural community — one that embraces the dignity, worth and contributions of all individuals.

EVANS: To begin this discussion, we wanted to dive into the precise methodology of the Princeton Review’s ranking, particularly because UR went from 9th in 2019 in the country to 4th in 2020 for least class and race interaction. We are only getting worse, it seems.

According to the Princeton Review’s website, being ranked in this category depends on how strongly students agree or disagree with the statement, “Different types of students (black/white, rich/poor) interact frequently and easily.”

One of our reporters, Arrman Kyaw, spoke to David Soto, director of content development at the Princeton Review, and Soto explained how the rankings were exclusively a matter of what he called “student sentiment.”

DAVID SOTO: We have comparative ratings, uh, rankings, all the rankings rely exclusively on student sentiment. So we surveyed for this past edition of the book 140,000 students across the 385 schools. So it is not the opinion of the Princeton Review that informs these rankings; it is the opinion of what we consider to be the real college experts — and those are currently enrolled students at each of these colleges that we profile.”

EVANS: When asked whether this methodology left the ranking results open for any kind of selection bias — because the survey itself is voluntary — Soto said the Princeton Review paid close attention to the safety measures of the survey and worked closely with the administrations of the colleges to make sure every student had an opportunity to fill it out. But it remains unclear how many UR students participated in the 2020 survey.

SOTO: Our ask of the administration is simple. So, we ask them to email the entire student body and send an email on behalf of the Princeton Review urging students to go to our survey. You can take a look at the tool year-round. Each student can take the survey once per academic year. It’s available on our website, princetonreview.com/survey. So really, with the help of the administration we get the word out to students, and that’s how we’re able to collect the survey.

EVANS: Soto went on to explain how they worded the question, and what exactly the Princeton Review was trying to assess.

SOTO: We are asking the ease — we are interpreting the question with the ease of interaction between and among students on campus. That’s how we come up with the ranking list. It’s not necessarily a list of the most diverse student bodies or the most diverse socioeconomic student bodies, but — are those students actually having interactions on campus. And we don’t qualify them with being ‘meaningful’ interactions. We just ask interactions generally on campus.

EVANS: Once collected, the survey results are compared with those from other colleges in order to form the rankings. Only the top 20 schools are shown in each of its categories.

And after all this, UR’s student responses were enough to have the school ranked 4th.

Sociology professor Eric Anthony Grollman said they saw UR’s place on the list as troubling, but they questioned the methodology behind the measure. Grollman teaches research methods in the anthropology and sociology department. Grollman didn’t think the question asked on the survey was, methodologically speaking, a good question.

For one, Grollman said the question conflated race and class segregation.

ERIC ANTHONY GROLLMAN: And then I wanted to know, well, who are the people who are actually completing the survey? And it is University of Richmond students that are drawn from a sample, but I think many students that I talked to didn’t even know how ... that they could participate in it, so there’s that question about transparency and [unintelligible] ability. 

And, back to the research, we don’t even know who’s actually in the survey. So it’s hard to trust ... can you actually say that the rankings got worse? It may be that there’s a different batch of students that completed the survey.

EVANS: Soto said that the Princeton Review did not editorialize the question that’s asked, only asking about interactions generally on campus.

Methodology aside though, Grollman was still concerned by the turnout of the results.

GROLLMAN: But what is still troubling regardless is that, you know, you took two samples of the student population at UR, and both times we were in the top five of schools that were most race and class segregated.

So I don’t have a lot ... there are many reasons to question it, but even if it’s a universally bad measure, we are one of the worst among schools on this bad measure. And there is something consistent there.

[music plays]

EVANS: This ranking placement didn’t come as a surprise to people we spoke to, even before the racist attacks brought race on campus to the forefront. 

Kristen Mejia is a UR rising senior from Hamilton, New Jersey. Both of her parents are from Ecuador. She is Ecuadorian, she is fluent in Spanish and she is a first-generation college student. 

As a disclaimer, Kristen Mejia is now on staff at The Collegian but was not at the time this interview was conducted.

When one of our reporters, Arrman Kyaw, talked with Meija, she pointed to Greek Life as a dominant social force on campus and potentially part of why the campus feels so segregated to students.

KRISTEN MEJIA: I guess first off I would say I’m not very surprised, considering the racial makeup of the campus. I would say just in terms of how prevalent Greek Life is on campus, which I would, me personally, would consider a majority white student organization — and I guess it’s actually a national organization for fraternities and sororities. I would say that the amount of influence that they have on campus just goes towards showing where the most influence is in terms of race, if that makes sense. Because of how much Greek Life dominates school culture would also be a reflection of how much white culture dominates this campus.

EVANS: Mejia said that, although there are students of color in Greek Life, it is mostly composed of white students. And, to her, the influence Greek organizations have comes from things like funding and physical space, resources that she said other organizations on campus don’t really have.

MEJIA: So I would consider Greek life as having the most social influence on campus. Well, I think mostly because they have a large amount of funding. They have a lot of spaces — like the lodges, the off campus housing — those types of spaces that other groups on campus don’t necessarily have. And so then, because they have those spaces and that funding they’re able to ... provide for students in ways that other organizations can’t do. 

So for example, like I said before, the partying culture. If students want to party on campus, you usually have to go to a lodge or an apartment. But the most available way, or the most at-hand party that you can get to is lodges, right? Which are dominated or hosted by Greek Life.

EVANS: Our reporter Arrman also spoke to Jeff Lowe, a then-senior and the president of the LGBTQ+ Coalition. Lowe wasn’t surprised either. He expressed similar thoughts about who had access to space on campus and how that affected what students decided to do, who they hung out with and where they spent their time.

JEFF LOWE: Something I always think about with campus is space is a really big deal for our campus. Because if you’re ... particularly if you’re a fraternity. Yes, sororities have cottages, but they have a lot of restrictions on how they use that space. But the fraternities have all the power when it comes to space on campus, for the most part, in my opinion. Um, and that is because they have the money to rent them out, and the university has made the decision that that’s how they're going to use this space.

EVANS: Lowe is referring to the fraternity lodges, a popular space for partying on campus that is organized and maintained by most of UR’s fraternities.

It comes down to a matter of numbers, Mejia said. White culture is dominant at UR, because there are more white students on campus than there are students of color. 

Lowe said he had seen this separation even in his own social circles.

LOWE: Even my friend groups are very segregated, by race especially. I think I personally am kind of an outlier, just because for the most part all of my friends are white, but still ... all of my friends are white and all of their friends are white. And ... when I look at the black community on campus they’re very segregated and together with each other.

And also from my perspective of leading the student org I lead, in a lot of ways my student org is very white, and there is an affinity group called Shades of Pride on campus that is specifically designed for students of color who also identify as LGBTQ. And there just isn’t any crossover between those two groups organically. Which is something we’re intending to work on this year, but it doesn’t happen by itself.

EVANS: Lowe mentioned that differences in the number of people of color in UR’s respective fields of study and activity, spanning from the Robins School of Business to the Gottwald Science Center to athletics, may also play a role in this lack of interaction.

LOWE: Another thing I think about is segregation based on what school you fall into. So, the B-school becomes really white, and then Gotty and humanities becomes a little bit more diverse and mixed. But still within those schools you kind of find your pockets of people. So I think that that’s not helping — that the B-school’s extremely white and everyone else is kind of out here in Arts and Sciences and Jepson. 

I think there’s a lot of stereotypes about athletes being people of color, and … I feel bad every day for athletes on this campus, just because I think they’re treated very poorly and have a lot of stigmas attached to them. And that’s one of the stigmas, is that a lot of the people of color on this campus are people who are athletes as well. 

But I think because there are a lot of athletes who are people of color, and because athletes are segregated from campus in and of themselves — that’s another pocket that becomes just one group of students that is all people of color.

EVANS: And there may be a correlation between people who had the money to be part of Greek Life and those who didn’t, he said.

LOWE: So yeah, there’s probably some correlation there, of the people who have the money to afford to be part of a sorority or fraternity. The entire intentionality of that is to create brotherhood and sisterhood, and those people are together. And then ... money is a restriction for people to be able to join those groups, for sure.

EVANS: Mejia said this general concept of little race interaction applied to demographics other than the white community, as well. Mejia is a member of Block Crew, one of UR’s resident dance troupes. Block Crew focuses on contemporary hip-hop dance styles and is a group where not a white majority, but an Asian majority, exists.

MEJIA: I think everybody on campus is just trying to find a space where they can connect with who they are, and so I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a problem that there are these types of racial separations. I just think it becomes a problem when more organizations get more funding and more influence than other organizations. 

So there is definitely a race and class separation, but whether that happens because white students aren’t inclusive or if students of color separate themselves I’m not sure. But it’s definitely noticeable as a student on campus.

[music plays]

EVANS: One of the most visible examples of this lack of interaction among races and classes on campus is the Heilman Dining Center. The ranking didn’t come as a surprise to Monti Datta, a UR political science professor, either.

MONTI DATTA: I’m reminded very often when I have lunch in the dining hall on campus, or D-hall. I feel the ethos of segregation, as it were, is there. For example, the other day I noticed at one table there were sitting all female white students. Another table were all students of color. Another table looked like a single international student eating alone. And so, when I thought about the idea of UR being ranked relatively low in terms of connectivity about race and the other, I wasn’t terribly surprised.

EVANS: It’s not a particularly obscure trend. It’s practically common knowledge. Fraternity brothers and sorority sisters often sit in the first room — the frats specifically at the long tables there that you’ll see as soon as you walk in. In the second room, normally a lot of athletes grouped together. And other students sit in the third room.

MEJIA: I would say you definitely see groupings. I wouldn’t say necessarily cliques or anything like that, but you usually see students of color sitting with other students of color, mingling with other students of color. And white students usually stick with other white students, and you can see this division a lot in D-hall. 

So stereo — not stereotypically, but it’s kind of a common knowledge as a student at the University of Richmond that the first room is where Greek life sits, which is primarily white students, so most white students sit in the first room. The second room is usually athletes and African Americans, and I guess allies of that. And the third room is usually ... it’s usually international students and everybody else. 

So you definitely see that type of grouping happening when it comes to race on campus? And yeah, just in general students are likely to be friends with people of their same race.

EVANS: Lauren Stenson also weighed in with a slightly different perspective highlighting how the dining hall ultimately is a symptom of a greater problem, not the problem itself. 

LAUREN STENSON: And so I would say that once your friend group becomes more integrated, you’re just going to end up sitting with them in D-hall. D-hall you’ll notice will be more integrated. So I would encourage people that ... it starts with your friend group. It starts with your core. Who are you comfortable talking to? Who can you destress with and eat dinner with? Like, you don’t want to feel like you’re doing an experiment when you’re eating dinner.

A lot of times, our pitfall is we try to solve or numb or silence the symptom of the problem, not the problem. D-hall is a symptom of segregation on campus. It’s where you see it, because you can look around the room and see who everyone’s sitting with. But it’s not like D-hall is the problem.

EVANS: And we’ll be hearing a lot more from Stenson in our next episode of Beneath the Surface, when we look at student opinion and responses since the racist graffiti this past January. 

She created Interpoint, a highly attended function for students to talk about racial issues like this in small groups where they were forced out of their comfort zone. Look forward to that next time.

But first: some history. 

The topic of this separation — or segregation, as some have put it — in dining hall isn’t new. 

A Collegian article from 1991 with the headline “Reasons Vary for Dining Hall Segregation” talks about an unspoken social segregation among students in D-hall’s three rooms. The article focuses on separations along gender lines, but mentions that the leftmost of D-hall’s three rooms was where members of the Baptist Student Union and artistically oriented students sat. Athletes, “independents” and three fraternities sit in the center room, and seven fraternities and “intermixed” sororities sat in the room on the right — the first room when you walk in.

Some students in the article, as documented by the Race and Racism Project, chalked it up to a lasting effect of UR’s former coordinate system. That’s where one school housed all the female students and the other college housed all the male students. Some said it was a by-product of Greek Life. And some said it was a matter of who you felt comfortable sitting with and who you did not get a chance to hang out with otherwise.

A 1993 Collegian article, just two years later, titled “E. Bruce Etiquette: Dining Hall Dos and Don’ts” includes an unofficial map of the seating distinctions in D-Hall. The left room is shown to be for those that want some quiet, the middle room was for independents and members of Greek Life and athletes, and the rightmost room, when you walk in, was occupied by Greek life. It includes a student, the president of Phi Delt, saying that, if Greek Houses existed, fraternity members would eat and hang out there instead. They wouldn’t even interact with the non-Greek students, according to this one source.

It’s notable that the article does include a non-Greek-affiliated student saying that this unspoken rule wasn’t strict and no consequence would come from not following it. But the habit persists today.

Datta saw it as a reflection not of the campus, per se, but of the Commonwealth’s and the South’s legacy of segregation. “Ours is a commonwealth of where there is a poverty of real connecting with people that are different,” he said. And this applied even with many of UR’s students coming from out of state.

DATTA: Most U of R students, I believe, demographically come from Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. And so we have a lot of people who are out of state. I think what pulls me back to the idea of the roots of our problem on campus being from the Commonwealth is that we’re, structurally speaking, an institution of higher learning based here in Virginia. And so we’re here in a part of the American South, or the Mid-Atlantic, that has those historic and cultural and structural dynamics that have helped give rise to institutions like U of R.

EVANS: And once they’re here from out-of-state or abroad, “once they’re in their space, they’re also affected by these structural dynamics.”

Datta says he thinks that, to some extent, it’s a matter of self-segregation. But he’s not dismissing other factors in play either.

DATTA: So in that sense ... I think we as a campus, and probably as a nation — we are self-segregating, to some extent. We choose who we want to be with and who we want to spend time with. 

But at the same time, I can’t ignore those historical and institutional and cultural forces that have pushed different ethnic groups away. And in that sense, segregation can be an instrument of an authority pushing and wielding power. 

But here on campus, when I think about D-hall and those dynamics, I think that’s more of ... I mean, gosh, when I think about it, probably things born more out of our ignorance. And if on campus people don’t feel safe to go and branch out and speak with somebody else, then maybe you’ll stick to your own in-group.

EVANS: So here, we’ve tried to offer a brief overview of the thoughts and feelings from students and professors on campus as relates to the issue of segregation, particularly among students. All of these interviews, except for Lauren Stenson, who we’ll hear more from next time, were conducted before this past January, before racist attacks really rocked our campus and brought new discussions about race, class, and even segregation to our campus. 

On the next episode of Beneath the Surface, we’ll be talking to people from Greek Life. And we’ll be talking to people about their thoughts and feelings about these issues since the racist attacks in January. Please join us then.

I’m Conner Evans. This has been Beneath the Surface, a Collegian podcast.

[music plays]

Arrman Kyaw contributed to reporting. 

Contact opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at conner.evans@richmond.edu.

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