Miami University* is not the whitest place I've ever been. I grew up in the land of John Hughes, after all. But it is still really super homogeneous, and this summer has been an extra awkward reminder for me of just how freaking white it really is.
Like a lot of graduates of many different colleges and universities, I get the periodic piece of mail from the big red M. Sometimes it's a plea for money (to which my response is merry laughter and immediate recycling). Now and then it's their alumni magazine. And I'll admit this upfront: I read this in part because I want to see if anyone I know has gotten married, had a baby, done something wicked cool professionally, or died. It's like when my parents check the police blotter in the local picayune but with slightly better chances for good news. I also find some sick satisfaction in counting the number of people of color in the photos and wondering how hard the university worked to find them, continuing a morbid habit from when I was actually a student and my friends and I would do the same with admissions brochures and marketing materials. The most recent issue of the Miamian featured a cover story ostensibly about Freedom Summer and I really wish someone other than my dog had been there to witness the face I made when I saw it. (For those unfamiliar with Freedom Summer, I invite you to now take a short trip to watch this PBS documentary. The rest of us will wait here.)
I'll admit that, until my arrival on campus, I'd never even heard of Freedom Summer. Growing up in a predominantly white environment (which I've discussed before), my understanding of the Civil Rights Movement was a distant and antiseptic one. And if it weren't for the efforts of a single professor my freshman year, I likely wouldn't have heard about Freedom Summer at all.
In 1964, what was then known as Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio hosted some of the young people preparing to bus into southern states to register African Americans to vote. The original venue, Berea College near Lexington, Kentucky, was forced to back out due to alumni pressure. What most people remember when they think about Freedom Summer isn't groups of young people, African American and white both, learning civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance in the oppressive humidity of southern Ohio in June. They remember the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, three activists who were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan. They remember the response of the country when two white university students were killed because they were trying to register people to vote, and the awkward tension of not knowing precisely how to feel about the murder of their young black companion.
And now I have the displeasure of associating Freedom Summer with Miami's failure to respect the legacy of that group's hard work and confront the university's own troubled racial politics.
Oxford is a sort of rural town in southwestern Ohio, within spitting distance of the Indiana border and a quick drive to Kentucky. When you remove Miami University's student population of around 18,000, the town only has about 3,500 residents. Oxford is one of those quintessential college towns where the college is the town, founded and built on each other's heels. Western College for Women on the other hand was founded forty years later as a "daughter" school to Mount Holyoke and followed closely in Mary Lyon's innovative footsteps; it remained completely independent and exclusively female for over 100 years. Separated only by Patterson Avenue and a gulf of pedagogical theory, the schools didn't have a formal relationship until 1970, when they began to share resources. And in 1974, a full decade after Western College hosted Freedom Summer activists, Miami acquired the college and it became Western Campus: the hippie side of things where the interdisciplinary kids live and largely leave the rest of J. Crew U alone.
Miami is known for a variety of things: it's one of the best teaching colleges in the country (thanks in part to the legacy of William Holmes McGuffey), a great hockey team, no longer having a Native American mascot, Ben Roethlisberger, and being profoundly white**. It's the most expensive public university in the United States, which is a major part of why when they send me letters asking for money to finish their drastically overbudget new student center I can't help but laugh and immediately toss them. Including room and board, books, and food costs, the average in-state student can expect to spend around $24,500. Students from somewhere other than Ohio pay an additional $15,800 for out-of-state tuition, bringing them to over $40,000*** for a single year.
Just for the record, the average annual household income for African American families in this country is $33,460.
It should come as no surprise, then, that white students make up 81% of Miami's undergraduate population. (Oxford itself is nearly 88% white, including the student population.) African American students stand at about 4% of the total, far less than the statewide total of 12%. Still, 4% is more than Hispanic (3%), Asian (2%), Native American (<1%) and Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (<1%) groups individually, but less than international students who are nearly twice as common at 7%. That's just over 500 black undergrad students on Miami's campus at any given time, and another 300 in the rest of Oxford.
Of course, none of this is mentioned in the Miamian article. They interviewed John Swann, an African American alumus ('65 and MED '67) and member of the Miami basketball team who moved to Oxford from West Virginia in 1961. Swann's recollections of his time on campus are interesting, an insight into a time and a perspective that I do not and realistically will never have. But Swann admits openly that he and his classmates were completely unaware of what was going on over on the Western College campus in 1964. While I appreciate the article's apparent intention to remind people about a small but important piece of Oxford history, the entire thing falls smacks of a shoehorned celebration of an event that Miami University had nothing to do with in the first place. The tone fixates on how different things were in "the north" for Swann, compared to his home in West Virginia, but glosses over some of the otherness that he felt and fails to recognize that, even now, southwestern Ohio isn't always on the northern side the nebulous racial politics of the Mason-Dixon line. The story's connection to the Freedom Summer is tenuous at best and frankly ignores the issues facing people of color in higher education today, particularly at schools like Miami, while it bemoans without reflection the lack of support that Swann felt from the administration.
And why should they reflect on that?Perhaps because today African American students at Miami have a graduation rate of less than 65%. That means that, out of approximately 550 undergraduate students, nearly 250 of them will not graduate from the university. By contrast, white students have a graduation rate of over 80%, as do Asian and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students. Hispanic students graduate at a rate of over 75%, and Native American or Alaskan students reach nearly 80% as well.
Miami is clearly failing African American students in a profound and terrifying way.
I'm not even going to touch how standardized testing, the gold standard of college admissions, is deeply problematic and racially biased. I will not bore you with lengthy stories about my education professor who told us to never accept answers from students in African American Vernacular English because "they'll never get a real job if they speak in ebonics because it sounds uneducated," despite her own dialectic quirks as someone who spoke English as a second language. I'll only pause briefly to tell you that I had a single African American professor in my four years, and that there were only two African American students in my dorm my senior year. And I'll try not to be too gleefully ashamed about the Miami sorority that was suspended for two years after members and their dates destroyed property and attempted to steal alcohol at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. One charming young man was caught trying to urinate on an exhibit portraying a 19th century slave pen. But there isn't a race problem at Miami, of course.
After a long history of violence and oppression and fairly overt racism, Miami University established a working relationship with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. This is a university where students regularly dressed in redface for sporting events, relied heavily on negative stereotypes of Native peoples for homecoming festivities, where people called the student center the "Rez" for decades. In 1996, Miami's mascot officially became the Redhawks at the behest of tribal members, and the two groups have been working together for years for educational projects that benefit both. The Myaamia Center was founded to revive the language, culture, and traditions of the tribe, and the university hosts a slew of academic and cultural events about Native American history and rights. A professor once told me that while Miami was celebrating the first day of classes in 1824, what was left of the Miami tribe still in the midwest was being forcibly bullied onto boats on the Ohio River; today there are tribal members with generous and needed scholarships attending the same school that displaced their families.
This is not meant to be an invitation to the oppression olympics. Nor am I claiming that the university cannot make more progress when it comes to their relationship and work with the tribe. The fact that I used to have to deal with alumni who would scream at me for saying Redhawks instead of Redskins is testament enough that there are still a lot of problems to confront. But with a history of such intentional effort put towards one group to right wrongs, the school's failure across the board to address a huge population of potential and current students who are being set up to fail on their campus is jarring, particularly when contrasted with the self-congratulatory and aggrandizing Miamian article.
Freedom Summer did not take place on Miami's campus. The training happened at Western College and the real hard work was in Mississippi. And while the university continues to pat itself on the back for three pages of one man's recollections and their ownership of a monument, while brochures and websites feature the few people of color the university can find, African American students on that campus are still struggling, day by day and class by class, for advancement and opportunities that may never come. I wonder what benefits having one of the locations of Freedom Summer on their campus has brought them, if they're even aware it's there? I wonder if they are as invested in this mythology as the university is?
I wonder what successes could be reached if Miami were willing to give them half the attention that it gives a patch of dirt where a couple dozen people learned how to take a hit fifty years ago?
*THE ONE IN OHIO. We were a university when Florida still belonged to Spain. No I didn't "enjoy my winters on the beach," I lived in what is essentially Kentucky. I may have been asked this once or twice, can you tell I'm
**In case the whole J. Crew U thing didn't tip you off.
***Forbes estimates it at closer to $46,000.
Image via Miami University.
Image via NBC News.
Image via Miami University.
Image via the Journal News.
Image via Miami's Celebrating Freedom Exhibit.