Sociologists’ report finds bias concerns on campus

Posted on Oct 12 2018 - 5:50am by Briana Florez

This story has been updated.

Four sociology professors published a report titled “Microaggressions at the University of Mississippi” earlier this week.

This report stems from the UM Race Diary Project, which examined almost 1,400 diary entries written by students during the 2014-2015 academic year about their observations of racism, misogyny, homophobia and other discrimthinatory behaviors on- and off-campus.

According to associate professor of sociology and African-American studies Kirk Johnson, it was his wife, associate professor of sociology and anthropology Willa Johnson’s, idea to conduct the study. She felt the best way to go about the study would be to go to students who encounter discrimination issues everyday.

Willa Johnson said the worst thing people could think is, through this study, she and the other professors wanted to destroy the place they’ve worked in for years.

“It’s not about that. It’s about building up not tearing down,” Willa said. “The majority of the voices in the study were not African-American students. They were mostly white students. This is not what a small minority of students are saying. This is what the majority of students on this campus say.”

Click here to read more about the UM Race Diary Project report.

A public forum regarding Ed Meek’s controversial Facebook post was held a few weeks ago, and Willa said she saw many African-American students speak up there. She said this study can offer further explanation the feelings expressed at that listening session.

“This is how white students feel, Latino students, international students,” Willa said. “Why should we pay attention to this? Students are our constituency. If we don’t listen to them, what are we here for?”

The university’s leadership team released a statement on Tuesday night in response to the results found in the study.

“The incidents involving bias based on gender, race, and sexual orientation as documented in this report range from insensitive to intolerant to offensive,” the statement said. “Simply, they do not represent the climate we promote for our campus community. We are disturbed by the prospect that these incidents occurred here, and the findings of this report make our leadership team even more determined and committed to foster a more inclusive campus environment.”

In addition, the statement said students have many resources like the Office of Conflict and Resolution and Student Conduct and the Center for Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Engagement. It said the university’s special history involving race shines a light on this university more than others, which calls for strong leadership on the issues of race and inclusivity.

Click here to read Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter’s guest column in response to the report.

Associate professor of sociology John Green, one of the faculty researchers on the study, said he feels there has been some improvement of inclusivity on campus from when this study was conducted four years ago.

“I think the more that we are having that type of interaction that’s focused on diversity, that’s focused on inclusion, engagement, people who come from different places, different positions than yourself, those are all very positive, and that’s important,” Green said.

Green said microaggressions occur on many college campuses and are part of the social experience, but this university has a unique history, unique symbols and conflict over those symbols. He said all of these factors play a role in the microaggressions students experience on this campus specifically.

The report found that 28 percent of microaggressions involving alcohol occurred at Greek houses. Off campus, 25 percent of microaggressions involving alcohol occurred at bars.

Green said teaching those in the Greek system to be mindful of microaggressions, establishing more interactions between historically white and historically black organizations and cross-training between organizations would make a difference.

“There’s an avenue to make that happen. I know within the Greek system there’s a lot of emphasis on community service. Well, what if this became a part of this community service?,” Green said.

He said he hopes after reading the report people come away with a sense of purpose to create a better environment, and said to be better people, we have to be reflective.

“If we assume these things don’t happen, things certainly won’t get better. Things could get worse,” Green said. “If instead we say, ‘We are treating each other, sometimes, in bad ways. Let’s do something about it,’ that’s what I want people to take away from this.”

The university has a Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) that provides support to students, faculty and staff who are targets of bias, promotes educationally motivated outcomes to allow the Ole Miss community to learn about discriminatory behavior, and it monitors bias data to observe campus climate. This is a resource for any student who experiences microaggressions on campus.

Provost Noel Wilkin said despite the university’s “excellent programs, faculty, and students,” incivility still exists on campus and that the university is embracing its educational responsibility to address that incivility. He said Ole Miss is a microcosm of the entire country.

“We live in polarized times in which people are alienating others, choosing sides, and being uncivil to each other,” Wilkin said. “We need to embrace the fullness of the educational mission, which includes helping people in our community understand how and why this is a better society when we accept and appreciate our individual differences.”