What does it mean to be a Boilermaker?

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Boilermaker creed part of heightened diversity and academic integrity, inclusion expectations

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Beyond acceptance, beyond tolerance. A movement is afoot at Purdue University to achieve a new level of understanding, respect, connections with and learning from people of all cultures, backgrounds and beliefs. Student-led, it’s drawing support from the administration and encouragement from alumni.

By Kathy Mayer

When new and returning students arrive at Purdue University this fall, among their welcome bundle will be a new creed outlining what’s expected of those who take on the name Boilermaker.

Current students are now writing the document, outlining goals for an inclusive campus environment; a safe, respectful climate for all; and behavior expectations.

“The creed will state a belief in academic honesty and integrity, and that we will not tolerate hatred, bigotry, injustice, or discrimination,” says Danita Brown, Purdue dean of students through July 2013, who is working with the students. “If you cannot follow the creed, then this is not the place for you.”

Students also will be encouraged to participate in diversity activities, which last school year averaged at least one a day. Not finalized but in discussion are incentives to encourage student participation, she says.

“We have a mixture of programs to make sure all cultures are interfacing and interacting with others,” Brown says. “There is some focus on diversity during Boiler Gold Rush, and conversations will continue throughout the year.”

Checking some baggage at the door

At the same time that students are invited to pledge to the creed, they’ll be asked, metaphorically, to reevaluate what they brought to campus, says G. Christine Taylor, vice provost for diversity and chief diversity officer.

“It’s not the institution, but what people pack in their luggage when they come” that can prompt inappropriate behavior, she says. “We are a collection of people, and we bring things from home, our communities, families, and high school experiences.”

Most students grew up in homogeneous communities. “Suddenly, they are thrust into a place where everyone is not like them. They bring what they think they know about the other, which may not be valid at all,” Taylor says.

“A lot of work has been going on and will continue so students leave that baggage behind and understand the value of stepping outside their boxes. We have to acknowledge where students are developmentally, meet them there, and help them grow.”

Incidents sparked student requests

The creed idea came after the Purdue Anti-Racism Coalition, a group organized by individuals to address racial incidents, led an April campus march to present a “Resolution Against Racism at Purdue” to the administration.

It noted several 2012 incidents: a racist term written across the glass on a photo in Krannert of Cornell Bell (PhD EDU’72, HDR M’07), who led Purdue’s Business Opportunity Program for 37 years before retiring in 2006; targeting of Purdue Asian students on a Twitter account; and a racist note on a whiteboard in Krannert’s Roland G. Parrish Library of Management and Economics.

“The incidents are a small piece of the pie of what has been happening,” says Christopher Warren (PhD LA’12), a spring instructor and marcher. “From an institutional standpoint, there has to be honesty and clarity. We need an open and vocal dialogue at the institutional level.”

Among the resolution’s other requests were to: establish an anti-racism grievance committee, institute a required race/racism course for first-year students, and establish an Asian/Asian American Resource and Cultural Center and campus rape crisis center.

Marchers left a display in front of Hovde Hall. The next day, Purdue University News Service reported a placard from the display was found “defaced with a racial slur and a stick figure drawing of a body hanging from a tree.”

That is now being investigated as a possible bias crime, defined as “a criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation.”

Purdue President Mitch Daniels responded boldly: “Bigotry and hate are neither welcomed nor tolerated at Purdue University. We welcome those who speak freely, in the open, and with respect for each individual. Without free discourse, we cannot fulfill our mission.”

In the release, he also stated: “There is no place at Purdue for those who act from hatred. If you recognize yourself in this last sentence, you are not welcome at Purdue.”

That echoed earlier sentiments from Krannert dean P. Christopher Earley, who wrote after the Bell photo was vandalized: “We will not tolerate this type of immoral and unethical behavior.”

Campus, alumni comment

Roland Parrish (M’75, MBA’76), who contributed $2 million toward the Krannert library where one incident occurred, says he was not surprised when he heard about it.

“You’re a little bit in shock, but then you’re not,” he says. “Being a minority, sometimes you expect these things because you live it every day — a lot of it small, petty stuff. I sort of anticipated it, but I hoped it wouldn’t happen at Purdue, especially 35 years after I graduated.

“I have to applaud the students for organizing a peaceful demonstration like the group in the late 1960s. It shows they are developing character. And I hope positive things come from this.”

Shavonne Shorter, a doctoral candidate in the Brian Lamb School of Communication, says she chose Purdue five years ago because of its welcoming climate.

“However, due to some of the recent incidences on campus, I think that minority and majority students alike have had to confront the sad, disappointing, and unjust reality that for all the strides that are being made on a national and local level to continue to combat hatred based upon ethnic or racial bias, there are still people who will go to no end to spread this offensive and divisive rhetoric.”

She favors a zero-tolerance policy toward those who discriminate and a mandatory class on diversity, and she believes Purdue “has and is continuing to send a resounding message to these perpetrators that, simply put, we will not continue to allow these acts to happen in our house.”

Recalling her days on campus, Candice Nash (T’93, MS T’94) says, “I dare say it was a rude awakening. I was in class with people who had never seen a black person, and one even wanted to touch my hair. I have been called the ‘N word’ on campus. I thought I had gone back in time. Thankfully, because of the way my mother raised me, I wasn’t offended, but intrigued by their curiosity.”

Today, she wants to see Purdue move beyond tolerance. “It’s not even a positive word.”

As president of the Purdue Black Alumni Organization, she’s working with members to formulate a group response to recent activities. And she’s hopeful there will be movement in a positive direction. “We can’t just have people read a book. We’re past that. There has to be something that will be sustained and impactful, some level of accountability for people committing bias crimes. The issue is what can we do to help prevent this from happening, to increase our proactive measures.”

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Goal: Heightened interaction, inclusion

“Education, exposure, and accountability are key factors in eliminating racism and creating more of an inclusive environment at Purdue,” says Zenephia Evans, director of multicultural science programs and chair of the Black Caucus of Faculty and Staff.

“The focus of diversity and inclusion should be shouldered by every administrator, faculty, staff, student, and alum,” she says. “We are not an island in this growing and technologically driven world, but walking together with knowledge to be able to enrich and not impede the journey of one another.”

Taylor agrees, noting that innovation occurs when there are different perspectives at the table, and everyone can benefit from working together.

“Students are going on to work in an increasingly diverse and global economy,” Taylor says. “Employers want proficiency in content areas and the ability to work on teams and even in international offices. Students who don’t get with this issue that go to a company that values diversity will probably have a pretty limited life. Those are skills that have to be developed, and this is a premier place to do that.”

Her office and Purdue’s several cultural centers host and participate in numerous programs that can help students develop skills.

For the 2013–14 school year, “The Power of the Spoken Word” will be the theme for the Division of Diversity and Inclusion. “I challenge the truth of ‘sticks and stones, but words will never hurt me,’” Taylor says.

Her mantra is: “Be mindful of your language, avoid stereotyping, interrupt jokes and hurtful comments, and report bias incidents.”

She also advocates friendliness — “Smile, say ‘hello,’ and listen.”

“We have a major campaign to get more people involved, to expand the knowledge base, to become aware of their own biases,” Taylor says. “What we are talking about is culture change, and our key message has to be that different is not deficient, it is simply different. As an individual, I can bring added value if I know about differences and can successfully navigate them. We are very intentional about creating those opportunities.”

Setting a forward-looking tone

“I have never been more proud to be a Boilermaker than at times such as these because we do not let incidences like these destroy our campus community,” Shorter says. “Rather, we band together, stand tall and strong, and send a clear message that we will not accept discrimination, prejudice, or intolerance.”

“Grow as a person,” graduate student Kadari Taylor-Watson encouraged others in an April WBAA interview. “Take a leap of faith and talk to someone you’d never talked to before.”

“Students have to be ready,” Vice Provost Taylor says of Purdue’s responsibility to prepare them for the future. “We can’t come up short. It’s not, ‘Isn’t this nice, we have students of color on campus?’ Our question is, ‘How are we preparing students to truly be global leaders?’ They can’t make it unless they are aware of and competent in working in an increasingly diverse society. That’s the bottom line.”

Kathy Mayer is a Lafayette, Indiana-based freelance writer.