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Cultural Centers on Predominantly White Campuses: Campus, Cultural and Social Comfort Equals Retention

BY EDWARD PITTMAN

The development of cultural centers on predominantly white campuses is a growing phenomenon. Many students of color often can be heard saying, "We need a safe space, a refuge, a place where we can go and just be ourselves without feeling the pressures and constraints of an ever-present white world."

As the higher education community prepares for the year 2000 and beyond, many still question why many Black, Asian, Latino, and American Indian students challenge institutions to provide cultural centers on campus.

Throughout the college community, cultural-specific, multicultural or intercultural centers can be found on many campuses. In 1992 the higher education community was reminded of the demand for cultural centers when the media focused on the efforts of Black students at the University of North Carolina to obtain funding and an acceptable campus location for a free-standing Black cultural center. Affirmations of cultural identity and a vocal discontent with the dominant campus climate were echoed by many of the student leaders and their supporters. In essence, students were challenging the institution to commit resources to a spoken mission of diversity.

Cultural Mirrors Absent

Many of the diversity challenges being laid at the doors of college presidents and deans of student affairs are not new. The post-civil rights period of the late 1960s led many universities and colleges to recruit increasing numbers of Black and Latino students.

Along with the sudden increases in enrollments, however, students began to challenge prevailing institutional ethos rooted in a Eurocentric curriculum, irrelevant social activities, and a campus life that was often hostile to the presence of students of color. Such levels of discomfort coupled with an absence of cultural mirrors through which to see themselves, led many students to demand cultural space on campuses which neither validated their experience, nor their presence, within the institution.

Divisive Attacks

While it is true that many institutions are now committing resources toward cultural centers and other support services for students of color, angry and divisive attacks on the cultural center concept are too often offered up by many in academia.

Charges of separatism and reverse discrimination are hurled at students of color who, on most campuses, are numerically unable to pose the kind of "threat" that some critics seem to believe is imminent. The academic and residential life of these students requires them to negotiate and survive in white or "integrated" settings most of the time. The time spent in a cultural center, by comparison, is hardly significant enough to warrant such charges. Contrary to prevailing perceptions, some research has shown that students of color tend to socialize outside of their racial and ethnic groups more than white students.

By necessity, students of color must be multidimensional in order to survive academically and socially, and the cultural center often compliments this developmental process.

Beyond the doubts and negative characterizations coming from many critics, the development of cultural centers should continue. Not only are they of critical importance to communities of color, but they are also essential to the creation of healthy academic environments for the following reasons:

There is a strong relationship between levels of campus comfort and retaining students of color;

Cultural-specific, multicultural and intercultural centers offer opportunities for scholarship, research, and faculty enrichment in areas of race, culture and ethnicity across all disciplines; and

Cultural centers represent a major way to improve campus race relations by generating a wealth of lectures, dialogues, and exhibits that are useful in educating the campus community.

Students will continue to hold institutions accountable for campus environments that are unfriendly and culturally incongruent with their experiences and needs. Our ability to meet these challenges need not be judged only by the number of centers we create, but by how open we are to helping students to meet their needs. And, as evidenced on many campuses, cultural centers can be key in this process.

Black Issues in Higher Education
Volume 11, number 16, page 104
October 6, 1994