TTU race survey identifies positive atmosphere, room for improvement

Racial prejudice is an issue much of society would like to keep quiet about. But at Tennessee Technological University, a group of faculty, staff and students has worked to identify the racial and cultural issues on campus in order to address them.

The university's Commission on the Status of Blacks, a standing committee whose charge is to advise the president on matters of concern to blacks and other minorities, recently completed a Race and Ethnicity Survey of students, faculty and staff. The commission identified both comforting and disquieting results, and provided suggestions for improving the environment for minorities at Tennessee Tech.

An overwhelming majority of the people surveyed indicated their overall experience with other racial/ethnic groups had been good, and large majorities of people in all groups indicated their attitudes toward members of differing racial/ethnic groups improved during their time on campus, painting a positive overall picture of race relations at the university.

But when examined closely, that picture is not perfect, says Wayne Sadler, a personnel management analyst who is one of 50 African-American employees on the campus. He chaired the commission when it developed the survey and now serves as its vice chairperson.

"There are race relation problems at Tennessee Tech," Sadler says. "It became apparent to me that we don't really know each other. I'm not sure the majority population is aware of the victimization perceived by minorities on this campus. This survey helps point that out. It might be surprising to the majority that more than 40 percent of all survey respondents reported witnessing racist acts or attitudes against blacks and more than 30 percent witnessed acts against Asians. Those statistics would probably not be surprising to Tech's minority population."

While respondents in general indicated a relatively small percentage had ever been a victim of a racists act while at the university, almost half of the black respondents reported having been the subject of a racist act (insensitivity, name calling, threat or physical assault), and more than a third of them said it happened more than once. Of all respondents who had witnessed racist acts on campus, more than 41 percent said the acts were against blacks, and almost a third of them were against Asians. Less than one percent witnessed a physical assault, and three percent reported seeing an unfair practice of some type.

"Part of the problem," Sadler says, "is linked to the lack of opportunity to socialize with members of another race. As a matter of fact, respondents overwhelmingly said they would like to socialize with members of another race if they had an opportunity to do so."

More than 83 percent of whites, 89 percent of blacks and 92 percent of other racial/ethnic groups indicated they would like to socialize informally more often with members of other racial/ethnic groups. However, a majority of the respondents indicated lack of opportunity as the major inhibitor for that socialization.

Jerome Neapolitan, a sociology professor who compiled the statistical analysis for the report, says that race and ethnic relations at Tennessee Tech are "generally quite good" based on respondents' assessment of their overall experience with other racial groups on campus. More than 87 percent of blacks "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with a good overall experience.

The survey report addressed issues in eight categories: victimization, witnessing racist acts, socializing, friendships, interracial dating, racial attitudes and beliefs, affirmative action, and cultural diversity and the university curriculum.

"The survey points out that we do have racial problems on our campus, but we have good points, too," says Lelia Gibson, a senior agriscience major who currently serves as commission chairperson. She is white and one of two student members of the group. "We need to fix the problems, but we need to continue improving the good aspects of race relations on our campus, too.

"What I hope this survey will accomplish is to let the minority students here realize we know there are problems, and we are trying to do something to help. Maybe this report will help people on campus think about the prejudices they have and don't recognize. I also hope it will help show students in the majority what the problems are and to motivate them, as well as the minority students, to help fix them."

Along with the report, the commission provided some specific suggestions for improvement. Among them are offering a required or "highly recommended" interdisciplinary course on racial/cultural diversity, creating an interracial committee to provide and promote informal interaction among groups, establishing a policy concerning bias and bias incidents, and developing a mechanism for reporting prejudice-motivated incidents.

"Only good can come from this survey," says Angelo Volpe, president of the university. "Though the campus-wide racial atmosphere is generally quite positive, we have identified specific areas of concern and we have some strong recommendations for addressing them. The only way we can prove our commitment to diversity on this campus is to prove our commitment to improving where we can."

A total of 572 students, faculty, administrators and staff completed the survey, about 52 percent of those asked. Minorities make up about six percent of the student population at Tennessee Tech. Almost three percent of the students are black.