The bells atop Anderson Hall tolled as a sea of purple washed over the lawn. On that misty Tuesday afternoon, Kansas State University canceled classes for non-weather related reasons for the first time in more than 100 years to reaffirm its principles of community and define, clearly and publicly, the role of diversity and inclusion in its institution.
That day, Nov. 14, 2017, marked day one of a movement to prioritize diversity: KSUnite.
It has been over a year since white nationalist posters appeared overnight at K-State, bringing with them controversy over free speech and multiculturalism on campus.
This data story will look at the spike of racially charged events on campus and how they may have affected multicultural students using timelines and Manhattan campus enrollment numbers by demographic, as supplied by the vice president of student life, Pat Bosco.
These numbers, gathered by the Kansas Board of Regents for every in-state university as the 20th Day Census, include data compiled each fall semester.
It is important to note that enrollment at K-State across all campuses is declining, as is the trend across the nation. Total student enrollment on the Manhattan campus decreased close to nine percent between 2012 and 2018, which correlates with the decrease in white students on the campus. In that same period, however, enrollment of black students decreased close to 32 percent.
As always, correlation does not necessarily signify causation. Bryon Williams, assistant director of new student services, said there could be any number of variables affecting black student enrollment.
“From my experience, the campus climate has been both challenging and supportive over that time period,” Williams said in an email. “There have been racialized issues on campus, dealing with everything from retention of black faculty, vandalism and unfortunately even hoaxes. I believe that the effect of campus climate has been mixed.”
Other elements that might be impacting enrollment, Williams said, are related to changes in state-wide admissions practices as well as increases in tuition for out-of-state students specifically. Ayana Belk, sophomore in landscape architecture, said she agreed.
“The number one issue is the financial cost of attending K-State,” Belk said. “Attending college is more difficult for black students who tend to depend heavier on financial aid than white students.”
While enrollment declines aren’t necessarily a direct result of racially charged instances, the relationship present between them is significant and notable.
“I’m shocked to see it at K-State, but it’s something that I continue to see over and over again,” Darrell Reese, former president of the Black Student Union and senior in management, said previously. “It started back to the blackface incident, to the noose*, to the white nationalist posters—the list goes on and on. We’re getting tired of seeing the same thing pop up every single time.”
Belk said at a student senate meeting late in 2018 that she wanted to leave K-State after the fall of 2017 left a bad taste in her mouth, particularly after the administration did little to take a stand against the racism, perceived or otherwise, plaguing the campus.
“Once we get to campus, we’re met with a different culture than we’re used to, and it has an effect,” Belk said. “Being around people who don’t look like me is easy, but being met with disrespect and racially motivated acts of vandalism or hate speech is something that no student of any race, sexual orientation, gender or religion is prepared to deal with.”
Ultimately, she decided to stay, a choice she attributed to a handwritten letter from an administrator in the Office of Student Life.
Campus climate and enrollment
Provost and senior vice president Charles Taber, who began working at K-State in the fall of 2018, said while his short time at K-State might disqualify him from having a historically based opinion on the matter, he does believe the campus climate has played a role in the decrease of black student enrollment at K-State.
“I do know that campus climate does have a substantial impact on multicultural communities at many universities across the country, so I would be very surprised if that were not the case here as well,” Taber said. “I believe that our campus culture is very welcoming and often quite inclusive, but I also suspect that black students and others from multicultural groups do not always feel supported on our campus.”
Taber said he believes there are at least two ways black student enrollment is affected by “perceptions of campus climate.”
“First, potential applicants to a university are very much affected by their perceptions of the campus and the information they see in news reports and social media—if they believe a campus is not inclusive, they are not likely to apply or come,” Taber said. “Second, student success is very much affected by student experiences on our campus, so that students who do not feel welcomed or included are less likely to succeed and graduate.”
Belk said if she were to give a guess as to why black student enrollment has decreased in the way that it has, it would be due to the way people on- and off-campus perceive K-State.
“My guess is students have heard about the unfortunate events that have happened on our campus and decided not to attend here,” Belk said. “In order to fix our campus climate, we need to address our individual prejudices and assumptions.”
As for the future of enrollment of students across the board, Taber and Williams both said the Strategic Enrollment Plan on the horizon for the university aims to tackle a variety of enrollment barriers.
“We are absolutely committed to the goals of diversity and inclusion and believe that broad access and opportunity are pillars of our land grant mission,” Taber said.
Editor’s note: The noose mentioned in this article refers to pieces of a parachute cord found hanging in a tree on campus in May 2017. In November 2017, the Manhattan Mercury published an article “unraveling” the theory that it was placed in the tree with racist motivations.