THE BLOG

When it Comes to Diversity, Who Counts?

03/26/2014 04:13 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2014

When talking diversity at colleges and universities, the numbers count. Still, when it comes to mixed-race students, too often they do not count at all. This is a missed opportunity. University leaders rely upon statistics for a measure of where students of color stand on campus. Data on those who self-identify as Black, Latino and Native American are said to reflect how well diversity goals are being met. What about those who check more than one box? Their numbers and their contributions to campus diversity are largely overlooked.

On my campus, the University of Michigan, numbers matter. This past fall, student activists set off a debate. Their movement began with a Twitter speak-out known by its hashtag #BBUM, Being Black at the University of Michigan. The declining number of Black students has been much discussed, and with good reason. Black students were 7.8 percent of the student body in 2004. Ten years later, their number has dropped to 4.8 percent. As we respond to this challenge, administrators, faculty, staff and students all recognize that the numbers reflect a diminishment in campus diversity. And as student testimony makes plain, there is a correlation between dropping enrollments and the increasing marginalization of Black students.

At Michigan, we also count mixed-race students. Since 2010, students have had the opportunity to check more than one box when reporting their race. The numbers have remained steady. 3.3 percent of the university's 37,000 students report that they are mixed-race. This new demographic parallels what we know from the United States census. There, in the year 2000, respondents were given the option of checking more than one box for the first time. By 2010, over 9 million people self-identified as more than one race, nearly three percent of the population. By these numbers mixed-race people have become visible.

These new numbers open up a 21st-century window on diversity. The 3.3 percent at Michigan turns out significant. Mixed-race students rank just behind Black and Latino students, at 4.8 percent and 5.0 percent respectively. They are more numerous than are Native American and Hawaiian students, who make up .2 percent and .1 percent of the student body. A closer look reveals a correlation between the drop-off in Black enrollment and the emergence of the mixed-race category. In 2010, when students were given the option of self-identifying as more than one race, Black enrollment dropped from 6.1 to 4.8 percent, while the number of mixed-race students went from 0 to 3.4 percent. Is it possible that some students who would have previously self-identified as Black chose the "more than one race?" The census data suggests yes. In 2010, over 30 percent of mixed-race census respondents indicated that they were in part Black. The shift to checking more than one box has been accompanied by a lowering of the number of people who once self-reported as only Black.

Still, counting is not enough. We must also listen. And when we do, mixed-race students reveal another chapter in the story of race in the United States. They speak of lives spent moving between cultures. There are tales of trying to synthesize a complex family history. Students tell of confronting a world perplexed by their racially ambiguous appearance. And they have developed poignant answers to the "What exactly are you?" question. Mixed-race students navigate a world that is often still organized around boxes of racial certitude. On campus they are members of clubs, living communities and classrooms where they experience the joy, pain, wonderment and confusion of racial identity. Their perspectives are unique. Everyone's ideas about race change when we hear from those who reject being contained by one box on a form and insist that identity cannot be reduced to either/or.

Still, the numbers do not lie. Vigilance is required in the quest for a campus that reflects the diversity of the nation and of the world. In no instance do the numbers of Black, Latino, Native American or Hawaiian students at the University of Michigan approach their percentages in the population overall. Notably, only mixed-race students outpace their percentage in the general population. These numbers and the stories behind them demand more nuanced thinking about race on campus.

Mixed-race students have signaled their presence. Still, numbers alone cannot convey the nuances of campus climate. Nor can percentages transform a university's institutional culture. Beyond the data, the new mixed-race "3 percent" has lessons to teach about diversity. It is time to listen.