Lehigh University welcomed students back to a new semester last week, but the school remains under a cloud left by a series of on-campus racial incidents, now the focus of an ongoing U.S. Department of Education investigation.
The tension came to a head in November when a multicultural dorm known as the UMOJA House, or U-House, was egged and graffitied with the n-word.
Yet even before the U-House incident, students were frustrated with how racially motivated episodes are typically handled at Lehigh and with the lack of awareness about race among students. They formed an activist group known as “From Beneath the Rug,” or FBR, to fight for marginalized and minority students.
FBR members and others in the Lehigh community say they sensed racial tension almost as soon as they stepped onto the campus. “You know when you have that last bit of dirt? Lehigh just sweeps it under the rug,” said Scott Grant, a student and member of FBR.
The Bethlehem, Penn., private university strongly condemned the U-House incident, but on Jan. 14, a Lehigh official said campus police had "insufficient evidence” to warrant criminal charges, according to local news reports.
“OCR [Office for Civil Rights] will investigate the complaint allegation that Lehigh University permitted a racially hostile environment to exist on its campus by failing to provide appropriate responses to incidents of harassment based on race and color, of which the university had notice," said DOE spokesman Jim Bradshaw in a statement to The Huffington Post. The investigation was officially announced in early January.
Lehigh also faces a complaint that it violated the federal Clery Act by not disclosing all bias incidents on campus, which the DOE is still reviewing.
According to Lehigh spokesperson Jordan Reese, the university will fully cooperate with the OCR and work with the department “to achieve our goal of making Lehigh a more diverse and inclusive university.”
The institution's response to the vandalism at U-House, which houses 28 students and was originally established to enhance the multicultural atmosphere on campus, was unclear, according to Director of Africana Studies James Peterson, who said one of Lehigh’s challenges is “not being able to see blind spots when it comes to issues of social justice.”
“The institution has to understand that being inclusive or being concerned about being marginalized -- it’s not about talking about it, not about lip service,” Peterson said. “It’s about programs, resources, tangible institutional change.”
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Patrick Farrell told The Huffington Post that administrators have met with FBR members this school year to address their grievances.
“I think the challenge is around getting the campus engaged,” Farrell said. “[FBR members] have done a good job at elevating these kinds of issues, not only for those who knew, but those who did not.”
But associate professor of Spanish Edurne Portela said some faculty members have tried to engage in an open conversation about race on campus with the president and provost -- even before FBR was formed -- and had little success.
“They are not interested in us,” Portela said. “They prefer to work with people who will reinforce their points of view.”
Farrell said he and Lehigh President Alice Gast, along with FBR, came up with a list of action items, and they came away with concrete ideas. The list includes the creation of a permanent student group that would pay close attention to campus climate, to be in place by this spring; training in cultural competency for senior leadership, taught by an outside agency; and making diversity and inclusion the central focus at Lehigh’s upcoming meeting with the Board of Trustees in February.
FBR member junior Ralph Jean-Noel, however, said many of the university's current and past measures are “Band-Aids on a wound."
In September, following an off-campus fight that led to the arrest of a black student, FBR officially formed and began its mission by distributing black-and-white fliers on campus. One flier juxtaposed the arrested student's face with President Barack Obama’s, and underneath both images it read: “Which one’s the N***ER?”. Another was reminiscent of Jim Crow signs, reading “White Words Only.”
The fliers were taken down soon after they were put up, and re-posted in another location by Lehigh staff, according to Reese. The school newspaper, The Brown and White, reported that those who saw the fliers were “shocked, offended and bewildered.”
At another FBR event that followed, more than 30 students met in the University Center’s multicultural room dressed in business attire. They affixed pieces of tape to their mouths, and on each piece they were instructed to write the word that best expressed how they felt as Lehigh students -- gay, poor, n***er. They staged a sit-in at Gast's house before marching around campus. Members didn’t publicize the silent protest; they said they wanted it to “speak for itself.”
For Lehigh, protests of this nature are rare and upsetting to some students. Soon after the demonstration, Lehigh senior Harrison J. Clark, wrote a letter to the editor in the school newspaper. Clark, identifying himself as white and from an affluent suburban community, agreed he had witnessed examples of prejudice on campus and sympathized with the essence of FBR’s message, but he called its actions “irresponsible at best.”
“Do not seek to make yourselves victims. Besides the fact that the reaction you will receive, in life and here at Lehigh, will be wholly negative, you are most certainly the farthest thing from victims,” Clark wrote.
Brenda Martinez, a student who has become the face of FBR, was invited to deliver the keynote address -- long before FBR was created -- at the university's 135th Founder’s Day in October.
"Are you aware of the prejudice that many students face on campus?” Martinez asked the crowd of students, faculty and alumni. “Lehigh is scared of chalk. Lehigh is scared of mysterious fliers. Lehigh is scared of a silent protest and march. But what Lehigh is really scared of is dialogue. Lehigh’s record of discriminatory incidents are forgotten as time passes by.”
Martinez criticized the student body’s reaction to FBR’s tactics, the university’s record on racially motivated events over the years, the school newspaper, and the “Lehigh culture and the issues that are often swept underneath the rug.”
Many students stood up in solidarity at the end of the speech, after which Martinez abruptly left the ceremony. Within an hour, she said she received dozens of emails, some supportive and others bashing her.
Religion professor Michael Raposa, who has worked at the university for almost 30 years and is critical of the institutional response to racial incidents, was in the audience that day and told The Huffington Post he wrote Martinez an email. “I told her that it took enormous courage and what she said was very important.”
According to the university, Hispanics make up 8 percent of the school’s undergraduate population of almost 5,000, while black students make up 3 percent.
Farrell told The Huffington Post that the student body “can always be more diverse.” He said over the past five years, the percentage of student minorities has doubled, and Lehigh is creating partnerships with institutions like the Milton Hershey School, which mainly serves students who come from low-income families.
One other key area, Farrell said, is faculty. “Faculty is here for a long time, so we’d like to see a more diverse faculty, and among them, a broader array of perspectives,” he said. “It is a critical aspect of changing the culture.”
Peterson said one of the reasons he accepted his job was that his role went “a step beyond tokenism.” He wasn’t the first African-American in his department and in the job, he felt he could hire faculty and change the culture on campus.
Meanwhile, Gast announced on Jan. 3 she will leave at the end of July of this year to head the Imperial College London.
Editor's note: The author of this article, Liz Martinez, is a Lehigh alumna. She is not related to Brenda Martinez, who is quoted in this story.