Once again, Sonoma State University is back in session. And once again, administrators, faculty and students are calling for diversity, which is needed now more than ever before, though I have not seen or heard a coherent argument that explains what it would mean and why it’s important.
SSU has occasionally insisted on the need for diversity ever since 1981 when I was first hired to teach English. I heard the cry until 2012 when I retired from the Communication Studies Department, which was overwhelmingly white and female. An African American or an Asian face stood out in a crowded classroom.
Oddly enough, for much of the time that I taught at SSU, I was told that the university didn’t have to have diversity. Why? Since Sonoma County was largely white, or so the argument ran, the university had no moral responsibility to accept non-whites.
Still, in recent years, SSU has tried to recruit students of color, though that has been challenging to do when the campus looks and feels white to “non-white” parents and to their sons and daughters who visit. Why go to a largely lily-white campus they would ask?
The ethnic picture hasn’t changed radically although the university has presented itself as a diverse campus in its catalogue of classes and on its website. Perhaps the images of Asians and Latinos were meant to lure Asians and Latinos to SSU.
Diversity, whatever that might mean, will be even more challenging to achieve now than ever before, although SSU has now received the federal designation as an “Hispanic-serving institution.” There is competition for the best Latino and Latina students, some of them drawn to the UC system with scholarships and the prestige that UC Berkeley and UC Davis offer. Moreover, these days some Mexican-born students find themselves under attack and under pressure with threats to deport them in an era of heightened hostility to those who don’t have the proper papers.
In many ways, the “Hispanic-serving institution” designation feels like too little too late, although the uncertain future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy gives new urgency to SSU’s new designation. Under President Barack Obama, nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants were shielded from deportation. What now? We’ll have to see.
That SSU hasn’t had the Hispanic designation previously is the fault of the institution itself and those responsible for its policies and programs, including students, faculty, staff and administrators.
Part of the problem, as I see it, is that very few individuals at Sonoma State University take responsibility for much of anything. No one apologizes for something that hasn’t worked, and no one says, “I’m sorry.” I saw that pattern again and again in the 30 years I worked on campus.
From its inception, SSU has never really had a clear sense of identity or purpose. Once again, with a new president, it’s searching for an identity. Changes in the image aren’t sufficient. Reshuffling the deck won’t do it, either. A new semester gives the campus the opportunity to live up to its dreams for everyone, no matter their identity or skin color.
Jonah Raskin was chairman of the communication studies department at Sonoma State for 16 years. He lives in Santa Rosa.