Although he is bringing up a valid issue that should be talked about, Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard has been employing tone-deaf rhetoric that only obfuscates the discussion about race and education.
In a convocation speech, referring to the racial makeup of the 15,000-student university in Bellingham, Shepard said, “If in decades ahead, we are as white as we are today, we will have failed as a university.” On the university’s website, he posed the question, “How do we make sure that in future years we are not as white as we are today?” Shepard, who is white, later explained, “I needed to provoke some attention. It’s really important to understand the issue facing all of American higher education and that is, our country is changing.”
Yes, by all means, when you do something unknowingly foolish, employ the “I was being knowingly provocative” defense. And Shepard certainly provoked attention.
The Washington Times, a conservative newspaper based in the nation’s capital, ran the story of his remarks under the headline, “University: Help, our campus is too white.” A conservative website reported that WWU sent out a questionnaire seeking advice for diversifying its campus, running the story under the headline: “White is not right: Campus admins ask for help weeding out white people.” Of course, that’s not what Shepard was talking about. But when it comes to discussions of race in this country, dignity and decorum are fleeting at best. Which points out the problem with Shepard’s indelicate remarks.
Western Washington’s student body is 55 percent female. Would he have suggested that the university will be a “failure” if it doesn’t boost its male population? What about Latino students, many of whom self-identify as white? Do they count? As The (Tacoma) News Tribune wrote editorially: “Defining the problem as a potential overabundance of white students shows appalling tone-deafness — not to mention tactical stupidity — in a state whose citizens are overwhelmingly white.” According to 2013 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, 82 percent of Washington residents are white; in Whatcom County, home of WWU, that number is 88 percent.
In the past, rhetoric such as Shepard’s has led to a backlash against affirmative action in many corners of the country. In 1998, Washington voters approved — with 58 percent of the vote — Initiative 200, which reads, “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” In other words, consideration of race is illegal at Washington’s state colleges.
If Shepard had focused on the need for students of all backgrounds to have access to a good high school education and the means to attend college, he would have advanced the discussion. If he had stressed the importance of Western Washington being viewed as an option by students from throughout the state, he would have advanced the discussion. Our educational system will be a success when all students have avenues for achieving their full potential.
Instead, Shepard engaged in demeaning rhetoric that causes meaningful discussion to be lost in the cacophony of outrage. He employed incendiary language that obscured whatever point he thought he was making. Because of that, his remarks come across as insulting rather than provocative.