Diversity on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus is an extremely touchy and controversial topic. The question of minority student enrollment at UMass Amherst is one of the focal points that school administration has been targeting to increase. According to Boston Globe writer Tracy Jan, the “cavalier” attitude of UMass Chancellor Robert Holub in increasing diversity on campus is one of the major reasons why his contract was not extended. During Chancellor Holub’s tenure, the number of African American students enrolled on campus has dropped 24 percent. Holub responded by stating that there has actually been an increase in minority students overall on campus, and a newly developed UMass website on diversity could shed some light on the controversy.

Last year, UMass Amherst launched a new website dedicated to diversity on campus. The website, entitled Diversity Matters, lists several resources for multicultural students on campus, including information on student groups and classes in ethnic studies and diversity. This website is part of UMass’s continuing efforts to diversify the campus and provide support to the multicultural students of the university.

Out of the 20,873 undergraduate students only 3,607 of those students are of color, 20 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment. According to a race/ethnicity enrollment fact sheet accessed through the Diversity Matters website, there has been a steady increase in the percentage of multicultural students admitted to the university.

In a “Diversity Matters” panel on April 14th in the Reading Room, UMass Associate Provost of Enrollment Management James Roche tried to add insight into the school’s diversity statistics. “We do fairly well (in diversity) overall. In fact we get a large representation, sort of an oversample, from the Asian population and kind of an under sample from the Native American group.”

With a record number of students applying to UMass Amherst every year, getting accepted is becoming harder and harder. The increase in applications may cause the university to stray from its’ minority ideals, according to Roche. “When you get 34,000 freshman applications that you have to process, GPA and test scores get more focus and attention than other things do.”

Roche also gave several other factors that would explain the lower than desired number of minority students on campus. One of the biggest reasons for low diversity numbers is the application process. “We get a larger percent of incomplete applications from the African American population than we get from the White group overall,” said Roche. “With the African American population, there was a larger percent of kids from this group that withdrew their application. Only one out of every three African American students we accept show up.”

Why are African American students not following through with the application process? Interim Director of the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success, Shelly Perdomo believes that it can be very difficult for a minority student to adjust to the UMass Amherst campus.

“Often times when students come to UMass and they find themselves being the only ones in the classroom, they start to self doubt, they start to question their abilities,” said Perdomo. “A lot of students come to UMass and there’s a culture shock. And often times, if it’s not culture shock, they come to UMass and realize this is a huge institution that is very difficult to navigate.”

Support systems for minority students upon arriving at UMass are paramount, which makes the recent decision to stuff all the minority students’ support systems into a tiny building towards the outskirts of campus even more puzzling.

This year, for the first time, all of the multicultural buildings on the UMass Amherst campus are integrated into one centralized building: the Center for Multicultural Advancement & Student Success (CMASS).

CMASS is located in Wilder Hall, behind Morrill II on the UMass Amherst campus. This tucked away location has hidden the minority support center from students, many of whom don’t even know the building exists. Within the walls of Wilder Hall are meeting rooms, offices, a computer lab, and posters and pamphlets plastered all over the walls.

And it’s all a little bit cramped.

Before this year, all of the offices and staff in this building used to be dispersed between multiple buildings. Prior to the establishing of CMASS, UMass was a host to several culture-specific buildings, including:

  • Bilingual Collegiate Program (BCP)
  • United Asian Learning Resource Center (ULARC)
  • Native American Student Support Services (NASSS)
  • The Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black and Other Minority Students (CCEBMS)

These buildings had individual cultural identities for people of the same race to come together for support and counseling.

Pre-CMASS one of the most important multicultural support systems on campus, and the organization that all the others grew out of, was The Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black and Other Minority Students (CCEBMS). The organization was helmed in 1968 by African American faculty and staff members between the Five Colleges. The organization supplied a plethora of services from academic advising, to confidential counseling, to a large list of scholarships that multicultural students could apply for.

There has been controversy surrounding CMASS, because it encapsulates what used to be in several buildings into one. UMass Alumni Ken Adamson, class of 1977, who has owed his successful college career to the CCBEMS program, was in shock to find out that upon his return the programs were gone. “I’m sad to see CCEBMS go away, I really do hope there is something worthy enough to take its place,” said Adamson.

UMass student Gesi Ebiware, who was a part of the CCEBMS program and other multicultural registered student organizations her freshman year in 2009, has lost interest in the University’s development of new minority based programs. “You don’t see me at meetings no more,  why? Because I don’t feel welcomed, I don’t feel comfortable.”

Despite the negative reaction of students and alumni surrounding the creation of CMASS, staff members of CMASS and University officials have expressed faith in the program.

“Our mission at CMASS is as follows: It is a student centered learning agency comprised of four integrated functional areas: academic support, cultural enrichment, student development, and institutional diversity. Using a student-centered approach that values collaboration, dialogue, and action, the program services ALANA and first generation students and colleagues in courageous, inclusive, and supportive learning experiences. We aim to create partnerships and collaborative possibilities, provide resources, and advocate for students of color and other underrepresented constituencies to make sure of their academic success and personal growth,” said Perdomo.

As the program is only in its first year, CMASS’s success is to be determined. It needs to find a way to establish itself as a presence on campus, and part of that is letting the students know it’s there. It’s jarring how many students have no idea CMASS even exists or, if they do, where it is located. As CMASS moves onward and diversity efforts of the University progress, there needs to be an ease of accessibility and knowledge about these supportive programs offered by the university.

Only time will tell if CMASS will help and guide as many students as CCEBMS and the other cultural buildings did in their time at UMASS. As CMASS finds its footing, hopefully it stumbles into success.