Editor’s note: The term BIPOC is used repeated in quotes in this story. The acronym stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color. Outside of quotes, people, students, etc. of color is used to mean the same thing in accordance with AP Stylebook.
“I am fearful,” “I have no power,” “I had to prove myself and still do,” “I feel oppressed here,” “I got baptized in racism when I came to BYU.”
This how members of BYU’s Black Student Union described their experiences at BYU to the BYU Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging, which released a comprehensive report on race and belonging at BYU along with 26 recommendations for the university on Feb. 26.
The committee was created last June following a nationwide demand for racial equality and social justice sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and, closer to Provo, Bernando Palacios-Carbajal.
While conducting the report, the committee reviewed more than 500 online submissions of experiences and perspectives and conducted multiple meetings with students, alumni, faculty, staff and administrators to better understand the experiences of people of color on campus and how the university can create a more safe and welcoming environment for people of color.
The report describes BYU as an isolating place for students of color and, at worst, a sometimes hostile one. Specific incidents described by students in the report include white students dressing up as “savages” for Halloween in Helaman Halls, a faculty member chastising a Latino student for speaking Spanish before class and an incident where a student used a racial slur describing Black people multiple times in response to a professor’s question.
“BYU’s BIPOC students shared that their daily lives at BYU are too often marred by marginalizing comments, otherizing questions and exhausting racial slights. These have come from roommates, classmates, church congregations and faculty members,” the report says.
BYU Counseling and Psychological Services psychologist Louise Wheeler, who has worked extensively with students of color, told the committee that many students of color expressed not knowing where to go on campus for support. “I hear this from students of color multiple times a week.”
She said many students of color feel a lot of stress regarding the rise of alt-right movements and groups like DezNat within the university student body. This includes worries about physical safety and things that might be said or done in classrooms, church or other settings.
“I have heard so much more about (these concerns) this year than in the past. This has led many of the students I have worked with to tell friends and siblings to not attend BYU,” Wheeler said in the report.
“BIPOC students express pain and sadness because they came to BYU with hopes of having an intellectually invigorating and faith-promoting experience but instead found their testimonies weakened,” the report states, adding that many students committee requested the development of classes that would address race in the Church.
The incidents students described stemmed from both ignorance and hostility.
Academically, students of color may also suffer. The report found that “few, if any, prestigious scholarships are awarded to incoming BIPOC students” and that BYU’s admissions policies “negatively impacts the number of BIPOC students applying to (and therefore admitted to) BYU.”
The racial diversity among the student body — which is 81% white, 6% Latino, 4% mixed-race, 3% Asian and Pacific Islander, 1% Black and less than 1% Native American — greatly contributes to feelings of isolation among students of color, according to the report.
The report concluded that racial minorities are highly underrepresented in the student body and that the trend is worsening.
“We recognize that the consideration of race and ethnicity in college recruitment and admissions is an area of law and policy that is challenging and potentially divisive,” the report states. “As we have sought to understand the parameters and rationale for BYU’s related policies, we found these to be opaque.”
The university also struggles to retain students of color once they are admitted. The overall six-year graduation rate for nearly all students of color identifying as a single race at BYU is significantly lower than multiracial and white students, according to the report.
The report found that faculty of color also experience racism both on a structural and individual level at BYU. Faculty of color on the continuing faculty status track make up 6.4% of faculty. This is in comparison to a national average of 24% as of 2018. The committee determined the university does not follow best practices to attract faculty of color.
Likewise, faculty of color experience cultural taxation (the disproportionate burden placed on minority faculty to mentor and care for students and enhance diversity efforts within the university), racism in student evaluations and fewer opportunities for leadership.
In fact, the report found that among the university’s various vice presidents and directors, there is only one administrator of color serving in a leadership position.
The report states that although entities like the Office of Inclusion and Student Success or individual colleges and departments may address cross-cultural competency, BYU has no formal training mechanisms on addressing race, racism, diversity and inclusion at the university level.
“There appears to be no cohesive ‘ownership’ or accountability for promoting an enriched environment or the values of racial equity and belonging at BYU,” the report says.
The committee concluded that this shortcoming perpetuates a culture in which students of color feel unsafe, overall campus unity suffers, and students and employees of color do “extra, frequently unpaid and invisible labor” to supplement cross-cultural competency education.
Recommendations for change
The committee’s report included 26 recommendations broken into three categories: institutional and organizational reforms, student belonging and equity reforms, and faculty reforms.
The institutional recommendations include the creation of a central Office of Diversity and Belonging and a new position for a vice president of diversity and belonging who would oversee the office; extensive diversity and inclusion training for students, faculty and employees; and curricular changes to general education, religion and elective courses that educate students on race, unity and diversity.
Student belonging and equity reforms include:
- Establishing a vice president or associate vice president position and committee to lead initiatives to attract, retain and support students of color
- Inviting the Office of the General Counsel to evaluate the legal parameters of a race-conscious admissions model
- Creating a process allowing students to report instances of racial discrimination on campus
- Developing a strategic plan to increase graduation rates for students of color
- Performing an independent validation study on all current admissions policies to evaluate whether they have a disparate impact on BIPOC applicants
- Placing a greater emphasis on selecting scholarship recipients based on a holistic review of the entire applicant file with criteria to include commitment to excellence, leadership potential, socioeconomic profile and adverse life circumstances
- Creating Enriched Environment Scholarships honoring early Church members of color, such as Jane Manning James and Elijah Abel, and socioeconomic disadvantage scholarships
- Taking steps to ensure that Honor Code and Dress and Grooming Standards are applied with cultural competence and sensitivity.
Faculty recommendations include providing current faculty of color with opportunities to serve in senior university leadership positions, designing a model to identify qualified people of color for faculty positions, programs that support students of color interested in pursuing careers in academia and designing a plan to “alleviate the ‘cultural taxation’ burdens carried by BIPOC faculty at BYU.”
The committee also outlined a series of options for how BYU could engage historical issues of racism and BYU building names and “effectuate historic and transformative change:”
- Create a memorial on campus to honor and celebrate early Church members of color, such as Jane Manning James and Elijah Abel
- Create a scholarship program for students of color honoring and named for early Church members of color
- Create an endowed professorship for faculty of color, with the name of the professorship honoring an early Church member of color
- Develop a land-acknowledgment statement that recognizes that BYU is situated on the traditional homelands of the Ute, Paiute and Shoshone peoples
- Consider renaming all named buildings on campus to functional names, such as the Life Sciences Building
- Consider including a contextualizing memorial in each building that is named after a person in order to provide a fuller and more complete background for the individual, and such context should include an openness regarding their involvement with slavery or racism, where applicable.
Looking toward the future
BYU President Kevin J Worthen applauded the committee’s report in a press release, saying the committee “provided an example of how these important conversations can transform both institutions and individuals.”
“The university will be a better place going forward because of their efforts,” Worthen said.
The report stresses that while implementing the committee’s recommendations will improve the experiences of people of color in the campus community, it will also prepare all students “to identify and root out racism wherever it is found as they go forth from BYU to serve.”
The press release also stated that some of the recommendations, such as changes to curriculum and establishing college-wide statements on race and belonging, are already in process.
The committee did not suggest a deadline for the university to review and implement its recommendations but called on the BYU community to “work expeditiously and without delay.”
“While recent events were the catalyst for the current effort, as a committee, we have understood our charge as beginning an effort that must be sustained on an individual as well as institutional level — as the responsibility of each member of the BYU community — if we are to create lasting change,” the committee said.