By Joel Thurtell
“Being Black at UM” was the headline over my March 31, 1985 Detroit Free Press article about the life of black students at the University of Michigan.
Almost 30 years later, Being Black at the University of Michigan is the name of a group of black students demanding improvements in the way blacks are treated at UM.
My article, “Being Black at UM,” was one of the most important and difficult stories I’ve written. I was a reporter at the Free Press for 23 years. I retired on November 30, 2007. I started as a general assignment reporter in the Western Wayne/Washtenaw Bureau on November 12, 1984. I was barely past my 90-day probationary period, lucky for me, when the Free Press ran “Being Black at UM.”
I got no cooperation from UM officials and after editing and publishing the story, the Free Press backed away under pressure from UM officials.
Though they were angry with me and the story after it ran, UM administrators refused to talk to me while I was reporting it. Even after I submitted written questions to UM Provost Billy Frye and Vice President for Minority Affairs Niara Sudarkasa five days before the story ran, they refused interviews.
UM administrators, it seems, believed that if they didn’t talk to me, the Free Press would go away. If they deprived me of the “balance” so cherished by journalists, we would not in good conscience run a story. That was a mistake. My account of black-white relations at UM was based on student and faculty sources, and official university publications that previously dealt with race. Thus, it was possible to be balanced even without quotations from high officials. Free Press editors believed that just because the bigshots kept mum was no reason to kill an important story.
We ran the story as scheduled in the Sunday Comment section of the paper.
The backlash was instant. Regents called the publisher and top editors of the Free Press to complain. On April 8, the University Record published a one-sided hatchet job. That’s right, after complaining — falsely — that I hadn’t asked them for comment, UM published a story bashing me, and didn’t bother asking me for comment. The U plays by its own rules.
The headline in the Record said, “Frye rebuts ‘biased Free Press article.” The subhead claimed, “Charge that ‘bigotry is in fashion’ wrongs U-M.”
According to the Record, “University efforts to improve black student enrollment and retention have been dealt a severe blow by what Vice President B.E. Frye describes as an ‘inexcusably biased’ article that appeared in the March 31 Detroit Free Press.”
“Inexcusably biased”? UM refused to talk to me despite my multiple attempts and a written request for interviews. UM created the potential for bias by withholding comment. UM assumed the Free Press would never print a story without their input.
UM officials told editors I failed to ask them for comment. I was chewed out for that, but I had proof UM was lying. On March 25, seven days before “Being Black at UM” was published in the Free Press, I called UM and asked to interview officials for the story. By March 27, having received no response from UM, I went to the administration building in Ann Arbor and asked to interview Frye and Sudarkasa. That was five days before we ran my story. I watched Sudarkasa through her office door as she told her secretary that she would not talk to me. I was ready to leave, but the secretary told me to wait. She apparently foresaw that her bosses were setting a trap for me. If we ran the story without their comment, they could say that I failed to ask them for comment and make me look incompetent and malicious. How could I prove otherwise?
So the secretary set a snare for her bosses. Five days before my story was published, she handed me a sheet of paper and showed me a typewriter. ”Write a list of questions,” she said. I typed a list of questions. She said, “Take it back and type today’s date [it was March 27] and the names of Dr. Frye and Dr. Sudarkasa.” She made two photocopies. On one, she highlighted Frye’s name and dropped my list of questions in Frye’s in-basket. She highlighted Sudarkasa’s name on the other copy and dropped it in Sudarkasa’s in-basket. She handed me the original. Now, they could say I never contacted them, but that sheet of paper was proof that I sought their views in writing before publication.
A couple days after the story ran, I was called with my editors to the office of Kent Bernhard, the Free Press executive editor. I showed them the document that proved I’d submitted written questions five days before we published. That piece of paper saved me from being disciplined.
As I rose to leave his office, the executive editor remarked, “Next time, contact the university sooner. I’m tired of being treated like a nigger.”
On editors’ orders, I wrote one more story about race at UM — an unbalanced story based only on a belated interview with Frye and Sudarkasa.
Soon, I learned that the secretary who helped me was demoted. Eventually, she was laid off. I proposed to an editor that I write a story about it. “I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole,” the editor said.
In fall 1985, the Michigan NAACP gave the Free Press an unsolicited award for “Being Black at UM.” The civil rights organization praised us for daring to write frankly about the normally taboo subject of race relations.
The newspaper did not publicize the NAACP award.
With permission of the Free Press, here is my story, “Being Black at UM”:
Headline: BEING BLACK AT UM STUDENTS FIND ROLE ISOLATED, CAMPUS RACIST
Byline: JOEL THURTELL FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Memo: SEE ALSO SIDEBAR BY SALLY SMITH
Text: Fifteen years after a major strike by students seeking increased black enrollment at the University of Michigan, black student leaders say the Ann Arbor campus still is permeated by racism. The university failed to attain the 10 percent black enrollment it promised,and the students question whether the school is doing enough to retain its minority students. They say U-M has so few black faculty members that black students can’t find suitable role models. According to a recent U-M survey, black instructors are 2.8 percent of the faculty. Many black students share the feeling that bigotry is in fashion on the Ann Arbor campus.
AS EXAMPLES, black students cite racist taunts, stereotyped attitudes toward black culture, an incident last October in which a watermelon was smeared on a black artist’s mural in the Markley Hall dormitory, and library and bathroom scrawls with racist phrases. Fueling the students’ ire are what they see as unresponsive and secretive attitudes among university administrators. That issue was raised anew two weeks ago, when the university refused to release a report by Associate Vice-President Niara Sudarkasa recommending measures to increase minority enrollment. Student government leaders filed a freedom of information request for the report, but Roderick Daane, general counsel for U-M, said the report had a “high probability of being misunderstood.” Sudarkasa, appointed by U-M regents to study a decade-long decline in black enrollment at the university, released only the report’s summary. It called for increasing university money for minority recruitment and financial aid, and eliminating standardized tests as a criterion for admitting minority students whose high school grades and teacher recommendations are good.
INCREASING BLACK enrollment became a university-wide commitment in Ann Arbor 15 years ago, when Robben Fleming,then U-M president, agreed to demands of the Black Action Movement to increase black enrollment from three percent to 10 percent. The school never achieved that goal. Black enrollment peaked at 7.2 percent in 1976 and dropped each year until 1983, when it hit 4.9 percent. By the fall of 1984, enrollment increased to 5.1 percent. Sudarkasa argued in her summary that “if the university could provide the financial wherewithal to enroll a critical mass of black students, there would be less complaints of alienation and anomie.” Her report did not mention dollar figures. But the school’s chief academic officer, Provost and Academic Affairs Vice- President Billy Frye, has recommended that the university spend $1.4 million a year more on minority aid by 1987, in hopes of doubling enrollment of all minorities. Frye and Sudarkasa, however, refused to provide information on what the university currently spends on minority aid. They also declined interview requests, and did not answer written questions the Free Press submitted.
SUDARKASA’S REPORT aimed to satisfy concerns of black students, but raised others. Roderick Linzie, minority student researcher for the Michigan Student Assembly, has posed this question: How can the university think of bringing more blacks to Ann Arbor when the chances are good that blacks now enrolled will never finish their studies? “Seventy percent of the black students who entered the university in 1976 had not graduated by 1980, compared to 53 percent of white students,” U-M sociologist Walter Allen wrote three years ago in the university’s magazine, LSA. “Needless to say,” Allen wrote, “academic difficulties are often rooted in problems of a different bent.” Allen’s study indicated that 85 percent of the black students “reported encountering racial discrimination in some form or other while at the university.”
THE STUDY also reported that 46 percent of the black students he studied said “they did not feel themselves to be part of the university’s general campus life.” “Subtle or otherwise, racial discrimination on the U-M campus does seem to pose major difficulties for black students,” Allen wrote. Racial problems also occur in classrooms, where white professors and teaching assistants can be “extremely racist toward black males,” said Barbara Robinson, who was teaching dental hygiene in Ann Arbor during the student strike and now is a counselor in the university’s Minority Student Services Office. A black student in a remedial class reported being told by a white instructor, “You can’t learn anyway, so I’m not going to waste my time.” That, said Robinson, “is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Linzie believes that U-M’s failure to recruit more black students and black faculty members — and its failure to keep them when it does recruit them — are major causes of an image problem that continues to plague the university.
THAT IMAGE gained national notoriety in 1982, when Brown University published “The Black Student’s Guide to Colleges.” “Relations with white students at this large, co-educational and liberal arts institution are ‘the pits’ . . . ” the guide warned about U-M. Sudarkasa’s summary emphasized the role of economic factors — for example, high unemployment and declining purchasing power among Michigan’s black families — as chief causes of diminished black enrollment at U-M. “The ‘image’ factor is far less a deterrent than the economic factors . . . ” it said. But in a story last year in the University Record, a publication for university staff and faculty, Frye acknowledged that officials were perplexed by the university’s image problem. “What accounts for the inhospitable image of the university and of Ann Arbor in the eyes of minorities?” asked Frye.
LINZIE, a sociology graduate student, said black students could answer that question, but that they can’t get university administrators to listen. He said increasing black enrollment would be pointless unless the environment for blacks can be improved. If the university can make blacks feel more at home at U-M, increasing the number of blacks who earn degrees, its image will automatically improve, he said. Black students now are confronted with a different kind of white student than they were in 1970, Barbara Robinson says: “Bigotry is coming back.” “A lot of them (whites) are very open about it,” said Cheryl Jordan, a black senior political science major from Detroit. In West Quad, an undergraduate dormitory, she said, “there are swastika signs on doors.”
MARSHALL STEVENSON, a black graduate student from Ohio studying Latin American history, also is troubled by the racist graffiti, most of which were removed last week. Two weeks ago, Stevenson showed a reporter racist slogans on the U-M campus. For instance, on the tan formica top of an Undergraduate Library carrel, someone has penned “kill niggers!” Not all of the epithets are aimed at blacks, Stevenson noted as he punched an elevator button. Inside the elevator, in large capitals, someone had written, “JAPS SUCK.” Other messages are anti-Semitic. Leo Heatley, director of public safety and services at the school, said he was not aware of the racist graffiti in the library, but that librarians recently have reported that some books have come back with racist sayings in them. “The first thing I noticed when I arrived on campus was the graffiti,” said Roderick Dean, a Russian and East European studies major from Louisville, Ky. “I was shocked. . . . That is much worse than the graffiti I saw in the South,” said Dean, who is president of the Black Student Union and editor-in-chief of Black Perspectives, a student newspaper.
LAST OCTOBER, a Markley Hall dormitory mural commemorating black struggles was vandalized when someone smashed a watermelon on the painting, said Valerie Robinson, a minority peer counselor at the dorm. Among blacks, the reaction to such acts is fear, said Dean. “It’s done anonymously — it’s just like a phantom who comes in the middle of the night,” he said. Stevenson views U-M as “an elite institution” which, by its nature, erects “certain barriers one has to cross.” “Even though we have civil rights, as white people view us, still in the back of their minds, it’s, ‘he’s a nigger.’ ” Jordan recalled meeting her roommate, a white student from outstate Michigan. The roommate’s first question, Jordan recalled, was, “Are you a Baptist?” That stereotype — that blacks all are Baptists — irritated Jordan, as did another remark: “Hi, gee, I’ve never had a black roommate before.”
“I DON’T GET outraged at it,” said Carl Butler, president of the Black Law Student Alliance. “Everywhere I go as a black person, I feel like I’m struggling for respect and dignity. I think what we see going on here at the university is simply a subset of what’s going on in this society.” “Those people’s experiences with black people have been limited,” said Butler, who comes from Louisiana. “To the extent I can help them experience black people now, I’ll do it. It’s part of the extra burden I carry as a black person.” Jordan objected: “Some of us do mind educating them.” Said Marvin Woods, president of the Minority Dormitory Council: “This university is run and set up to perpetuate a certain kind of thought process. Maybe it isn’t so much a color thing as it is just an ideology, and this ideology may be more comfortable for the majority of white students. . . . ”
U-M LIFE is geared to the dominant white culture, and “they’re not giving any credence to alternative world views or cultures,” Allen said. For instance, “blacks are evaluated by the same standards used to evaluate whites,” Allen said. “Everybody knows that standardized tests . . . are culturally biased. A person who is in the mainstream culture will do better on those tests.” Classwork causes pressure for whites as well as blacks, but having to deal with racism and isolation makes the overall burden for black students heavier, said Byron Roberts, president of Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity, and a senior in economics and philosophy from Flint. The consequences of minor failures often appear far worse to blacks than to whites, said Walter Downs Jr., an electrical engineering student from Southfield. “A white person, when they mess up, they don’t look at it totally, they look at it like, ‘I’m partying now, but in the long run it will work out.’ Whereas, a black person, if they start messing up, (thinks), ‘I’m black, I must not have what it takes to get through.’ ”
BLACK STUDENTS have to take some of the responsibility, said Barbara Robinson. The university provides counselors for minority students, but, she asked, “Do they seek help?” In many cases, the answer is no, several black leaders said. “To some,” said Stevenson, “admitting a problem is admitting a failure. I came here with the perception in my first year as a graduate student that, ‘Wow, if I’m here, I’m going to have t produce this type of scholarship, and if I don’t, I’m a failure.’ Not every black student feels overly pressured. “My feelings toward the university are kind of mixed — good and bad,” said Dean. “I feel quite loyal and grateful to the university,” he said. “It has demonstrated to me that it is not the big, non-caring monster — I feel warm and welcome. There tends to be a genuine effort by the university to assist black students.” But, said Dean, “Only academically and intellectually do I feel good about the university.” Socially, in terms of his relations with other students, both white and black, Dean said his experience has been bad. “Being from the South, my experience has been that blacks always speak to other blacks — there’s a sense of community, a sense of warmth, a sense of family.” “Here,” Dean said, “blacks look away from you. “I doubt very seriously that I could endure the University of Michigan for my post-graduate education.”
Illustration: PHOTO CATHY GENDRON; DAVID C. TURNLEY
Edition: METRO FINAL
Keywords: EDUCATION; U-M; RACIAL; BLACK; MINORITY; STUDENT