Segregation now; Segregation Forever: Western Oregon University students pushing for BIPOC center

Black, Indigenous and people of color at Western Oregon University (WOU) in Monmouth are advocating for the establishment of a Freedom Center for their exclusive use on the top floor of the school’s Academics Program and Support Center building.

“It’s a place for BIPOC students by BIPOC students that allows them to have safe spaces, accessibility [and] resources,” Makana Waikiki, the proposal’s lead advocate, told Oregon Public Broadcasting. Arlette Tapia, Director of Multicultural Advocacy with the student government, added, “It’s very devastating as a student, as a student of color, to see that we have to fight for these things.”

There are, however, good reasons why the university should resist. Portrayed by its advocates as a step forward, the Center would more likely be a step back in encouraging diversity and inclusion.

WOU’s total enrollment is 4,526, 33% men and 64% women. The students are 61% white, 18.6% Hispanic or Latino, 3.81% Asian, 3.04% Black and 1.18% American Indian or Alaska Native. About 34% of students are minorities or people of color.

The Freedom Center Proposal says, “Students of color are marginalized and diminished on campus, and the Freedom Center will be a place where students will feel safe to be themselves.” WOU’s Faculty Senate President Dr. Leigh Graziano echoed that view in an email to WOU leadership. “When we make decisions to not create space for voices of color, we only underscore our lack of genuine commitment as a university to antiracist practices that actually make our campus culture more inclusive,” she wrote.  

But in reality, the Freedom Center, would just reinforce separatism and tribalism, the exact opposite of what a liberal education is supposed to transcend. 

If diversity is so important to academic success, why would WOU facilitate construction of an identity center that will spur division and encourage BIPOC students to self-segregate?

It’s a contradictory effort that only weak-kneed hard-left academics overly eager for student approval and worried about being labeled racist could endorse. In fact, it sounds suspiciously like something segregationist Alabama Governor George C. Wallace would have pressed for in less flowery language.

“Civil rights leaders put their lives on the line working for a color-blind, non-race determined society,’ “ Richard Vedder, Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, wrote. “The bitter struggle to break down racial distinctions in education lasted for decades, yet now universities are reintroducing segregation.”

The supporters of these wayward efforts often try to justify racially-based identity centers on the basis of research that affinity groups are a benefit to students who may not identify with the prevalent or dominant culture. But this is a slippery slope, leaning to justification for splitting  everybody into little niches, rather than reinforcing the common good. Furthermore, it’s one thing to facilitate a coming together of people with common interests; it’s quite another to encourage racial division.

If WOU capitulates to the students and faculty encouraging the Freedom Center, they will be delivering a self-inflicted wound to the school. In short, the Center wouldn’t be a way forward, but a step back, way way back.