Racial and Political Tensions at an Open Enrollment Institution | Sokolich


This scenario presents a complex problem facing student affairs practitioners related to funding, enrollment, politics, and identity. The students involved are from different geographical regions of a politically contentious swing state, with diverse racial identities, political ideologies, and socioeconomic statuses. The environment is an open-enrollment campus of a land-grant institution, situated in a rural and politically conservative part of the state, with a significant local student population, but with a primary recruiting territory in a politically progressive urban and suburban area. Campus-wide enrollment is declining, which is contributing to budget cuts for all academic and student affairs units.

 Keywords: Racial tensions, political ideologies, open enrollment institution, Predominantly White Institution

Primary Characters

Doug Francisco (he/him): Coordinator for Diversity and Inclusion and advisor for the Students for Progress (SfP) student organization. He is a student affairs practitioner with a background in multicultural affairs as a graduate student at a large regional predominantly white institution and worked his way up to be a director of multiculturalism at a small private institution. Doug has been with the Regional Campus of State University for three year, but previously worked in urban and progressive environments.

Jamie Feldman (she/her): Coordinator for Campus Engagement and advisor of the Conservative Values Alliance (CVA) student organization. She is also a student affairs practitioner with experience in campus activities, student organizations, and leadership programs. Jamie is an entry-level professional who recently completed a graduate assistantship and earned her master’s degree from a small private institution in a rural region of the state. She grew in the same conservative rural area where she completed her education.

Dr. Matthew Norris (he/him): Dean of Students and supervisor of Doug and Jamie. He has been at the Middlefield Campus for ten years with a wealth of student engagement, leadership development, and multicultural affairs experiences. Dr. Norris has also published research about open enrollment institutions.

Case Narrative

The Middlefield Campus of State University is located in a rural town. As a regional campus, Middlefield offers open enrollment as a part of the institution’s land-grant mission. State University’s flagship campus in the state’s capital has competitive admissions practices that have resulted in increased GPA and test score requirements for the entering class over the last several years. In order to satisfy the institution’s open enrollment mission, any student who graduates from high school in the state can be admitted to any of the system’s regional campuses, even if they do not have the GPA and test scores to be competitive enough for the flagship campus. Each of the regional campuses recruit from a different part of the state; Middlefield recruits from the northeast, which is generally urban and suburban with liberal and progressive political ideologies. The Middlefield Campus itself is located in a rural and politically conservative north-central part of the state.

The Student Life team on the Middlefield Campus is small, but mighty. Every major functional area of student affairs is represented, but the operations are limited to one full-time staff member per area, and some staff have more than one job responsibility. Doug Francisco is the Coordinator for Diversity and Inclusion. Because of Doug’s extensive work and career multicultural affairs, he is keenly aware of the specific needs of students of color at a predominantly white institution such as the Middlefield Campus of state University. Every fall semester, Doug sees more new students of color coming from the northeastern recruitment territories, and they are consistently shell-shocked by their surroundings. These students are out of their element in the rural conservative town, which is also overwhelmingly comprised of white residents.

Year after year, students from outside of Middlefield report concerns or incidents involving local students and community members ranging from harassment to physical altercations and threats. Local students tend to commute to campus while living at home or with friends from high school. Staff and faculty often hear local students referring to campus residence halls as “the slums” or “the ghetto” because that is where non-local students live. Often, faculty and staff reach out to Doug when they hear this biased and potentially harmful language.

A large proportion of the students of color that attend the Middlefield Campus live in on-campus housing. While the surrounding community is predominantly white, the Middlefield Campus has the highest percentage of non-white students of any state system campuses, including the flagship. Because of this, it is clear to Doug that the white students are referring to on-campus housing as “the ghetto” because of its high population of students of color. Students of color who are new to campus and the Middlefield area want nothing more than to enjoy their college experience. Many of them leave difficult family situations behind, looking for a new opportunity for a better life and a stable educational and career path. The tensions between white students and students of color makes the campus climate challenging at best, and uncomfortable and contentious at worst.

In addition to the negative perceptions based on race and ethnicity, political ideologies further reinforce the divide between local rural students and students who are new to the Middlefield area. The recent presidential election and extremely partisan fallout has driven a wedge between students on campus. An overwhelming majority of white students and their families from the Middlefield area voted for the conservative candidate, who promised a resurgence in the prominence of farming and traditional family values under their leadership. Alternatively, students of color and those who are from more urban areas of the state voted for the progressive candidate, who promised a more equal distribution of wealth, access to affordable higher education, and greater inclusion for historically marginalized groups.

The harsh rhetoric used by the conservative candidate has blurred the line between hate speech and free speech; the language used is seen by progressive students as racist hate speech and by conservative students as free speech. Alternatively, the language and goals of the progressive candidate has been accusatory and patronizing to rural farming communities and residents feel disrespected in how they have been depicted. The weeks leading up to the election have been polarizing for students on the campus and tension has been building. The existing chapter of the Conservative Values Alliance (CVA) prides itself in historically being the only political organization on campus, which prompted outspoken student leaders to start a new chapter of Students for Progress (SfP). Once both groups were registered and established for the school year, the students in the CVA were all white and many were vocal about their political views, using microaggressions and stereotypes to reinforce their opinions. Students in the Students for Progress chapter were of mixed identities and considered themselves to be more socially just, accusing the CVA of being a fascist organization which further reinforced the political and racial tensions on campus. Students in both organizations were following the examples set by their preferred candidate for president using incendiary language used to rally their own base while upsetting the other.

Tensions came to a head when the groups got into an argument about values, ethics, and morality at the popular student organization fair. What started as loud, passive-aggressive commentary, escalated into name-calling and yelling, disrupting the event. After several tense moments where it looked like things might get physical, the organizers of the event dismissed both groups from the fair for violating the terms and agreements of participation. As advisors of the student organizations, both Doug and Jamie were summoned to the Dean of Students’ office to provide a better understanding of what happened during the event. The Dean of Students, Dr. Matthew Norris, stated that this altercation was just the tip of the iceberg and he had received reports and concerns from other faculty and staff after hearing inappropriate language and comments during class discussions, in the halls between classes, and in common spaces on campus, and that it was time to take some action.

Dr. Norris asks Doug and Jamie to create a brand-new initiative to help bridge relationships between students on campus. With the assistance of other colleagues, Doug and Jamie created a successful early-arrival program to promote leadership self-efficacy for students of color and encourage them to become involved in campus life. Dr. Norris is hopeful that Doug and Jamie can be innovative once again with another solution to the issues facing campus and the community. Specifically, Dr. Norris wants Doug and Jamie to address sense of belonging for all students on campus; local students and students from outside of the local area both deserve to feel a sense of safety and security on the open enrollment campus. This new initiative cannot have a substantial impact on the budget or take away from other programs or services on campus. Aside from the financial implication, the directive was open-ended; it could be a learning community, leadership program, sociocultural programming series, or any other new enterprise that is grounded in theory but will have a lasting and sustainable impact in practice. When considering the multiple and intersecting identities of the students involved, Doug and Jamie realize that the culture of the campus needs to experience a dramatic shift towards inclusion and a spirit of togetherness shared by all students.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you assess the campus climate and gauge the students’ senses of safety and belonging?
  2. Which theoretical frameworks would help you to assess the cultural needs of the Middlefield Campus? How will you apply them to the students in this scenario?
  3. What is your solution and how would you implement it on the campus? Who are your key stakeholders and change agents? How will you express the importance of this solution to students, faculty, and staff on campus?

 Author Biography

Andrew Sokolich (he/him) is the Program Manager for the Online Associate of Arts degree at Cuyahoga Community College and will begin the Higher Education Administration Ph.D. program at Kent State University in Spring 2023. Previously, he has served in various roles in student activities, diversity and inclusion, admissions, and retention at open access institutions. Andrew is a Cleveland, Ohio native and attended Kent State where he earned his Bachelor of Business Administration and The Ohio State University where he earned his Master of Arts in Higher Education and Student Affairs.