Jillian Stampher, Special to The Seattle Times
Just 10 months after the University of Washington opened a newly remodeled Ethnic Cultural Center, the Seattle campus broke ground on a long-anticipated Native American longhouse.
The longhouse, named Wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ (wah-sheb-altuh), or Intellectual House, is just one of many efforts the university has made over the past decade to become a more appealing campus to diverse students.
Washington universities have not been allowed to consider race or ethnicity in admissions since 1998, when voters passed Initiative 200 (I-200), which prohibits racial and gender preferences by state and local government in employment, education and contracting. Since then, the UW has had to experiment with innovative recruitment methods to attempt to keep pace with national standards for diversity.
“We don’t use it to make decisions, but we do have race-based outreach,” said Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange, vice provost for diversity at the UW Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity.
This outreach has seen mixed results. While the UW excels in certain areas of diversity — according to a report by the UW Office of Admissions, 22.5 percent of students enrolled this fall were Asian and 14.3 percent were international students — the school still struggles with more widespread diversity. This fall, African Americans made up only 3.2 percent of the UW student population; only 6.4 percent of students are Hispanic or Latino.
Lange acknowledged that the UW has made progress over the past decade in diversity, but said it hasn’t reached her ideal.
“Although we’ve been able to increase the numbers, we haven’t reached what people refer to as ‘critical mass.’ That is where you’re not the only one, or not seen as the token in your department,” she said.
One goal of projects like the longhouse and the Ethnic Cultural Center remodel, which cost $6 million and $15.5 million, respectively, is to demonstrate to students who were offered admission that the UW encourages diversity, according to Lange.
“It shows people that there is a place for them on campus, that the university actually welcomes students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds,” she said. “It’s a symbol of the university’s commitment to inclusion.”
On Oct. 15, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments against state voters banning the use of race as a criterion in college admissions. A 2006 constitutional amendment in Michigan blocked the state from considering race or ethnicity in public education and employment. The ban closely mirrors Washington’s I-200.
The Michigan case comes four months after the Supreme Court decided to refer the highly watched Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case to a lower court.
While those two affirmative-action cases gained traction in the U.S. courts, Lange began preparing a report on the effects of diversity in universities.
“If we don’t do a better job of being more inclusive and providing equitable opportunities to those populations, we’re going to be even more of a nation of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ and polarized racial divides and economic divides, which does not bode well for our democracy,” she said.