WWU’s president is right: The world is changing; deal with it
The reaction to a university president’s comments about how his school needs to become less white was more revealing than the comments themselves.
Seattle Times staff columnist
It surely wasn’t his intent, but talk-radio shock jock Glenn Beck gave Exhibit A last week of why Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard is so worried about the future of his school.
Shepard, you probably heard, briefly became the mocked liberal of the moment because he has been talking openly about how to make the Bellingham state school less white.
“If we are as white in 10 years as we are today, Western will have failed as a university,” Shepard said.
He’s been saying this for some time. The premise — that the public school either diversifies or dies — sounded so innocuous to me the first time I heard it that it scarcely registered.
Then a national race controversy erupted. I use the term “controversy” loosely — mostly what happened is Shepard was lampooned across the right-wing media on blogs and talk shows (including Beck, who I’ll get to in a minute).
“Why Can’t Western Washington University Get Rid of Pesky White People?” asked the conservative website Red State, comparing Shepard to the late segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
One state legislator, Rep. Jason Overstreet, R-Lynden, even called on Shepard to resign. He cited Shepard’s “unflinching adherence to an intellectually void ideology that divides on skin color rather than uniting based on the content of character.”
All Shepard has said is that the graduating classes of high schools around here are getting less white, and fast. So if the university doesn’t appeal more to minorities it will face serious enrollment and financial issues. For this he’s George Wallace?
My people, the white people, sure can be sensitive sometimes.
This is a big debate in higher education right now. As the pool of high-school graduates gets racially more diverse and economically poorer, how should colleges evolve to serve them?
“We could choose to go the route of being a much smaller, elite-serving, almost entirely liberal arts college,” Shepard wrote on his blog. He said this would be a “total abandonment” of the school’s public mission.
“One choice we do not have: to stick our heads in the sand.”
Enter Bellingham native son Glenn Beck. On his radio show, Beck found the idea of race and Bellingham in the same sentence to be ludicrous .
“This is from my own hometown of Bellingham, Washington — one of the whitest, white, whitey, white-white places in America,” he said. “I mean I lived on the mean street of 22nd Avenue ... dodging bullets ... wherever you go, there were whites ... it’s the mean streets of White Central.”
He said the university in the midst of all this whiteness “has decided they want fewer white people attending. I want you to know: This isn’t racist at all.”
His point in all this sarcasm — I think — is that it’s racist to consider race. At all. The president of Western Washington should just be colorblind.
Except Shepard does have a mostly white school in a very white town. Meanwhile, his customer base is becoming less white — in 15 years close to half of each high-school graduating class in this state is expected be minority. Will they want to go to Western (especially if they hear it’s now been dubbed White Central)?
Shepard can’t choose to admit minorities over whites — race-based admissions aren’t allowed in this state, as the U.S. Supreme Court indirectly affirmed on Tuesday. Yet when Shepard suggests the school still needs to find other ways to adapt to a less-white world, he’s branded politically correct or a racist.
This is going to be a hard issue going ahead, in countless arenas. Because whites are headed toward the minority, numerically. Shepard is right to start openly and candidly talking about the coming societal shift.
But as we shift, I bet some of my people are only going to get more sensitive, not less.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to email@example.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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