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UND group says intolerance not recognized as campus problem

A UND task force assembled a year ago after two high-profile racial incidents hit campus says a key problem is that racism and other forms of intolerance aren't recognized as problems.

A UND task force assembled a year ago after two high-profile racial incidents hit campus says a key problem is that racism and other forms of intolerance aren't recognized as problems.

Victims of intolerance don't often report incidents and the resulting dearth of such reports makes it appear as though there are few incidents, the task force said in its final report released Wednesday.

High-profile incidents such as the swastikas drawn in the dorms and the sorority party in which participants dressed as stereotypical cowboys and Indians are then seen as isolated events.

But more broadly, there is a perception that those who complain are trying to rock the boat, the task force said in its final report released Wednesday. It blames this on the lack of experience in dealing with diversity in a relatively homogeneous society and, to an extent, by the hardening of attitudes over the Fighting Sioux nickname, which a significant portion of the campus thinks is racist.

None of this suggests that UND is itself an intolerant place, said task force Chairman Dan Rice, who's also the dean of the College of Education and Human Development.

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"I think the university is generally a very welcoming and accepting place," he said. "But we are also a part of a larger society in which there are these tensions, and we have a history as a country with these tensions."

The task force, which included students, staff, faculty members and a community member, recommends the university be more proactive in addressing intolerance, including hiring a diversity officer and an ombudsman, a practice picked up from other universities.

The report now goes to the administration.

Campus climate

As a preface to its recommendations, the task force said "there seems to be a wide perception over the past few years, UND has become an institution too strongly conditioned by a sense that diversity inevitably leads to irreconcilable and unconstructive conflict.

"Diversity is too often associated with trouble or problems," it said.

This seems like a perfect description of the conflict over the Fighting Sioux nickname, which the task force mentions but fails to explicitly connect to the campus climate.

"I think most people on campus who thought about this issue very much would agree that that controversy has made it more difficult to have this conversation," Rice clarified.

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He said that by this, he meant people who dismiss anti-nickname forces as agitators may be conditioned to dismiss those complaining about racism as agitators also.

Outside that conflict, he said, people here just don't have a lot of experience with those who are different from them.

"Sometimes, there may be things we say or do that are hurtful or harmful to other people and we don't even realize it because our intention is not to do that," he said. "People are generally good and kind, but they may not be very sophisticated."

On the offensive

The report suggests that the system UND has in place for addressing intolerance is good but needs augmenting.

One problem is not many on campus know how the system works and people they might turn to, such as their supervisors, might well be the offending parties. An ombudsman would be able to offer confidential advice in most cases and direct the victim to the proper authority.

Another problem is incidents are sometimes dealt with informally without the need for a formal complaint.

Rice said that's a good thing, but it doesn't allow the university to gather data with which to measure progress, so the task force recommends all incidents be reported.

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While the ombudsman addresses incidents that have occurred, a diversity officer would work to build a climate of tolerance to prevent future incidents. Such a person, the task force said, should be a high-level official reporting directly to the president.

The task force goes so far as to recommend the university encourage scholarly research and academic conferences that involve diversity, which would seem to go beyond merely remedying existing problems but actually creating a new expertise at the university.

"We're wanting to do more than just simply be in a defensive posture, to try to be more proactive," Rice said. The world is diverse, and it'll help students to be more comfortable with that diversity, he said. "We think there are larger social benefits and goods."

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com.

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