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Outgoing multicultural educator reviews campus race relations

STANFORD -- In the fall of 1989 - six months after Stanford released its report from the University Committee on Minority Issues (UCMI) addressing the needs of minority students, faculty and staff - Greg Ricks became Stanford's first multicultural educator.

Taking on a primarily conceptual position under the Dean of Students and the Office of Residential Education, the former Dartmouth College dean worked for three years to establish communication among Stanford students and bring their racially polarized communities together, through innovative dorm programs, leadership development sessions and one-on-one advising.

Last month, the Stanford Daily praised his work, noting that "while national interracial tensions at the time of the Rodney King verdict tested the success of Ricks' work, the fruits of his efforts were evident in Stanford's response.

"The Stanford community coalesced in the wake of a national crisis and produced well-organized, peaceful rallies and marches attended by hundreds of students of all ethnic groups."

Ricks will be leaving Stanford June 30 to become vice president for education and training at Boston's City Year, a non-profit volunteer service program designed to bring together young people of different races and socio-economic backgrounds to form an urban peace corps.

Campus Report chose this opportunity to ask Ricks about the progress of multicultural education at Stanford in recent years, and its future:

Q: Shortly before you came, a survey of Stanford undergraduates found that while white and minority students socialized together and formed interracial friendships, they also demonstrated considerable lack of understanding and felt "strong racial tensions." How would you characterize the situation at that time?

The most dominant feeling I had when I came in was that there were two sides.

On one side, the communities of color were trying to grapple with what multiculturalism would mean for them. Would it focus primarily on people of color, or would it focus on everyone? The four particular groups that the University Committee on Minority Issues focused on - African American, Native American, Latino and Asian American - needed, and still need, a lot of attention. Many felt that Stanford was jumping from getting that work done to this new concept called multiculturalism. They said, "UCMI was a grocery list. But now you want us to leave the market before we get the goods." There was a resistance to going out into the parking lot without the groceries: more [minority] faculty, more students, more money for the cultural centers. That was one side of what was going on.

The other side was the backlash, or how I feel the dominant community on campus perceived multiculturalism. Their perception was that multiculturalism was UCMI and its goals as they related to communities of color. Most white students felt that to be involved in the multicultural community, you had to be black, brown, yellow, red - disabled maybe, a woman maybe, gay maybe - and class never even came into the discussion. Multiculturalism, they said, is about the negatives of us, and for this campus to become multicultural means the demise of white students and the advance of people of color. Which was interesting, because people of color felt that multiculturalism would be their demise, that they would lose their sense of self.

So therefore, nobody really embraced the term multiculturalism, except for the high levels of the administration.

Q: What about the situation today? Are minority students more comfortable on this campus now than they were when you came? Is there still a feeling among some that Stanford is a bastion of "institutional racism"?

I think that feeling is still prominent for many students, and for some students it is not. I think the difference now is that people are really talking about it, as opposed to just having these really intense feelings. There are dialogues beginning. There is not a place on the campus that is off-limits to talk about multiculturalism and these issues. Whether people like it or not, it's on everyone's agenda. Look at the student Council of Presidents races - everybody talked about multiculturalism, whether they were conservative, liberal or independent. You cannot not talk about it at Stanford.

It's interesting, though. Students will slam down Stanford and say, "This multiculturalism stuff is being rammed down our throats. We hear it all the time." Yet the minute they get away, there's this incredible appreciation for it.

I was in a bar in Georgetown once, meeting with some Stanford in Washington students. I got there late, and they were in a conversation with a bunch of students from Michigan and Cornell who were telling horror stories about some [racist incidents] that had happened on their campuses. And the Stanford students - black, white, Latino and Asian - were saying that would never happen at Stanford. That wouldn't be tolerated. I sat there with this really warm feeling of pride.

Q: How have you responded to complaints by conservative students, mostly white, that Residential Education's "politically correct" multicultural agenda still does not include them?

I think the major thing that we have missed at Stanford, and that every school in the country has missed, is the ability to understand that white students are a very important part of multiculturalism, and they need help to understand what it means to be white in a multicultural community. We have spent a lot of money and a lot of time trying to help students of color,and women students and gay and disabled students to figure out what it means for them. But for the white heterosexual male who feels disconnected and marginalized by multiculturalism, we've got to do a lot of work there.

The biggest thing I try to do with these students is ask them to to look at multiculturalism in broad terms, like they do with "freedom" and "love." I tell students that multiculturalism is you, it's me, it's everyone. So rather than having a monocultural community, which is what Western civilization has meant for so long in this country, we're now saying that while we value what has been the monocultural, we want to make more room at the table. If you're of a Western European culture, I say that's very important. But it's also important if you're of an African American culture, or Native American culture, a Mexican American culture, if you're a senior citizen, or from a farm culture. Just because you exist, you have a right to come to the table of influence.

The other big thing I try to say is, you've got to make this personal rather than political. Because if it's personal, you know you're equals. There may be group disparities, but there aren't individual disparities.

Q: Which of your educational programs have made the most difference, in your opinion?

The most popular program we do is called "Cross the Line." It's highly attended; in some cases almost 90 percent of the dorm will come. Usually we do it late at night, in the dorm lounge, when everybody's back from studying.

We put a masking tape line down the middle of the room and have everybody stand on one side. Then I read about 40 minutes of questions: Is there anyone here who's male? Female? Gay? Anyone who's had suicidal thoughts? Anyone who's a person of color? Anyone who's estranged from their parents? Anyone who's struggling for academic direction? Anyone who has been sexually assaulted?

Those who can answer yes, and feel like sharing that, walk across the masking tape line and turn around to face the others for about 10 seconds.

It has become by far the most powerful program, because it allows students to share who they are, without having to explain or defend it. It also allows everybody to see that their identity is very uniquely theirs, and to see that everyone has come through adversity, in one form or another. And it gets people talking and listening to each other.

Another program I like a lot is "The Party," where we put labels on people's foreheads. I might have "white female sorority woman" on my sticker, another person might have "African American athlete," "homeless" or "Chicano resident assistant." They don't know what's on their own label. Then we ask people to interact with each other, based on the stereotypes they've heard about these groups, and at the end the students have to guess who they were - they're right about 99 percent of the time.

Through this, students begin to realize that they all hold stereotypes about others. They make assumptions about people they don't even know because they're lazy. We all use stereotypes because we're lazy.

The bottom line is, students don't really want to hear more lectures. They get that in the classroom. When it comes to multiculturalism, they just want to do it. Just give them the stimulation, give them the tools and help them. The programs that are the most successful are the ones that just let them do it.

Q: Are there any other programs or activities that have been particularly effective?

We took 20 student leaders from all over the campus, of every background, to Orlando, Fla., for a National Student Conference on Community Service. During the four days away, amazing relations were made between people who thought they had nothing of interest to each other. They used the conference and their interest in community service as the "common ground." The Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford has been outstanding in using this methodology to become a very diverse center.

Another group, Stanford Students Speaking About Race and Culture, has been critical to what we mean by multicultural leadership development. They work on issues of community-building at Stanford; they have open, honest conversations about the real tough issues facing our community, like racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc. They have become a real force of understanding and leadership on our campus - they are all moving into the key leadership positions for students on this campus.

I also think Talk Back, the call-in radio show that we started this year on KZSU, has had an impact. What we do is try to take two students - one representing a liberal point of view, and the other the conservative point of view - and have them debate things of importance to the university community. [A recent program discussed] the diversity within the Asian community. Some Asian American students think the Asian community center on campus is a positive thing, and some people think it's not. Some think Asians should be a targeted minority [for affirmative action], some think Asians should not.

One of the complaints about multiculturalism is that it's only about the liberal or "politically correct" agenda. What this show does is to try to show that multiculturalism includes conservatism as much as liberalism. Multiculturalism has been framed as the pedagogy of the liberals, but it's really the pedagogy of everyone.

Probably the most important part of my job, though, has been the one-on-one counseling I've done with students. After every dorm program, within the next three to four days, my appointment book just fills up with students who want to come in on an individual basis. One might come in and say, "I'm really conflicted. I love my grandparents, but they're really racist and they would die if they knew I was dating a person of another race." Or a gay student might say, "I can't tell my family about my sexuality decisions." Or a student might say, "I don't want to be a doctor. I really want to work for social justice. I want to teach, or be a social worker. " Or, "I just feel disconnected."

I would say I get 40 phone calls a day, mostly from students and some faculty, wanting to make appointments. People are asking questions that they didn't feel comfortable asking before.

Q: Do you think the implementation of the Cultures, Ideas and Values (CIV) program in place of the old Western Culture curriculum has contributed much to the difference in student attitudes?

I honestly think that CIV has had much more effect off the campus than on the campus. Most of the students I talk to think that CIV is really watered down. They still read great works; just more great works, some written by women and people of color.

Students are glad that the CIV classes are here - they would not not want to have them. But many students feel they won the battles but lost the war. So much was made about CIV, but what they ended up with wasn't what the dream was.

I think the idea that it was institutionalized was important, but at the same time, it has been unfortunate that the content of some of the courses doesn't have as much impact as it could have. Students tell me that the reading lists may look good, but in some of the classes, the dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. They feel it's not living up to its potential.

Q: Do you think university budget cuts will set back the progress made in multicultural education?

The answer is yes. But at the same time, the university is not going to let up in terms of what it expects from its people. I don't see anybody cutting back on work. People still have dreams and plans for innovative programs. I hope the university never loses that kind of desire and drive.

Stanford is still a rich institution. The question is, what will its priorities be? For Stanford not to put its resources into multicultural education would be tragic, because it affects everyone. We're such a diverse community, and unless we manage that diversity in a way that allows the potential of that diversity to be reached, the university is not going to fulfill its mission.

There are a lot of people who have been here for a long time, and they're very committed to holding on to yesteryear, to what it was, as opposed to building on what it was. What's much more exciting is what it can be. And I think we've got to get people around here thinking about what it can be.

Q: What will you miss most about your time here?

I think the biggest thing that I'll miss is being in higher education on the cutting edge. If multiculturalism leading to pluralism is ever to become a reality in higher education, it's going to happen at Stanford first, I'm confident of that. Stanford has the opportunity. Everything's in place: the infrastructure's here - although we need to put more dollars to that infrastructure - the people are here, the environment is here, California is here. It's all going to happen here in terms of my life's work, which has been to enable human understanding to move along the continuum.



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