A History of Difference, Power, and discrimination at Oregon State University (1 of 4)

Authors:  Joan Gross and Janet Nishihara

Reprinted with permission from the authors of this chapter and the publisher.


The title of this chapter is purposefully ambiguous. Are we talking about the Difference, Power, and Discrimination (DPD) Program, the focus of this book, or the presence of difference, power, and discrimination at Oregon State University? We chose this ambiguous title to highlight the connection and the difference, between the cause of inequality and the desire to combat it. Our first task, then, is to show how the Difference, Power, and Discrimination Program at Oregon State University developed in a climate permeated with issues concerning difference, power, and discrimination. For most of its history as Oregon’s land grant institution, the university did not consider issues such as these to be valid topics of inquiry. The assumption of the founders of Oregon Agricultural College in 1868 was that their privilege was rightfully earned.

Many Oregonians take pride in their state’s historical stance as an antislavery state. While it is true that slavery was outlawed in the Oregon Territory in 1844, this action looks far less humanitarian when matched with the fact that, five years later, a law was passed to exclude “negroes and mulattoes” from residing in the territory. It seems highly possible, then, that Oregonians were not against slavery because it was a dehumanizing institution, but, rather, because they did not want Black people living in their state.

One reason for setting up barriers to Black people migrating into Oregon country was stated as “self-preservation.” White people did not want to lose their privileged colonial position vis-à-vis Native Americans in the territory. Black people had shown themselves to be more politically savvy than tribal leaders in other parts of the country and White Oregonians were afraid that free Blacks would incite Native Americans to rise up against Whites.

The Negroes associate with the Indians and intermarry, and if their free ingress is encouraged or allowed, there would be a relationship spring up between them and the different tribes, and a mixed race would ensue inimical to the whites; and the Indians being led on by the negro who is better acquainted with the customs, language, and manners of the whites, than the Indian, these savages would become much more formidable than they otherwise would, and long and bloody wars would be the fruits of the co-mingling of the races. It is the principle of self-preservation that justifies the action of the Oregon legislation. (Oregon representative, Samuel Thurston as quoted in McLagan 1980:30–31)

One gets the picture here that, at some level, Whites understood that their privilege was built on the suppression of people of color. The colonial strategy of divide and rule that worked so well might be severely compromised if Blacks and Indians came together in the Northwest as they had in other parts of the country.

A stellar example of White privilege in the Northwest is the Oregon Land Donation Act of 1850. This act made sure that White people controlled the wealth of the land even before Oregon became a state. Three hundred and twenty acres were offered to “White men” over twenty-one and their wives. That this land had provided the sustenance for multiple tribal groups who had been forced off the land and onto reservations not of their choosing was not something that the new owners of the land worried much about.

When Oregon became a state in 1859, an exclusionary clause was written into the state constitution.

No free Negro or mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this state, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein; and the legislative assembly shall provide by penal laws for the removal by public officers of all negros and mulattos, and for their effectual exclusion from the state, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the state, or employ or harbor them. (Oregon Bill of Rights Section 35)

In addition, the constitution stated that, “no Negro, Chinaman, or Mulatto shall have the right of suffrage.”

Eight years after obtaining statehood, Oregon passed a statute deeming it unlawful for any White person to marry any “Negro, Chinese, or any person having one-quarter or more Negro, Chinese or kanaka [native Hawaiian] blood, or any person having more than one-half Indian blood.” The earliest White settlers were Euro Canadians, many of whom married Indian wives. The higher allowable blood quantum for Indians reflects this earlier history, while at the same time attempting to make a clean break with what produced it. This antimiscegenation law stayed on the books until 1951.

Apparently, however, there were limits to the level of hate that Oregon legislators would allow coded into law. In 1864, the state legislature declined to pass an amendment proposed by a representative from Yamhill that stated that:

A Negro, Chinaman, or Indian has no rights which a white man is bound to respect, and that a white man may murder, robe, rape, shoot, stab and cut any of those worthless, vagabond races, without being called to account thereof: Provided, he shall do said acts of bravery and chivalry when no white man is troubled by seeing the same. (Oregon Statesman, Oct. 3, 1964 as quoted in McLagan 1980:65)

While never passed, this proposal by an elected member of the people shows the level of racism that affected Oregonians at the time. This passage is particularly unsettling given that disturbing the tranquility of another White man was considered to be of far more importance than the listed violent acts perpetrated against people of color.

Oregon’s legal discrimination towards people of color butted up against the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that states that:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. (Amendment 14, Section 1)

Oregon ratified this Amendment in 1866 and it was ratified nationally in 1868. Oregon repealed its ratification one month after national ratification, but this move was superseded by the federal law that also abrogated the Oregon exclusion clause. The state itself did not get around to removing this exclusion clause from its constitution until sixty years later in 1926.

The state was also caught in the waves of anti-Asian sentiment working their way up and down the west coast. The various crests of these waves resulted in the exclusion of Chinese laborers in 1882 and workers from Japan in 1924. Coinciding with the growth of the anti-Asian sentiment was the growth of the Ku Klux Klan’s influence, which experienced a surge up through the 1920s. Thousands of Klansmen (including municipal, county and state officials) all over the state worked to preserve Oregon for White Protestants, carrying out open campaigns against Jews, Catholics, Asians and Blacks. The prevalence of their beliefs can be seen in the election of Klan advocate Walter Pierce as governor in 1922. He supported the passage of the Oregon Alien Land Law in 1923 that prevented Japanese and Chinese immigrants from buying or leasing land. The law went so far as to prohibit any “alien ineligible for citizenship” (a euphemism for any immigrant from Asia) from even operating farm equipment while in the employ of an eligible citizen.

A History of Difference, Power, and discrimination at Oregon State University (2 of 4)

Setting the Scene at Oregon State University

As the land grant institution for the state of Oregon, Oregon Agricultural College (which came to be known as Oregon State University) came into being in 1868 in the midst of a society where racism was coded into the laws of the state. For the first century of the university’s existence, little notice was paid to institutionalized or individual discrimination. It was not until the 1960s that the discussion of civil rights on a national level brought this awareness to Oregon State University (OSU). The reaction of White students was often in support of continued segregation. In 1962, a fraternity was vocal about its attempt to deny membership to an Asian American student, and, in 1967, a White woman refused to live with her assigned African American roommate.

Students of color, however, were ready to claim their rights. In 1968, an incident that began as discriminatory treatment of African American football players exploded into a walkout by all African American students. This incident attracted lengthy press coverage, especially in the Portland area, the location of the largest Black population in the state. (In fact, many members of the Black community in Portland still cite the 1968 walkout as a reason not to send their children or grandchildren to OSU.) Attempts were made to modify the campus climate by creating several different offices and programs. The Black Cultural Center and the Educational Opportunities Program were established at this time.

This pattern of responding to highly visible and incendiary incidents of discrimination with the creation of a new service or program would be repeated by the university over and over again. The early 1970s saw further growth in the number of new offices and services. The Office of Affirmative Action was established in 1972 and The Native American Longhouse came into being the following year. Three years later, the Chicano Cultural Center was created.

The 1980s saw the student-run Memorial Union Program Council elect its first president of color. Also during this decade, organizations were formed to give people of color more of a voice in the operation and administration of the university. The OSU President’s Board of Visitors for Minority Affairs, the Associated Students of OSU Minority and Disabled Student Task Force and the Minority Affairs Commission were all products of the 1980s. In addition, the statewide Underrepresented Minority Achievement Scholarship (UMAS) was instituted, providing access to institutions of higher education and incentives for students of color to remain in the state for their college education.

During the creation of these new responses to discriminatory incidents, new incidents continued to flare up. Things came to a head on November 3, 1990, when, after a series of racially motivated incidents and recurring complaints about the chilly climate in OSU classrooms, a coalition of concerned student leaders delivered a letter to the President of OSU, outlining six proposals for action (see Appendix for a list of the six proposals).

While the responses that the university had taken up to this point had all been administrative in nature, this time, a major portion of the students’ proposals insisted that change be effected in what most faculty members consider to be the central core of the university, with both the curriculum and the faculty.

A History of Difference, Power, and discrimination at Oregon State University (3 of 4)

The Difference, Power, and Discrimination Program at Oregon State University

The faculty response to the students’ request for curricular change (to include the study of issues of diversity) was to create an ad hoc committee of the Faculty Senate to address this “problem.” This new committee was charged with exploring the possibility of offering a single course that all new students would be required to take. This course, tentatively titled “Affirming Diversity,” would expose students to the fundamentals of diversity and multiculturalism and would, it was hoped, move the institution further in its attempts to decrease the number and volatility of racial incidents to which students and faculty of color were subjected. This course would also, it was hoped, make a clear statement that OSU did not tolerate racism. As a new assistant professor in the Anthropology Department (Joan Gross) and a counselor in the Educational Opportunities Program (Janet Nishihara), respectively, the authors of this chapter were asked to serve on this committee in the fall of 1991. Committee members began gathering models from other universities and soliciting student and faculty input. Members met with representatives from all of the student cultural centers on campus and developed a series of focus groups to gather further student input. We distributed a survey to faculty members and administrators. By the end of the calendar year, 250 faculty members had returned the survey with ninety-four of these stating that they were willing to help with the course.

After the information gathering period, the committee decided that the model of a single large course with smaller recitation sections facilitated by graduate students would not get us far in our attempt to change the climate of the campus. There were approximately twenty-two hundred students in our entering class at the time. The best programs at other universities consisted of a selection of courses from across the curriculum that addressed issues of discrimination and power from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives. A draft proposal for incorporating diversity into the curriculum was available at the Faculty Senate meeting on January 9, 1992. In this proposal, the “Affirming Diversity” committee emphasized the need to focus on the importance of appropriate pedagogy and the larger issues of institutionalized power and hierarchy. The plan was that each major and/or department in the university would offer a course that addressed issues of difference, power, and discrimination within their discipline. This course would become a requirement within the newly formed general education requirements being termed the Baccalaureate Core.

In all of the discussions with students and faculty, it became clear that faculty development had to be the foundation of this curricular change. The committee’s research unearthed anecdotal evidence in which students spoke of callous and hurtful remarks made by professors and the near-exclusion of their own cultural histories in the curriculum. Even professors who were aware of issues of power, and discrimination did not feel equipped to facilitate discussion around difficult subjects such as racism, classism and sexism. Faculty felt that they would require training and open discussion with colleagues while developing new courses, or new versions of existing courses, that could speak to these issues. The committee suggested a four-week summer seminar that would allow faculty to explore issues of difference, power, and discrimination in and through their own academic fields while they would receive training on how to address such issues in the classroom. Faculty would receive a stipend for attending the seminar and each member would submit a course syllabus for consideration in this new category of the Baccalaureate Core. It was during this time, once the committee realized that the courses must do much more than merely “affirm diversity,” that the search for a more appropriate name was launched. The combination of difference, power, and discrimination seemed to fit well with the direction in which the committee was now headed, with its emphasis on the systems of oppression rather than the mere historic facts of oppression. Additionally, the focus on these systems, rather than specific instances of oppression meant that courses that met this requirement would deal with oppression not in terms of hierarchies but rather in terms of the interlocking nature of multiple oppressions.

The committee strategically decided that the best way to implement this new requirement was as three of six flexible credits already existing as a requirement in the Baccalaureate Core, so that no new credit requirements would be added to the currently existing fifty-one general education credits. The committee also suggested that students be allowed to double-count these credits with other Baccalaureate Core classes, but that suggestion was later turned down.

On May 7, 1992, the final proposal for the Difference, Power, and Discrimination (DPD) category of the Baccalaureate Core had been unanimously endorsed by the Faculty Senate Baccalaureate Core Committee and was approved by the full Faculty Senate. The criterion that received the most discussion was the one that noted, that, “Courses should critically examine personal beliefs and actions in a classroom dedicated to tolerance and civil discussion.” Many faculty members felt that it was not within the purview of Baccalaureate Core criteria to say how the course should be taught. Committee members argued that when attempting to change deep-seated views, you needed to provide a forum in which students are led to examine their personal beliefs, and that, for this to happen, the professor must encourage tolerance and civil discussion amongst the students. A course that only utilized the lecture format would not be as successful. Nevertheless, this criterion was voted out. It was decided that all first-year students entering OSU during or after Fall term of 1994, and all transfer students entering during or after Fall of 1996 would be required to take a three-credit course in the new Difference, Power, and Discrimination category of the Baccalaureate Core.

The first faculty seminar was held during the summer of 1992 under the direction of a newly hired acting director of the DPD program, Annie Popkin. Popkin continued to run the seminars, which came to be known for their immense reading load and lively discussions, for the next two summers. A permanent director was hired in 1994 and the faculty seminar was shifted to a weekly seminar held during winter term, although the summer seminar was taught once more in 1996. At this time, the DPD program was housed administratively within the College of Liberal Arts and physically adjacent to the Women Studies Program.

In 1998, during a round of recurring budget cuts, university administrators saw the DPD program, which had a budget of only $56,000, as an easy target for elimination, believing that such a new and poorly funded program would not have strong support among faculty or students. They were wrong. In May of 1998, a group of students and faculty mounted a strong and vocal protest against the defunding of the DPD program. Students mobilized immediately and circulated a petition to retain the DPD program (see the appendix at the end of the chapter for this student petition). This protest resulted in the reinstatement of limited funding to continue the half-time director position and the faculty development seminars. An interim director was appointed and the program was relocated out of the College of Liberal Arts to the central administration area of Academic Affairs.

By the 1998–1999 academic year, sixty-four OSU faculty members had participated in six faculty seminars. The vast majority were from the College of Liberal Arts and there was a hope that by transferring the DPD program out of that college, other colleges would begin to share ownership of it. By this time, forty-one courses had been accepted into the DPD category. The program staff was very active as they attempted to spread the word around campus. Books, articles, pamphlets and videos were purchased and gathered into a resource library. Some faculty members were granted funding to attend conferences and symposia to deepen their understanding of issues of difference, power, and discrimination in their fields and in higher education in general. Other faculty received funds for course development. Dozens of brown bag discussions were held, dozens of speakers and multicultural events were sponsored and conferences were organized. Graduate teaching assistantships were created, a student essay contest was held and a regular newsletter was distributed.

This is not to say that everything was smooth sailing. Many people did not understand how the DPD requirement was different from the already-existing “Cultural Diversity” Baccalaureate Core requirement. At OSU, classes which met the Cultural Diversity category address cultural difference, but they do not have to address power, and discrimination, nor do they have to address issues as they specifically affect the United States. So, one could take a course in ancient Japanese art, for example, to fulfill the Cultural Diversity requirement. Other people thought that the newly created Ethnic Studies department precluded the need for the DPD program. But with only four new faculty members hired to teach courses in the Ethnic Studies department, in addition to doing community outreach and their own research, that department could hardly be expected to educate the entire campus.

“Political correctness” was used as a slur by opponents to describe the DPD program and associated curriculum requirement. However, when OSU juniors were polled about their experiences in required Baccalaureate Core classes, the DPD classes fared very well, with 70 percent saying that they were encouraged to use critical thinking skills. This compared to 71 percent, 61 percent, and 56 percent, in the other categories within the Perspectives area of the Baccalaureate Core. Still, the effects of the silent resistance became clearer when it was discovered that relatively large numbers of graduates had had their DPD requirement waived. Of the 488 graduates in 1998 who were required to take a DPD course, 113 or 23.2 percent did not do so. Of the 375 who did fulfill the requirement, 42 did so through automatic equivalency transfers that had not been approved by the DPD Program office.

In the course of the program evaluation done in 1998–1999, we also discovered that, unbeknownst to the DPD Program, the Baccalaureate Core Committee had altered the criteria, removing the one that specified “Courses should focus on the United States, referring to other societies for comparative purposes.” It had also added to one of the criterion that the course had to be lower division. This created several problems since upper-division courses, that had been accepted by the DPD office, were summarily rejected by the Baccalaureate Core Committee. Faculty who prepared these courses were angered that the two curricular groups responsible for the approval of DPD courses were not working together. The changes implemented by the Baccalaureate Core Committee had never been brought before the Faculty Senate for approval. They were procedural changes made within the committee with no outside oversight. To prevent future incidents like this, the director of the DPD program was made an exofficio member of the Baccalaureate Core Committee.

The following year, the Faculty Senate formed a DPD Task Force and charged it with the assessment of both the faculty development program and the Baccalaureate Core requirement. This task force brought slightly revised DPD criteria back to the Faculty Senate and received overwhelming support. Interestingly, a criterion focused on teaching methods was approved with no objections. The criterion that received the most discussion this second round in the Faculty Senate was one that insisted that DPD courses focus on the United States. Several faculty senators objected, with the predominant argument centering on concerns that a class about the Holocaust would not qualify as fulfilling the DPD requirement. The committee countered that it was just too easy for students to see discrimination as happening elsewhere, far away, but not here in the United States. Certainly, the Holocaust has a place in DPD courses, but the courses would have to relate back to the United States. For instance, one could explore anti-Semitism and homophobia in the U.S. or draw comparisons with the holocaust of Native Americans. Although several people voted against this criterion, it was accepted by the majority.

In addition to clarifying the criteria and soliciting the support of a new group of faculty senators, the task force wrote the job description for a permanent half-time director who would lead a much more solid program into the future. Permanent and recurring funding for the half-time director position was finally secured in 2002. The current director also holds a half-time appointment in the Ethnic Studies Department, a combination that has worked well to integrate those two departments.

With the arrival of the new director, the program has taken on several new initiatives: (1) reinstating the DPD Advisory Board; (2) conducting outreach efforts with community colleges, including a joint training session with colleagues from other colleges; (3) attempting to broaden the disciplinary representation of courses beyond those in the College of Liberal Arts (the colleges of Business, Engineering and Health and Human Performance have course proposals in various stages of preparation).

During the 2004–2005 academic year, the Baccalaureate Core Committee successfully conducted its first five-year review of the courses approved to fulfill the DPD requirement. In the fall of 2005, a regional symposium was held at OSU and a half-time program associate position was added.

It is clear that the Difference, Power, and Discrimination program at Oregon State University will continue to face challenges in the future, but it also has the structure, support and institutional history to face those challenges.

A History of Difference, Power, and discrimination at Oregon State University (4 of 4)



I. Proposals from students following 1990 incident

1. It is imperative that the University administration adopt a “Zero Tolerance” policy to <I>all</I> forms of racist and discriminatory behavior. This provision is to include harassment that is motivated by race, gender or sexual orientation.

2. The University must develop and implement a series of courses dealing with cultural and ethnic diversity, as well as racism/discrimination and their origins. We strongly recommend that qualified minority applicants be recruited to serve as instructors for any such course.

3. The University must make a firm commitment to the existence of cultural centers.

4. The proposed Office for Minority Affairs should be held by a Vice President for Equality Affairs.

5. An educational program for all faculty, staff (classified as well) and other university employees should be developed and implemented by spring term 1991.

6. The Affirmative Action Office should be reviewed on a quarterly basis and this review should be made available to all student leaders.


II. Student petition from 1998 requesting the reinstatement of DPD program

 “The highest aspiration of a university is to free people’s minds from ignorance, prejudice, and provincialism and to stimulate a lasting attitude of inquiry. Oregon State University shares this aspiration with universities everywhere.”— Oregon State University Guidelines

In 1993 the Difference, Power, and Discrimination (DPD) Program was founded to support the University’s guidelines to “free people’s minds from ignorance, prejudice, and provincialism.” Currently, budget cuts have both jeopardized this program and the University’s “highest aspiration.” At a time that OSU is attempting to broaden its appeal to students of diverse backgrounds it is essential that the University honor its expressed commitment to educating students about the heterogeneous world in which they will live and work.

We believe that implementing the following supports the guidelines as set forth by the University itself:

1. Funding comparable to the Writing Intensive Curriculum;

2. Full support for a DPD director;

3. Full support for faculty training /seminars beginning in the fall of 1998;

4. A public commitment by the administration to fund DPD on an ongoing basis.


III. Currently approved DPD criteria

Difference, power, and discrimination courses shall:

A. Be at least three credits;

B. Emphasize elements of critical thinking;

C. Have as their central focus the study of the unequal distribution of power within the framework of particular disciplines and course content;

D. Focus primarily on the United States, although global contexts are encouraged;

E. Provide illustrations of ways in which structural, institutional, and ideological discrimination arise from socially defined meanings attributed to difference;

F. Provide historical and contemporary examples of difference, power, and discrimination across cultural, economic, social, and political institutions in the United States:

G. Provide illustrations of ways in which the interactions of social categories, such as race, ethnicity, social class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, and age, are related to difference, power, and discrimination in the United States;

H. Provide a multidisciplinary perspective on issues of difference, power, and discrimination;

I. Incorporate interactive learning activities (e.g., ungraded, in-class writing exercises; classroom discussion; peer-review of written material; webbased discussion groups); and

J. Be regularly numbered department offerings rather than X99 or blanket number courses.

The unequal distribution of social, economic, and political power in the United States and in other countries is sustained through a variety of individual beliefs and institutional practices. These beliefs and practices have tended to obscure the origins and operations of social discrimination such that this unequal power distribution is often viewed as the natural order. The DPD requirement engages students in the intellectual examination of the complexity of the structures, systems and ideologies that sustain discrimination and the unequal distribution of power and resources in society. Such examination will enhance meaningful democratic participation in our diverse university community and our increasingly multicultural U.S. society.



McLagan, Elizabeth. A Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788–1940.

The Oregon Black History Project. Portland, Oregon: The Georgian Press, 1980.