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.