Incidents at UNH Force Difficult Dialogue About Race and Diversity

May 18, 2017

Credit Mike Ross, UNH

In recent weeks the University of New Hampshire has seen a string of racially charged incidents play out on campus. The events are forcing a difficult conversation just days before graduation.

Danique Montique says May 5th was a trying day for her. As she walked to and from class across the campus of UNH, she saw many white students dressed in sombreros and ponchos for Cinco de Mayo.

Montique, who is black, sees the costumes as offensive examples of cultural appropriation. And she felt compelled to say so. Recording the exchange on video, Montique confronted the students, and the exchange quickly escalated into shouting from both sides. Montique then posted the video of the altercation on social media where it exploded.

It was shared more than 3,000 times,  and hundreds of commenters weighed in on both sides of the argument.

“I just wanted UNH to know how I felt and how other people of color felt on campus during celebrations like this," Montique said.

The episode captures the mood on campus after what has been a difficult few weeks at UNH -- with students, faculty, and staff wrestling with themes of diversity and inclusion at the majority white school.

In the days after Cinco de Mayo, a social media post mocking Montique and appearing to depict blackface was widely shared.

Later, swastikas were found drawn on the wall of a student dorm.

Then, a racial epithet targeting African-Americans was found graffitied in another campus building.

UNH Police Chief Paul Dean did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but in written statements confirmed that at least three incidents are under criminal investigation.

“It gives a sense of dread," says Spencer Littles, a senior at UNH and a member of the Black Student Union. He says events like this have happened before on campus, but not with this frequency.

Other minority students like Briana Garcia, who came to UNH from Denver, describe less obvious, but no less troubling forms of discrimination.

“Coming here, it’s very different," Garcia said, "The biases are subtle but you still notice them all the time and I just – I can’t handle it anymore. I need to leave.”

Garcia had decided to transfer to Texas State University.

And while there’s plenty of frustration among these students towards the perpetrators of these acts, they’ve also been upset by what they call the lackluster response from university officials. Members of the Black Student Union and other groups staged a protest at UNH administrators’ offices, demanding action.

That led to a tense three-hour forum with students, faculty, and staff last week.

UNH President Mark Huddleston addressed the crowd, calling the incidents vile, and also acknowledging that they aren’t the first of their kind at UNH.

“I think I said I’ve been here for 10 years and almost every one of those 10 years, we’ve had some version of this conversation," Huddleston told the crowd. "And I understand your frustration. I can’t fully appreciate it, but I understand it. And I know that that frustration extends back even beyond the 10 years that I’ve been here.”

Huddleston referenced a set of demands made by the Black Student Union in 1998. Among those demands were for UNH to enroll at least 300 black students by 2004. Today, out of an undergraduate population of about 12,000, there are 165 black students. That’s just over one percent.

One person who will be at the center of UNH’s attempt to address these issues is Jaime Nolan, the school's Vice President for Community, Equity, and Diversity.

“It’s really important that we are transparent, that we acknowledge our failings where we are challenged," she said in an interview this week.

She said the past few weeks have revealed some uncomfortable facts about campus climate. But she said the UNH community shouldn’t shy away from the tension.

“Because the tension is where all the possibility is," she said. "If we avoid the tension, then we’re avoiding the very things where we might actually find meaningful action or potentially solutions.”

For the moment, the action has largely taken the form of talking about the problem. And some minority students say they do feel that at least now they’re being heard. But for those interested in continuing the conversation, the immediate challenge is the approach of summer.

Graduation ceremonies take place tomorrow and many students have already left campus. Which means we may not know until next year whether this uncomfortable moment for UNH will be a learning one as well.