Several hundred students gathered inside the earthen corral of the University of Virginia's amphitheater Friday afternoon for a spring day of soda drinking, hot dog eating and convivial celebration. Light rock music, a staple at such outdoor events, was in the air, and the scene looked like a page from any college yearbook.
But Karen Wiggins did not feel welcome. Sitting on a concrete step where she could see the gathering, she looked on, detached and perturbed. Like many of her 1,165 black classmates attending this university of some 16,400 students in the heart of the Old South, she does not feel a part of the campus social life that many white students enjoy. In fact, she and other black students say, they feel isolated, uncared for and ignored.
"There are so few of us here, we don't have a sense of belonging," said Wiggins, a District of Columbia native and an engineering student. "They white students say we are separatists, but how can we integrate with them when we fully know they don't want us here."
The sentiment that the university is indifferent about the needs of blacks led to a peaceful student protest last week in which about 100 students marched to the university's Rotunda with a list of complaints. The university administration and the students agreed to continue talking to resolve the problems, which some black students say have been simmering for years. For instance, only 48 percent of the black students in the school of arts and sciences graduated at the end of the last four years compared to the school's overall rate of 70.8 percent.
Stop almost any black student here and ask him about campus life, and you are likely to hear a litany of complaints, ranging from racism in the classroom to why there isn't any black programming on the school's student-operated radio station. But the most important issue to black students is the small number of black students attending Virginia and what they call a half-hearted attempt by the administration to attract more black students and faculty to the school.
"It's a daily struggle," lamented Black Student Alliance Chairman Louis Anderson after he recalled a widespread story that white students at a recent formal dance in the school's Rotunda broke into a chorus of "I Wish I Was In Dixie."
"Do you understand all the racist implications of that?" he asked in a voice several octaves higher than his regular speaking voice. "It's hard for blacks here."
In this intellectually enriched academic environment, racial conflicts are worsened when black students, mostly from the South, have high expectations that whites here will be more sympathetic to black needs than their less-educated counterparts back home, black students say. Some whites, on the other hand--especially those from affluent backgrounds--expect to find fully acculturated blacks ready to embrace mainstream U.S.A. What some whites say they have found at the university are "militant, opportunistic" blacks looking for a "free ride."
When black students demand more black faculty, students and curriculum, more money for black campus organizations and more responsiveness from the university to black social and academic needs, some white students wondered aloud whether blacks believe they belong to a privileged class.
"I'm Jewish, and I can't take a class in Hebrew," said Jay Leshefsky, a history major from Long Island. If blacks didn't want to feel like a minority, why come to the University of Virginia? he asked. "But then if they didn't come, there would be even fewer blacks here and the problem would be worst. It's a vicious cycle."
Blacks say that their subtle ostracism is reinforced in ways many whites don't understand. Wiggins, for instance, says she is frustrated because of what she says is her white faculty adviser's lack of concern about her performance and problems. She said her high school background did not prepare her for the particularly heavy load of classes in engineering. She appealed to her adviser. "He could care less," she said. "If it was not for other black students helping me, I would be up a creek."
Stacy Poe, 21, of Bethesda, a psychology major, says she often stays away from student council-sponsored social events because she can't remember the last time there was a black performer at a major event.
"If it weren't for the black fraternities and sororities at the university, blacks would have little in the way of social life to look forward to," said Poe, a member of Delta Sigma Theta, a black service sorority.
Meanwhile, the campus administration, which is being squeezed by dwindling resources and pressure from Gov. Charles S. Robb's office and from the federal courts to improve its efforts to attract more black students, asks for patience and promises improvements.
"We will try to rectify all wrongs, if indeed there are wrongs," Vice President of Student Affairs Ernest H. Ern told a crowd of about 100 black students who marched on his office last week, waving placards and a three-page list of grievances.
Later, Ern said the key issue amid the laundry lists of issues is to provide a "satisfactory experience" for all students. "I can't think of an institution that doesn't have some problems; it's the depth and degree that are debatable."
There is little debate even among the university's leadership that at least one problem does exist: The school's limited success in attracting black faculty and black students. There are 31 black, full-time faculty members among 1,449 instructors and professors. One black applicant of a total 101 is expected to be hired this year, officials said.
Vice President and Provost Edwin E. Floyd, the university's chief academic officer, said the university is concerned about the number of black faculty and that recently, the university has made great progress in adding black teachers.
Floyd said the university's efforts are hampered by a declining pool of black doctoral graduates. Nationally, according to a university report, the proportion of black faculty applicants has decreased from 2.1 percent last year to 1.7 percent this year, making it unlikely that the university will reach its current goal of hiring 10 blacks for the faculty this year.
As for enrollment, university statistics indicate that the number of black students has remained at 6.8 percent of the student body for the last two years, with the majority of blacks in the school of arts and sciences.
Administrators point to a small pool of qualified blacks among college-bound high school students in Virginia as a primary reason for the school's failure to attract more blacks.
The university has extended the admissions deadline in an attempt to increase black enrollment. But the measure, too, has been criticized by both black and white students--blacks calling it a "ploy" and whites claiming the move is "blatantly unfair" to white students on waiting lists who might have been accepted.