Unseen No More: Student Exposes BIPOC Experience at PC

by npatano on April 21, 2022


Rarely does a presentation of a single student’s undergraduate research have such high attendance, including the president of the College and the provost, that the venue runs out of seating. But rarely is there a student with the dedication and commitment to complete a two-year long research project, seemingly unrelated to his two majors, beginning in his freshman year and during a global pandemic. Justin Babu ’23 is just that student. 

In 2020, Babu, a biology and secondary education major, approached the director of the Black studies program and an associate professor of sociology, Dr. Zophia Edwards, with a research proposal. Babu, recognizing that BIPOC students at Providence College have a “vastly different experience” than the average student at PC based on his own undergraduate experiences, wanted to show this difference quantitatively. 

To do so, Babu created a survey with questions based on the HEDS Consortium Campus Climate Survey and the Brown University Climate Survey. Each question was optional to promote confidentiality, protect participant anonymity, and create a sense of trust among participants. Babu sent this survey out on April 7, 2021 via several departmental mailing lists. In just three days, Babu received 50 percent of the total responses received during the survey period (230 responses). By the end of the survey period, Babu had received 461 responses, approximately 10 percent of the PC undergraduate population. Edwards stated, “It takes whole offices with multiple people to do the work that Justin has done, by himself, in just two years.”

Approximately 90 percent of the survey respondents were undergraduate students, 10 percent were faculty, and just over one percent were staff and administration. Of the survey respondents, 75 percent identified as white and 25 percent identified as people of color, which Babu emphasized is a “really important statistic” considering people of color are often severely underrepresented in campus climate surveys distributed by the College. 

Based on the survey results, Babu was able to compare the responses of BIPOC respondents to all respondents, representative of BIPOC members of the PC community and all members of the PC community. 

The first questions Babu included were intended to measure participants’ satisfaction with the campus climate and diversity of PC. BIPOC respondents expressed more dissatisfaction with the campus climate than white participants, but all participants expressed dissatisfaction with the diversity of the College.

Regarding participants’ sense of belonging, acceptance of their identity, feeling of opportunities for success similar to their peers, and feeling that they receive the same recognition and praise as their peers, all metrics were lower for people of color than white participants. Similarly, questions relating to how valued participants feel by PC community members found that people of color feel less valued by administrators, faculty, staff, and students than the average person at PC. 

Babu explained how these results must be taken into consideration when deciding on new policies at the College. 

Babu also sought to understand trends in and rates of discrimination at the College, as well as people’s understanding and use of reporting processes. He found that the most common forms of discrimination experienced by people were on the basis of their race/ethnicity, physical appearance, and gender/sex/sexuality. Disturbingly, he found that more than 90 percent of people who reported experiencing discrimination did not report the incident to campus officials. The reason for this number can only be partly explained by Babu’s survey; a majority of respondents did not know how the reporting or investigative processes worked, and a majority found the reporting systems to be insufficient. 

Babu reminded his audience that “behind each of those numbers is a person.” Given that PC is a relatively small community, it is likely that everyone on campus knows or has interacted with someone who has witnessed or experienced discrimination. Citing the College’s mission statement, Babu asked, “As a campus, are we truly committed to the flourishing of each individual person?” 

In the spirit of James Baldwin, Babu explained that although this project makes it seem like he has a “hidden agenda” against the College, “I love PC. I wouldn’t do this project if I didn’t have Providence College’s best interests at heart.” Babu believes that these data, and the testimonies which he will collect during phase two of the project, must be at the forefront of all DEI initiatives “if we are going to promote this image of the Friar Family or this…Beloved Community at Providence College.” 

The first steps Babu suggested the College can take to achieve these goals are 1) creating greater transparency in the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; 2) creating greater accountability within data collection and recordkeeping of bias incidents through an ombudsperson and/or chief diversity officer; and 3) creating trust between IDEI and historically underrepresented groups on campus. 

Regarding step one, Babu described how difficult it was for him to obtain campus climate data as it is not publicly available. When he reached out to professors with his project idea and survey, many asked him for his data when he concluded with the project, suggesting that there is an interest in this kind of information. More than an interest, Babu stated, there is a need; campuswide access to campus climate data is “how we can best make policies at the College.” 

Following Babu’s presentation was an opportunity for the audience to ask questions. Dr. Rahsaan Mahadeo, an assistant professor of sociology and Black studies, asked about the 90 percent of people who did not report their bias incidents and whether that may be because they lack faith in the system. Mahadeo explained that people may see bias reporting as an attempt to “treat a disease with a symptom of the disease” as it can often be an additional site of racialized violence. 

Babu responded that the data collection is necessary for our campus, but the way the College currently does it can be improved through the use of an ombudsperson or another impartial party. “I would recommend for kind of this floor-to-ceiling remodeling of IDEI and these bias reporting systems,” Babu said. Ultimately, he stated that both data and testimony are necessary to assess and understand these issues.

Jessica Gilman ’23 asked Babu if he had any recommendations for how students with privilege, particularly white privilege, can create a more welcoming environment, since 46% of bias incidents were committed by students. Babu explained that he did not really have the answer, but he emphasized that we must hold the perpetrators of discrimination accountable: “If we hold these perpetrators accountable, it demonstrates that the College has deemed these behaviors unacceptable.” 

Drawing on the data that showed 30 percent of bias incidents were committed by faculty, 10 percent committed by administration, and 10 percent committed by staff, Dr. Ashley Smith-Purviance, an assistant professor in the Black studies program and public and community service studies department, asked how we can prevent our students who witness and commit bias incidents from becoming teachers, professors, and police officers who commit bias incidents. Earlier in his presentation, Babu addressed the concerning statistics around discrimination coming from faculty, staff, and administration: “We are putting these people in places of power such that they can lead every student at Providence College to academic success.” Unfortunately, that does not always seem to be the case, and certain students, whom Babu calls the “outliers,” are most at risk as a result. 

Babu hopes that the main takeaway from his presentation is that we are all stakeholders at the College, and we all have a responsibility to push the needle forward if we want to see improvements in diversity, equity, and inclusion.