A History of UW’s Road to Diversity


In his recent book, Revolution to Evolution: The Story of the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity at the University of Washington (University of Washington Press, 2022, 360 pages), Emile Pitre traces the history of the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity (OMA&D). That office began with a revolution in 1968 led by the Black Student Union (BSU). Pitre suggests it “has evolved into an entity markedly different … in structure but steadfastly similar in its overarching goal of providing an educational opportunity to a subset of Washington citizenry.”

In 1968, Pitre was a founding member of the BSU at UW. By 1982, he was working for the university as a chemistry tutor. At the time of his retirement in 2014, he was the associate vice president for minority affairs. He is proud of the work the UW has done in increasing minority enrollment and success.

Pitre organizes the book around each decade since the revolution began 55 years ago. He focuses mainly on the actions of leaders (both students and administrators) and on the development of programs designed to address “educational equity and social justice.” The book includes correspondence, news clippings, photographs, interviews, and written statements from those who lived the history of OMA&D. 

The book reprints a copy of the revolutionary manifesto the BSU wrote to UW President Charles Odegaard on May 6, 1968 which stated: “The University of Washington has been, and is a racist institution.” The manifesto demanded inclusion of Black students in decision making, allocation of financial resources to serve Black students, development of a Black Studies curriculum, and hiring of additional Black faculty and staff.

In the weeks that followed that demand, a series of letters and position papers were exchanged between administrators, faculty, and students. When students became “impatient with the snail-like pace” of progress they voted to occupy the administration building where the president was meeting with the Faculty Senate Executive Committee. The UW police locked down the building, but the four-hour sit-in ended peacefully with one of the student leaders saying, “We left the administration building in triumph.… We were on the road to getting what we wanted.” 

Black students played an important role in fomenting the revolution, but the BSU also included Chicano and Native American members. All three of those racial groups were recognized in the original structure of the Office of Minority Affairs (OMA which later became OMA&D) programs. Some Asian students objected to this approach. In 1969, Filipinos and other “needy Orientals” were identified as underrepresented minorities (URM) and included in OMA programming. 

The early OMA organizational structure centered on “semi-autonomous ethnic student divisions and an economically disadvantaged (white) division.” This structure was seen as the best way to “assure the cultural identity of each minority group.” The ethnic divisions sometimes led to challenges about perceived differences in services received by each group. Sam Kelly, the first Vice President for Minority Affairs resigned in 1975 under pressure from the Chicano students who claimed that their division was underserved. Kelly’s successors began to organize programs along functional lines such as admissions, advising, and tutoring, rather than by ethnicity.

OMA initially played a major role in the admission of students who identified as URM and those who lacked academic preparation for college. UW defined three admissions categories ranging from students who were prepared for the academic rigors of a research university to those who had “been deemed inadmissible according to the University’s regular admission standards.” For many years, the UW admissions office forwarded all applications from URM students and all those with academic “deficiencies” to the OMA for possible admission through its Equal Opportunity Program (EOP). 

By the 1980s, these policies had changed so that URM applicants who were regularly admissible were not forwarded to OMA. This was one of several instances in which OMA found itself in conflict with other UW entities which seemed interested in “absorbing” OMA functions. The 1996 Supreme Court decision in Hopwood v. Texas rolled back race-based admission policies. UW adopted a new “one-tier system” managed entirely by the UW Office of Admissions.

Because OMA primarily served students who were under-prepared academically and under-resourced financially, it is not surprising that early academic outcomes were less than stellar. By the late 1970s, only about 17 percent of EOP students were graduating. By 2017 (the latest data reported by Pitre), about 88 percent of EOP students were graduating. Pitre describes a broad range of programs and services that were developed over time to support this dramatic improvement in outcomes.

In the early 2000s, the office was expanded to include the word “diversity.” Gabriel Gallardo, Associate Vice President for Student Success in the newly named Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity, wrote in 2015 that this change “gave us not only a focus on retention and student success but also … it began to connect our work with the work of faculty, the work of academic departments.” For example, a new vice president/vice provost role was created that focused on increasing and retaining more faculty of color.

In 2018, OMA&D celebrated 50 years since services for minority students were formalized at UW. During that time, staff increased from 10 to 124 and the budget grew from $50,000 to $18 million.

In 1968, an estimated 5 percent of the student population were Black, Chicano, or Native American. As of 2021, the most recent reporting year, the Seattle campus ethnic composition is: 36.1% White, 21.5% Asian, 8.19% Hispanic/Latino, 6.26% two or more races, 3.27% Black/African American, .04% American Indian/Alaska Native, .03% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 24.61% who did not select any of these current reporting categories. Students identifying with the original three ethnic groups now make up 11.5 percent of the UW undergraduate population. Enrollment of Black undergraduate students has hovered around three to four percent for decades. 

Revolution to Evolution provides a comprehensive description of the 50-plus-year history of programs and services designed to enhance diversity at UW. The many sources used to document that history make compelling, at times complex, reading. The book brings together background material that will be valuable to future historians and researchers. 

The author does not directly address the question of whether UW is still a “racist institution.” A student protest in 2020 echoed many of the demands of the 1968 protest suggesting that much work remains to be done to address the complex issues of race and ethnicity – particularly for Black students – in an era of backlash against race-based admissions and diversity, equity, and inclusion programs on campuses.

Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan, author of "Digital Immigrants and Media Integration," is a writer, academician, and organizational leader. She has been a high school teacher, book editor, non-profit leader, journalist, technology executive, university professor, academic administrator, and higher education consultant.


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