In class, with a raised hand, a student waits to be answered by the professor and once some time passes, the student is still not acknowledged. Paranoia begins to creep in as the clock ticks and when another student raises their hand, they are instantly called. The student wonders if the lack of recognition is because of race, gender or something else.
Through her research on SJSU’s Campus Climate, sociology professor Susan Murray has found out how and why discrimination happens on campus and what can be done to make SJSU more inclusive.
Murray conducted research to discover how students, faculty and staff feel about race, gender, sexuality and social status. Murray led a series of focus groups to get a more in-depth look at what discrimination looks like on a day-to-day basis. The thirteen groups included in this study were students who are African American, Asian American, international, Latino, LGBT and white and faculty, staff and lectures who are African American, Asian American, Latino, LGBT and female. Participants were given the chance to speak freely about their experiences, Murray said.
“You can legislate equality but you can’t get to that deeper level to look at, examine and see at the interactional level what people’s experiences are,” Murray said.
During workshops, case studies were used to ask participants how they would respond if they overheard or experienced specific scenarios.
Murray said a student in one of the focus groups mentioned that when professors talk to their classes about their wives or husbands it is acceptable, but if a homosexual professor mentions their partner, the students start to react.
“Their homophobia comes up,” she said. "In a workshop a heterosexual professor said, 'Wow, I didn’t realize when I mention my wife, by gendering the person I’m with, I’m shutting down some of my class.'”
However, Murray said the findings are not isolated to just SJSU and positive things can be done with the research.
“On one level it can be very alarming, but on another level, if we ever really want to move into an accessible campus we need to know how we may be reproducing racism and classism without knowing what we’re doing,” Murray said.
“In most cases people aren’t even aware that they’re causing offense,” said Wiggsy Sivertsen, a counselor at SJSU.
Focus group research shows that overall, people are having a good experience at SJSU. Murray said there is room for improvement to lessen discrimination on campus and her research can be used as a tool for learning and improving.
“There are lots of things that we do that we can do better at," said Demerris Brooks, the university ombudsman. "The report may not be the biggest issue that we have but it is part of the puzzle, part of the picture of what’s going on here. For the student experience and ways that we can improve, it’s significant and worth paying attention to.”