Clarification: This story has been edited to clarify that the proportion of Black students to total enrollment increased by 0.4 percentage points – from 1.4 to 1.8 percent - between 2000 and 2010.
Koyin Olopade paused on the floor of the University of Oregon Student Recreation Center as throngs of incoming freshmen milled around her at a college orientation event. Voices and laughter echoed through the cavernous space as students from all over the country jumped at their first opportunity to explore the campus. Despite the happy environment, Olopade was overwhelmed. Here, she was finally coming to terms with the reality she had spent the entire day trying to rationalize.
Almost everyone who goes here is white.
Olopade, who identifies as Black, had spent the morning and afternoon with a small orientation group, all of whom were white except for her and one other person. She had tried to convince herself that it had just been a small sample size. But standing in the middle of hundreds of people who had chosen UO as their home, she could see this was not the case.
Olopade had chosen UO because it was the reasonable thing to do. She was an Oregon resident. The school had offered her more financial aid than any other school she’d applied to. Westview High School, her alma mater, was 40 percent white. UO was 60 percent white. From an outsider’s perspective, it sounded like the same thing.
Olopade shakes her head. “It wasn’t the same thing,” she says, laughing.
Olopade is one of 548 Black students enrolled at UO. Black students comprise 2.4 percent of the student population. This percentage has increased by less than 1 percent in the last 27 years. The university’s mission statement says that “we value our diversity and seek to foster equity and inclusion in a welcoming, safe, and respectful community.” And UO President Michael Schill has prioritized “improving inclusion and diversity” during his tenure, according to his UO biography.
But some Black students who attend UO say these statements don’t reflect the reality of their experiences. First-year graduate student Imani Lindberg says she does not see herself reflected in the faculty, and she’s enrolled in classes that scarcely address diversity and inclusion issues in her field. First-year Ellie Akough describes feeling frustrated with a lack of actual changes in campus diversity. She struggles with her racial identity studying at a predominantly white institution and says she has an entirely different racial experience as a discus, shotput and hammer thrower for UO Track & Field than she does as a member of the general campus community. Third-year Donovan Jones says he experiences a sense of isolation in his student environment that has been exacerbated by events of racially motivated violence in the country.
“I’ve always had Black friends growing up. I’ve always been with my family,” Jones says. “Obviously it’s different now at school. Sometimes I feel really alone.”
According to Black Cultural Center Coordinator Dr. Aris Hall, the university’s location in a historically racist and predominantly white state can prevent Black students from choosing UO. But she says the state’s history and demographics are not an excuse for apathy.
“The reality is, we can’t change the context and the demographics of Oregon,” Hall says. “Which means that something else has to change.”
When Oregon was granted statehood in 1859, it was the only state in the Union to explicitly ban Black people from living, working or owning property within its borders. Though the U.S. 14th Amendment negated this exclusion law, the regulation remained on the books until 1926, leaving lasting racist ideologies in its communities and institutions.
Mabel Byrd, the first Black student to enroll at UO in 1917, was also the only Black resident of Eugene at the time. Because she was not allowed to live on campus, she lived in the home of one of her professors. Dr. William Sherman Savage, the first Black student to do graduate work at UO in 1926, was also the only Black resident of the city. According to UO Special Collections and University Archives, Eugene was the center of the Ku Klux Klan’s activity in Oregon at the time.
It was not until after World War II that the number of Black Oregon residents and university students began to increase. Even then, the increase was minimal. In 1983, when the school officially began recording racial and ethnic demographics in the student population, 175 of 15,480 enrolled students were Black, making up 1.1 percent of the student population.
“In 2000, 259 of 17,843, or 1.4% of enrolled students were Black. In 2010, 431 of 23,389, or 1.8% of enrolled students were Black."
Since 2014, the overall student population has leveled out and even decreased, while the Black student population has continued to increase slightly each year to reach its current 2.4 percent standing.
Today, only 2 percent of Oregon’s population is Black. 13 percent of the United States’ population is Black. And Eugene’s population is only 1.8 percent Black. For Donovan Jones, the small Black population in Eugene contradicts urban Oregon’s reputation as a progressive utopia.
“Oregon tries to make itself seem like such a progressive place, and then you walk five minutes off-campus, and you’re like ‘Wow, I do not feel comfortable,’” Jones says.
Jones grew up playing basketball in San Francisco. His high school was predominantly white, but some of his best friends on the team were Black. Having those connections made him feel less isolated when it came to his racial identity. But at UO, he says he carries the feeling of being slightly out of place everywhere he goes.
His freshman year, he found comfort playing basketball at the Rec Center with other Black men multiple times a week. But ever since COVID-19 made these gatherings impossible, he’s struggled to connect with people who understand his experiences, especially after publicized instances of police brutality against Black people and protests for racial justice erupted in 2020.
“When there’s things going on like there are right now, it’s kind of difficult to talk to my white roommates about some of these issues,” Jones says. “Not that they’re not there for me, but they just don’t understand it and can’t perceive it the same way I do.”
Jones says it would help if more Black faculty and staff were available as resources. He has never had a Black professor and says he would feel much more comfortable reaching out to someone who understood his identity.
Only 2.2 percent of faculty, staff and graduate employees at UO identify as Black. And according to a 2020 report from the Division of Equity and Inclusion, among all underrepresented groups, Black faculty are three times more likely to leave the university.
Damien Pitts is the only Black staff member in the Lundquist College of Business in Eugene. He says that based on what he’s seen, Black faculty and staff are often unsupported and isolated in their departments.
“You can’t depend on one person to do everything for you, because you’re adding more of a burden to that Black faculty or staff member, which is going to burn them out, and then they’re going to leave,” Pitts says. “I think that’s what happens a whole lot. It’s a massive burden on some of us.”
According to Pitts, this burden is not exclusive to faculty and staff. Students feel it too.
Imani Lindberg, a first-year graduate student, says that seeing Black faculty teaching about what she wants to do would make her goals feel more achievable.
“It’s nice to see somebody that looks like you and think, ‘They did it. I can do it too,’” Lindberg says. “Within my program, it’s like, ‘These white people did it.’ But I have to face all these other roadblocks that they may not have to face because of identities I hold that they don’t.”
At the graduate level, 81 out of 3,543 total students are Black. Lindberg says she is one of two African-American-identifying individuals in her cohort.
Lindberg is working toward a master’s degree in public administration, and she says her coursework has very little emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion. She says this term is the first time she’s worked on a project that addressed any of these topics directly. In all of her other courses, they never made it to the forefront.
UO introduced a Black Studies minor in the fall of 2020. Demands for the program began in the 1960s and were revisited more recently in 2015. Also demanded in 2015 was the renaming of Deady Hall — named after Matthew Deady, a politician who helped shape the Oregon constitution that banned Black people from living in the state. In 2017, President Schill decided not to rename the building, saying “Deady does not represent an example of an egregious case justifying overturning the presumption against denaming.” But when demands redoubled in May 2020 after former police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, Deady Hall was renamed University Hall.
Akough, the first-year thrower for UO’s track and field team, says symbolic gestures denouncing racism won’t solve the issue for Black students.
Akough came to UO because she loved Hayward Field, the temperate weather and her track and field coaches. She says she recalls seeing posts on Instagram and Facebook about the university’s diverse and inclusive campus before choosing the school but says these posts haven’t matched her experience.
Akough is biracial and was born to a white mom and an African-American dad. She was raised by her mom and stepdad, also white, in Omaha, Nebraska. She says her upbringing and attendance at a predominantly white high school have influenced the ways she interacts with white spaces. And she says her socioeconomic background put her in a position to be able to afford the school's high out-of-state tuition.
At UO, out-of-state tuition is almost $40,000. Hall says these costs may deter Black students from attending the university, especially when combined with its reputation as an extremely white college in an extremely white state.
“When you insert the cost of UO to come from out of state and be a non-resident and combine that with the culture shock, I think it makes it harder for Black students to feel like they belong here,” Hall says.
Pitts says even high schoolers in Springfield and Eugene may be hesitant to remain in the area for their secondary education.
“I understand leaving the nest,” Pitts says. “But if you leave the nest because you don’t feel welcome here, that’s a problem.”
Many Black students who do choose UO experience complicated social lives on-campus. Akough says she sometimes feels judged by other students of color for her adherence to white culture, specifically the way she speaks. But she also doesn’t want to be the token Black friend in a group. Because of that, she says it’s hard to form relationships with other students and feel comfortable engaging with Black culture.
“It almost takes a piece of that Blackness from you,” Akough says.
But Akough has found a community in the athletic department. A large portion of the track and field team, her head coach and two of her close friends who also do throwing events are Black.
A significant amount of Black student recruitment at UO happens through athletics. At the national level, 13 percent of NCAA Division I student-athletes are Black. The UO Office of Public Records was unable to provide race and ethnic demographics for UO sports teams, but after manually counting all Black athletes on UO athletic rosters based on appearance, using athletes’ social media accounts for additional verification, and dividing this number by the overall number of student-athletes at the university, it appears approximately 22 percent of UO student-athletes are Black.
Katie Harbert, the Assistant Athletic Director for UO, says the school is a destination for athletes. The success of individual athletic programs, the allure of expensive facilities and the school’s connections to Nike all act as draws for student-athletes, including Black student-athletes.
By dividing the number of Black student-athletes by the number of overall Black students at the university, approximately 20 percent of the current Black student population are student athletes. Harbert says attending a predominantly white institution where Black students are only strongly represented in athletics can be hard for Black athletes at UO.
“We find their experiences within athletics different than on-campus and different than in the community,” Harbert says. “Many of our Black student athletes are only seeing themselves as athletes.”
But the number of Black students in athletics has also created a much-needed space for conversations about race. After George Floyd was murdered, Akough says the track team had multiple team meetings to discuss what was going on. Akough wasn’t even officially on the team at that point but still got to participate in the conversation and share her perspective.
“I definitely don’t feel left behind by the athletic department,” Akough says. “It’s a different story when it comes to the university.”
Akough wants UO to take action. She says while she values the conversations she has in the athletic department and wants those things to happen at a university-wide level, conversations aren’t enough. She says the school’s recent efforts to stand against racism are important, but they don’t amount to anything that will tangibly improve the experience of Black students and faculty on campus.
“It gets to a point, where you have to ask yourself, as a university, as a community — what’s next?” Akough says. “Why don’t Black people want to come here?”
At UO, students and faculty alike have demands. They want to see the recruitment, retention and support of diverse faculty and staff. And they want the administration to share their action plans with the university, not just put out a statement when a racially motivated act of violence takes place. Hall says that if students continue to use their voices, change is possible for the school.
“Students here have a lot more power than any other university I’ve been at, with their activism and their work to get things changed,” Hall says. “Students will continue to have to fight for the things they really believe in.”