Education

NC State leader suggests special housing for women of color, and an internet backlash erupts

Nashia Whittenburg is the new director of multicultural student affairs at N.C. State University.
Nashia Whittenburg is the new director of multicultural student affairs at N.C. State University. NCSU

A proposal to offer special housing for female students of color at N.C. State University has kicked up a controversy, but administrators say there is no active effort to establish a new, racially segregated dorm space.

The idea was floated by NCSU’s new director of multicultural student affairs, Nashia Whittenburg, in a profile of her posted on the university’s website Aug. 1. Whittenburg talked about several initiatives that she wanted to pursue, including a new living and learning village for women of color.

Several conservative-leaning websites, including www.campusreform.org and The Daily Caller, published articles on Whittenburg’s idea. That led to a flurry of negative comments aimed at the university.

“So much for preparing students for life in a multicultural working environment!” posted one alumnus identified as Cary White on NCSU’s website. “This is the logic of the left. If campus doesn’t pull back my support of State will.”

Another, identified only as Tony, wrote: “Segregating black women into their own dorm is now considered ‘progress?’ Maybe we’ll have black only dining rooms and black only drinking fountains soon. I thought this is what the Freedom Riders fought against in the 60’s, maybe I’m wrong.”

Whittenburg did not respond to a request for an interview. In the NCSU story, she said she hoped a new living option could help retain Latina and African-American women at the university.

“The point and purpose is if you are a Latina and you are an engineering major, with a very specific specialization, you may not ever see anybody who looks like you,” Whittenburg said in the NCSU story. “But when you come home, here is your opportunity to get some support and to deal with some of the microaggressions you might have had to deal with throughout your entire day when you’ve been at class.”

Mike Mullen, NCSU’s vice chancellor and dean for academic and student affairs, said Whittenburg’s idea is not under consideration and there is no plan to establish a space for women of color.

But affinity housing groups are nothing new, he said. NCSU has had special “villages” for students since 2004.

“These are not unusual,” Mullen said. “The whole idea is that you provide within a residence hall, sometimes within a couple of residence halls, you provide an opportunity for students to self select into thematic kinds of living communities.”

Mullen said there are 14 such villages at NCSU, including spaces for students interested in entrepreneurship, the arts, environmental sustainability or engineering. There’s an honors village, a global village and a wellness village. The university also offers housing based on gender, race and ethnic characteristics, including a village for Native Americans and one for the university’s Black Male Initiative, which began two years ago and now has about 40 students. There are two villages for women — one with a leadership focus and one with a science and engineering focus.

Students in thematic living communities typically take a course or some courses together, and at some universities, classrooms are built into the halls.

UNC-Chapel Hill lists 11 residential learning programs, including a “Blue Sky Innovation Community” that features a collaborative creative workspace. There’s a substance-free community for students in recovery or those dedicated to a sober lifestyle. Another, called “Pride Place,” is aimed at students of all sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions.

“We envision a housing community in which every LGBTQ+ student feels safe, included, and empowered,” the UNC website says.

Two new learning programs will open this fall at UNC — one for global scholars and one for students who are the first in their families to go to college.

Some communities are small, with only 20 students. Others are quite large with several hundred students. They are generally aimed at first-year students, Mullen said, and national data show that students who live in thematic housing tend to be more academically successful. Nearly half of this year’s incoming first-year students choose to live at NCSU’s villages.

Besides a couple of all-female residence options, there are no buildings at NCSU that are entirely segregated, Mullen said. But students might be grouped together on one hall or in one area of a residence hall. For the Black Male Initiative, about 40 participants live within Avent Ferry Complex, which houses a total of 625 students.

That kind of environment could have been a benefit to a former student, who posted on the university’s website. Students of color can feel ostracized or not taken seriously in class, she wrote. But going home to a community where people can relate to your experiences, she said, “can do wonders for one’s self esteem,” adding, “let’s not pretend NC State is the mecca of inclusion.”

Bringing together students with common goals creates community, collegiality and ready-made study groups, Mullen said — a valuable result on a campus with 34,000 students.

“Those are all points of engagement that make it more likely that a student is going to say, ‘Hey, N.C. State is my home and I’m going to stay,’ ” he added.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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