Perceptions of Diversity at NHCC in the 1980s: Drawing the Line between the American Melting Pot and Multiculturalism

By Andrew Contreras |

The story of diversity at North Hennepin Community College (NHCC) is unique. As one of the most ethnically diverse student communities in the metro today, NHCC has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1966. Over time, there has been a change in the way minority populations are received—but under what circumstances, and why? By analyzing events, policies, objectives, and ideas flourishing at NHCC through the larger picture of social trends in America, the perceptions of ethnic and racial diversity can be answered. What exactly people were thinking about diversity in the early to mid-1980s at NHCC may be locked away, but traces of these thoughts remain.

Evidence suggests that interest in ethnic diversity at NHCC during the 1980s was on the periphery, since other social issues were yet to be solved. The larger social interests and concerns expressed by students, faculty, and administration at the college were a combination of the “American Melting Pot” and the “Salad Bowl,” two metaphors of American culture. The Melting Pot refers to the blending of cultural characteristics of different backgrounds to produce one definitive American identity. This can be contrasted with the Salad Bowl idea, or multiculturalism. The Salad Bowl idea aims to hold onto unique cultural characteristics, instead of blending them together or leaving them behind. NHCC is found somewhere in between these two ideas regarding diversity. However, the Melting Pot was still favored. Students and faculty were still more concerned with sexual and racial equality at the time, rather than diversity. This was to change. For the realities of multiculturalism to be accepted at large, NHCC students, faculty, and administration would need to first address and answer these pressing issues regarding sexual and racial equality.

The first overlying idea to address is equality. Equality must be grounded in popular thought before it is possible to approach the idea of diversity. NHCC was still rather consumed with the idea of equality during the early to mid-1980s. Although one could argue that larger social problems with sexual and racial equality had already been addressed at an earlier point in American history, it would be a long stretch to say that these problems had been solved at the college. Post-secondary institutions would be the last to turn over these long lasting social ideas. In an overview on campus racial dynamics, Mitchell Chang summarized institutional tendencies to influxes of racial diversity over time. Chang points out that “traditions…are commonly regarded as an institution’s source of stability, purpose, and identity” (2000, 167). He also claims that “while demographic shifts have changed the composition of the student body, they have not created proportional changes in institutional circumstances and practices. Generally, the traditions in question, whether they are curricular, cultural, structural, or symbolic, were established in eras when racism was socially and institutionally sanctioned” (166). These statements conclude that generally, post-secondary institutions are shaped inevitably through tradition, suggesting that NHCC was ill-adapted to conceptualize change from equality to diversity.

Perhaps the easiest way to see NHCC’s emphasis on equality in the ’80s is the Affirmative Action policy. NHCC was, and still is, an equal opportunity employer. This means that the college is required to meet certain quotas regarding minority and women in the workplace. As expected, Affirmative Action at the college during the early to mid-1980s was a tough pill to swallow. The required quotas were at odds with the demographic composition of Hennepin County during this time. In a North Star article, reporter W.C. Suess discusses issues regarding Affirmative Action with the Personnel Director of NHCC, Pete Fastner. The article does evince a level of concern over how to recruit minority populations for employment, yet it also has puzzling implications. Fastner concluded that minorities were simply not interested in working at North Hennepin. Suess acknowledges that “the greatest portion of these minority [sic] groups live in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. These people are not willing to drive the distance” (1981, 2). Based on this statement, Suess makes an impression that there was really nothing NHCC could do about the problem. There may have been a degree of truth in his responses. Indeed, demographic statistics suggest that nearly half of minority populations in Minnesota were located in Minneapolis and St. Paul from 1980–1990 (Minnesota State Planning Agency 1991, 7). But what this also suggests is that NHCC, and perhaps the city of Brooklyn Park, were not making a significant effort to embrace racial diversity.

Without services, programs, or a community that appeals to them, many people will not go out of their way to apply for a job. It is illogical to expect someone to work or learn in an environment without a sense of belonging or comfort. Thus, A minority student would not bother spending money or taking out a loan in order to attend NHCC. So why were minority students attending NHCC during the early 1980s? Recruiting for sports may be only one part of the answer, but it provides a very clear one. Jim Borer attended NHCC during the late ’60s and from 1982–1984. According to Borer, most students of color in both eras at the college were on sports teams (Borer 2012).

Moreover, an article from a 1982 North Star publication confirms that people of color on sporting teams were not performing well in their classes. The article, “Overton, Burton Declared Ineligible”, talks about how both of NHCC’s prized basketball recruits were declared as scholastically ineligible. Overton reportedly failed a sociology class, while Burton’s GPA was below the minimum requirement to compete in community college basketball. Furthermore, basketball coach Steve Lasley commented that “Last year we lost players the same way…” (Snyder 1982, 1). Why then were these students attending college at North Hennepin? Their attendance may have been largely due to effective methods of recruitment. Kevin Kiernan also wrote for the North Star about the recruitment practices of Steve Lasley at North Hennepin. In this 1981 article, Lasley speaks of his approach to recruitment as a function of both respect and friendship. Ironically, he also placed great emphasis on education first, then basketball (Kiernan 1981, 6). With this methodology, he was able to convince Redd Overton and Clay Burton to attend North Hennepin and play basketball for the 1981–1982 season. Yet the following year, they were both declared scholastically ineligible. Were Overton and Burton to blame for their poor educational performance? Or, were there other social factors contributing to their inadequacies? A sweeping assumption cannot be made here, but evidence indicates that during the 1980s, NHCC was not providing much for minority services. Instead, athletes were pressured to conform to the Melting Pot model accepted by the white culture majority at NHCC.

A perfect example of a program which NHCC was not particularly concerned with during the ’80s was English Speakers of a Second Language (ESOL). Gerald Lange conducted comprehensive research regarding this program at NHCC. Lange identified a “lack of a perceived need on the part of the college’s administration [during the early 1980s] to offer significant international student programs…the campus at this time was deemed far more culturally homogeneous than not, and ESL (English as a Second Language) studies did not of themselves constitute a major focus within the standard college curriculum” (Lange 2010, 2).

Supporting this statement, Lange cites a 1980 proposal lobbying for a course on cross-cultural comparisons. This proposal was brought forth by Tunde Lawal-Solarin, the president of the International Student Organization (ISO). Lange found that this proposal was turned down, the cited concern being that “the prospective student would be too limited ‘by his own provincial perspective’ to harbor enough interest in such a class as to make the involved effort worthwhile” (Lange 2010, 2 qtd. in Loso 1980, 1). The denial of Lawal-Solarin’s proposal is telling evidence of the values of NHCC. What this suggests is that the administration believed that the majority of the student body simply was not ready to embrace diversity. Likewise, it should come as no surprise that programs such as ESOL were fairly unpopular during the early 1980s, both for practical and conceptual reasons.

Another example of the sheer lack of interest at NHCC to embrace diversity can be seen by once again analyzing the North Star. A 1981 article titled “Student Defines the Role of the ISO” composed by the ISO president Johnson Naagen Gwaikolo, confirms the prevailing perception of diversity for NHCC students. Gwaikolo stated that the ISO existed so students could share their ways of life, traditions and values in order to remove barriers between students. However, he warned that this would only be effective if “we broaden our scope of interaction” (4). Likewise, he saw that the ISO “has been consciously or unconsciously unnoticed through the years.” His reasoning behind this statement brings a number of factors into question, one of which he states as being a “lack of interest” or “just plain reluctance to accept integration.” It is true that NHCC was willing to provide an opportunity—a safe haven for international students at North Hennepin, yet this was not the whole picture. Just because this service was provided by the institution, does not equate embracing diversity. More likely, the organization was made to provide an equal opportunity, because the needs of students required that it be made. Effectively, the ISO only met the needs of a small selection of students (50 international students in 1983–1984) who wanted to maintain their cultural traditions and resist the Melting Pot.
In Anna Schumack’s (2009) paper on student identity at NHCC, she argues that there is a need for cultural identification—for ethnicity to be expressed at the college. Schumack makes a great point in stating that “There are more groups now because…more people from many different backgrounds [are] in search of others with a common identity” (6–7). The abundance of student clubs/organizations we see today can be interpreted as a combination of both increased diversity of the student body, and a willingness to embrace this diversity with respect to the Salad Bowl idea/multiculturalism. During the 1980s, by contrast, the perceptions of diversity at NHCC were still geared toward the Melting Pot idea. That is, the few minorities present at the school may have been subject to the cultural norms of the majority (in this case the white population).

Equality can also be traced by looking at how the student body was evaluated at that time. Polls that directly compare statistics of men to women turn up in the NHCC newspaper, the North Star. One poll from 1983 made a comparison of NHCC graduates to “all students” on a basis of full/part-time, gender, and age (Gaulke 1983c, 1). In another poll taken in 1984 regarding political issues, the survey interviewed an equal number of men (forty) and women (forty), obtaining a total of eighty respondents. Not only did the survey emphasize gender equality through the number of respondents, but many of the political issues addressed in the survey also emphasized equality. They were questioned regarding their views on world peace, environment, civil rights (i.e. gay rights and women’s rights through the Equal Rights Amendment), religion (i.e. abortion and school prayer), and social programs (i.e. restoring cuts made to federal aid, education, food stamps, AFDC, and unemployment insurance) (Bencke 1984a, 4).

This poll is summarized in an article written by Lynn Bencke, who provides an interpretation of these poll statistics. She found disagreements between men and women on issues of military, gay rights, and women’s rights through the Equal Rights Amendment. To this, she concluded a gender gap exists (Bencke 1984b, 4). What this suggests is that there were still tensions between men and women at NHCC regarding controversial issues. Men, in this case, were less inclined to favor the equal rights for either women or gays. Clearly, this 1984 poll exposes the fact that NHCC was still disputing over sexual equality, thus indicating that students were ill-prepared to embrace diversity. Likewise, these issues do not include anything specific to minority programs, education, or populations in suburban areas. The 1983–1984 student profiles also hold clues to biases toward concerns over sexual equality. Nearly all statistical research in this document is concerned either with age or women (Wavrin 1983). Furthermore, there is no mention of minority percentages at NHCC of any sort. Regardless of whether or not there were a significant number of minority students at NHCC during this time, it seems apparent that minority representation was not a concern of surveyors, reporters, or polls. Embracing diversity seemed to be on the periphery.

Articles regarding sexual harassment and rape in the North Star also hint at the larger social concern of equality at NHCC during the era. In “Sexual Harassment, it’s Against the Law,” reporter Paul Gaulke interviews Pat Herndon from the State Department Employee Relations at NHCC about what qualifies as sexual harassment. The article stresses awareness, and outlines five steps for women to evaluate potential sexual harassment situations. Herndon contrasts the college environment to that of a work environment by saying, “Higher education has a different situation because the students are the clientele, but they are much like employees because they have no power.” Herndon concluded that students at North Hennepin, for this reason, should be particularly sensitive to sexual harassment (Gaulke 1983a, 1). The fact that North Hennepin was immensely concerned with sexual harassment at the time ties back into the larger issue of equality.

Clearly, students recognized the power imbalance between men and women at the college. This imbalance reflects a hesitance to embrace sexual equality. The battles over the Equal Rights Amendment and Affirmative Action were still being fought. In the same North Star publication, Gaulke states his personal opinion regarding sexual harassment. In this section, he comments on how blown out of proportion sexual harassment concerns are. Gaulke reveals his bias on the issue when he bluntly states, “But I still have a few unanswered questions about all this equality stuff…What happened to equal rights?” He goes on to say that “What I’m getting to is common sense and we all should try using it once in a while. And maybe someday a woman will open a door for me” (1983b, 2). Gaulke’s opinion confirms Lynn Bencke’s assertion that women and men had conflicting opinions over women’s rights through the Equal Rights Amendment, among other things. The debates over women’s rights were at the forefront of controversial issues at NHCC during the 1980s.

Perceptions of rape round out the second half of the controversy over sexual equality. Following the rape incident on campus in January 1984, NHCC administration took a stand by deeming the behavior unacceptable. They also increased security and initiated harsher policy (Gaulke 1984, 2). This, at the very least, demonstrates a social transition towards equality of women. Indeed, by the 1980s NHCC had seen past the prevailing male social identity of the 1960s, which held that women were sexually attractive to men; consequently, this enforced the idea that women were considered objects for men to project their identity. This male identity was the accepted norm well into the 1970s, and the blame of almost all rape cases fell on the female party.

In the same North Star publication, J.D. Kitzhaber reports on students’ reactions to the January 31, 1984 rape case on campus. Among other questions, Kitzhaber asked students, “should the rapist be castrated, imprisoned, or put in a mental institution?” (3). Wording of this question alone indicates Kitzhaber’s views on the issue. His question suggests that he held an outright intolerance for rape, and believed that offenders should be locked away and punished rather than rehabilitated. In turn, this may be interpreted in a sense that the author is only concerned with sexual equality, and does not care at all about the rapist’s background, or why he perpetrated this crime. This can be filtered all the way down to its essence: it is unlikely that Kitzhaber perceived this issue from the perspective of diversity.

Student responses to this question express ideas flowing from outright equality to diversity (see Figure 1). When asked the question stated above, seven of the ten students expressed opinions in favor of punishment by imprisonment and/or castration. All seven were in favor of imprisonment and/or castration did not voice any care or curiosity whatsoever regarding the mental stability of the rapist. One response (consistent with the other respondents holding this opinion) threatened that “If they caught him they should castrate him and throw him in jail. They should take a big chunk out of his life since he has taken so much out of the victim’s life. She has to live with it for a long time” (qtd. in Kitzhaber 1984, 3). One could argue, then, that these seven students, lacking any sense of care or curiosity, were ill-fit to embrace diversity. Two of the ten students interviewed questioned the psychological capabilities of the rapist, acknowledging that he might well be mentally ill. One of these students, Sue (a social work major), commented that “obviously the guy who did it has a problem and should be analyzed. I don’t think the guy should be castrated because that would make him more afraid of his lack of masculinity and manhood and a lot of times rapes aren’t sexual. A lot of times the rapist uses an object.” Unlike the seven answers favoring punishment, these two demonstrate a broader understanding of underlying cultural concerns, suggesting a worldview that would perhaps embrace diversity. Kitzhaber annotates that the one neutral response was “realistic.” This response, by a student named Mark, read as follows: “It was unfortunate for the girl that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The man definitely has a problem. We could either hurt him or help him…”

To debrief on the student reactions, over half of the responses reflected views of equality, while one was in between equality and diversity, and the other two were favoring views of diversity. The author’s bias appears to be toward equality, based on the questions he chose to ask students, yet he claims to agree with the neutral respondent. This, of course, leads back to the ideas of the American Melting Pot (equality) and Salad Bowl (diversity). Thus, student sensitivities to the rape indicate that the debate over women as equals at NHCC was still being fought during the 1980s. However, student reactions also tell us that traces of diversity were co-existing with ideas of equality and the in between.


Figure 1

Overall, NHCC was not void of diversity during the 1980s. To some degree, the idea was being recognized. This is true when we look at the International Students Organization (ISO) at NHCC. The ISO, established in 1971 by Tom Carey, stands as an exception to attitudes on diversity, and how foreign students were received. One could even argue that aspects of the ISO went past the idea of equality at NHCC. Beginning in 1975, the school annually dedicated a day to cultural awareness, where diverse traditions, foods, clothing, and religions were shared with all. One source found, “More than three hundred were in attendance in 1976, a number that grew steadily each year” (Vyzralek 1991, 5.30). Apparently, the event was well received by the student body, too. The increased attendance over time also implicates how diversity was being perceived by the student body; more students were open to learn about and experience different cultures.

According to the NHCC student handbook, from 1982–1983, the ISO “sponsors an International Student Awareness Day to foster understanding among all nations…international students…are invited to join the International Students Organization, where they can make friends and share cultural experiences with each other and American students.” Before this, mention of the organization was in the handbooks, but not necessarily with a sense of welcoming or pride. In handbooks before the 1982 edition, the ISO was advertised as “Did you know that there is an International Students Organization on campus? Dr. Thomas Carey, located in the counseling center is the advisor for this group” (North Hennepin Community College 1981). This should come as no surprise considering Johnson Naagen Gwaikolo’s 1981 North Star article, and administrative viewpoints on the ESOL program in the early 1980s. As stated above, it was believed that there was simply no need for these changes. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge the fact that information on the ISO was provided in handbooks, and at the very least, students were given an opportunity to experience ethnic diversity with International Student Awareness Day.

Interestingly enough, Gwaikolo’s concerns over student “lack of interest” or “just plain reluctance to accept integration” bear correlation to a change in promotional strategies regarding the student handbooks. By 1982, the handbooks emphasized the ISO to a much more significant degree. Considering Schumack’s findings regarding student identity—the formation of student organizations arising from the needs of the students—this change can also be interpreted beyond its explicit meaning; the gradual shifting along the continuum from equality to diversity is identifiable.

Salad Bowl perceptions of diversity were also present with staff at NHCC. Barbara Johnston was ahead of her time with her views on diversity. In a 1984 interview with Terri Walton for the North Star, Johnston described her most central interest as being “values and philosophies—what really causes people to tick. We relate to people superficially because we tend to deal with people categorically, especially by age, sex and race.” Johnston continues by stating “I’m a free spirit. I’m not tied down to earthly ascribed statuses.” At the time, Johnston had just taken a chair position of a new Social Action Task Force, Walton explains, which “will be concerned with minorities, poverty, housing, and day care”. Another important point Johnston made in her interview was “our politicians have been concerned about waste of resources. 60% of our population is women and minorities; wasting 60% of any resource is alarming” (1984, 5). These statements almost speak for themselves. Clearly, Johnston embraced diversity and the Salad Bowl idea with her cultural awareness and community involvement.

The emphasis on planning for the future at NHCC during the 1980s also suggests that change was on the horizon. NHCC’s 1983-1984 Strategic Plan reflects shifting attitudes towards diversity. With this document, administration demonstrated their willingness to adapt to changing cultural and social landscapes in Hennepin County. The Strategic Plan proposed seven major goals for the college. One of these goals was marketing and improvement. The NHCC Research Planning Office proposed a marketing study stating that “we need to know more knowledge of the community we serve and they about us” (Helling and Clarey 1983). From this platform they expressed concerns over school image, and how to change it. They asked, “What are communities (groups) we are presently serving and what others do we want to serve?” Based on this question, concerns over school image could be interpreted to accommodate both sides of the equality and diversity continuum. For one, the research team may have sought to change the school image for the sake of advertisement, or recruitment of prospective minority students, to meet a quota (equality). On the other hand, a change in school image could mean a shift in how ethnic diversity was conceptualized (shift towards diversity). Most likely, it was a combination of the two. Moving past the “traditional mindset” was another proposal of the study. The phrase “traditional mindset” leads one to believe that NHCC was making an effort to leave old social and cultural norms behind for the new era and the realities of the present day. Tendencies of the post-secondary institution to stick to tradition only exemplify NHCC’s willingness to change. Recall Chang’s findings stated above: “Traditions…are commonly regarded as an institution’s source of stability, purpose, and identity.”

“Marketing and Improvement” may have a lot to contribute to the argument, but perhaps the most telling ideas presented in the Strategic Plan are contained under the goal subject “Collegiate Life/Services.” The first sub-point of this goal is, “Include Students in Planning Workshops.” This title alone says a lot about perceptions of diversity for both women and minorities. Although the planners were not letting the students run the show, including them in planning implies an interest in student needs. The majority of student needs at the time may not have included minority programs and services, but the planners were opening the doors to accommodate future student needs. This reflects the overarching idea of the slow movement towards open-mindedness of faculty (such as Barbara Johnston). On this point, they suggested “greater emphasis on activities and services,” along with “investigate[ing] different types of clubs and organizations.” This is familiar to what we see at North Hennepin today, with vast offerings of clubs and organizations which appeal to the student body. Obviously, ideas and plans did not change policy and social norms overnight, but the groundwork was being laid with the Strategic Plan, Cultural Awareness Day, and minorities lobbying for accommodations.

Without a doubt, diversity has been dealt with differently throughout the history of NHCC. Understanding what people thought and why is a much more challenging question to answer. Evidence suggests that perceptions at NHCC during the 1980s ranged somewhere between equality (Melting Pot) and diversity (Salad Bowl). NHCC’s lax efforts to meet quotas for Affirmative Action during the early ’80s are a telling sign of institutional priorities. Truly, though, perceptions of diversity at NHCC can best be understood as existing on a continuum. Indeed, we have viewpoints that speak strictly of concerns over equality, and others that are staunch advocates of diversity. But an overwhelming percentage of thinking can be understood as a medium between the two. Hints toward the shift occurring during the ’80s can be seen by analyzing NHCC’s administrative planning for goals and objectives, evaluating evidence of staff who were interested in diversity, and also looking at student reactions to the campus rape in 1984. Changes in the student handbooks demonstrate this shift in a very literal sense as well. Clearly, perceptions of diversity were a mix between the Melting Pot and Salad Bowl. This is still true to this day. If the Salad Bowl/multiculturalism was entirely realized, what national identity would there be left to embrace? Although there is still some value in the traditional Melting Pot idea, understanding other cultures is imperative to provide for needs and services, especially with the influx of diverse populations to different parts of the U.S.


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