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Bridging The Nation's Divides:


This College Is on the Front Lines of America’s Divides. Here’s How It’s Working to Bridge Them.

By Alexander C. Kafka SEPTEMBER 06, 2018  PREMIUM


Courtesy of MiraCosta College
Sunita (Sunny) Cooke (center, with MiraCosta College students) says racial incidents on campus when she became president in 2015 “made people very angry, for good reason. That was a moment of recommitment for us.”


On the front lines of the nation’s divides are campuses like MiraCosta College’s.

The community college, which stretches 25 miles along the Southern California coast, includes precincts that voted for Donald Trump and those that voted for Hillary Clinton. It includes communities where the median property value is $2 million and those where the median annual income is less than $60,000. The majority of its students are nonwhite. One-third are Hispanic. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton is its neighbor, and a significant proportion of students (8 percent) are active-duty members of the military, military dependents, or veterans.

Students represent "the extremes of ideological perspectives," says Kristen Huyck, MiraCosta’s communications director who also teaches political science there.

Idea Lab: Student Success


Tensions grew on the college’s two campuses as the U.S. presidential campaign intensified in 2015, the same year that Sunita (Sunny) Cooke became MiraCosta’s president. "White power" and drawings of phalluses defaced fliers for a Chicano-studies program. Racial slurs were written on the windows of a student club room.

"It was just kind of a kick in the teeth, given what we were trying to do and what we were about," Cooke says of the incidents. "It made people very angry, for good reason. That was a moment of recommitment for us."

MiraCosta’s leaders decided to take action on a number of fronts, instituting faculty training in diversity hiring and cultural competence; curricular changes; and thematic programs involving ethnic and religious minority groups and LGBTQIA students, and topics like homelessness and hunger.

For Cooke, creating a welcoming environment for diverse populations has personal significance.

When she was starting seventh grade, her family left India for America and settled in rural New Albany, Penn., where her dad took a job as a minister in a combination Methodist-Baptist church. Some people in the town welcomed her family, she recalls. Others didn’t — like the man who showed up on their front porch with a baseball bat saying he was going to kill them. Her brother, an 11th grader at the time, grabbed a baseball bat of his own and stood on the other side of the door while Cooke’s mother, upstairs, called on church friends to come and intervene.

"It was a very difficult period," Cooke says, "but also shaped for me the importance of people who would be allies for other populations."


As a college leader, Cooke wanted to find and create allies for her students. A molecular biologist, not a scholar of racial or socioeconomic relations, she knew she needed help and reached out to experts.

She asked Estela Mara Bensimon, founding director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California, to train MiraCosta’s administrators and faculty to make hiring procedures more inclusive, and to develop strategies to work more effectively and empathetically across cultures.

"When issues of racial conflict come up on a campus, there is a tendency to say, ‘this is not us, not what we are about.’ Or, maybe, ‘this is us and we need to do something about it,’" Bensimon says, "and I think that’s Sunny’s approach. Rather than deny there is an issue, she has decided to be really proactive."

Diversity Hiring: a Priority

Cooke and her leadership team consider diversity hiring a priority for generating a climate of inclusion. The proportions of MiraCosta’s 1,274 faculty members who are Asian- and African-American are about the same as the percentages of students from those groups. But only about 14 percent of the faculty are Hispanic, compared with close to 39 percent of students.


“Students that have been oppressed for years in the education system need more. They need someone to reach out to them.”

Even before Cooke assumed the presidency, MiraCosta’s English department had been pioneering new hiring methods. Job postings target instructors who are passionate not just about teaching but about helping historically underrepresented students. The department recruits in particular from composition teachers at California State University, other community colleges, and other campuses that have subspecialties in Chicano and African-American literature. It asks department heads at those colleges to recommend instructors for whom helping minority populations is a priority.

Then, in interviews, says John Kirwan, the department’s chair, candidates are asked specifically how they might tailor pedagogy to particular minority populations, building upon the cultural capital that students bring to the classroom and including readings that reflect the students’ worlds. In California that might mean Reyna Grande in place of Hemingway or Dickens. Candidates are asked to demonstrate their commitment to communities that students belong to outside the classroom, and they are encouraged to teach in learning cohorts focused around a shared identity, such as being a military veteran or part of a minority group.

Bensimon, of the Center for Urban Education, says that faculty members focused on equity make better hires, even if they are early in their careers, because they understand how to let minority students see themselves in the syllabus and in class activities. Some faculty members, particularly those with more experience, she says, say they are race blind and that they treat everyone the same, or that inequities have more to do with socioeconomic status than with ethnicity. They don’t "understand that students that have been oppressed for years in the education system need more," she says. "They need someone to reach out to them."

Overall, say Kirwan and Maria Figueroa, who teaches English composition, literature, and the humanities and is president of MiraCosta’s Academic Senate, students warm to specialized English 100 courses featuring Chicano, Asian-American, or other writers focused on the experiences of specific groups. But the hiring and curricular changes, among other reforms, have also sparked resentment from some faculty members and students.


Faculty members will sometimes acknowledge ethnic and cultural frictions but say their job is to teach literature, reading, and writing, not solve the world’s conflicts. Some white students who are chilly toward assigned stories of life in ethnic enclaves display offensive, stereotypical materials in their class presentations or make their displeasure known in other ways, Figueroa says. They "will question my ability to teach a class because of what I look like, because of what my name is."

Changes in recruiting for the English department have so far resulted in four hires in a department of about 21 full-time and 50 part-time instructors. In January, 17 hiring committees in STEM and humanities departments followed English’s lead in using the same types of diversity strategies the English department has.

A committee on diversity, equity, and cultural competency organizes workshops for the faculty at the beginning of each semester and the first Friday of each month. There are more-intensive specialized sessions, too, such as one recent one about unauthorized-immigrant students and the Dream Act. Participation is voluntary, but faculty members can get continuing-education credits for attending.

‘Represented and Valued’

While students want to see their diversity reflected in the faculty, they also want to celebrate and study that diversity themselves. So, under President Cooke, MiraCosta established a Social Justice & Equity Center to help expand awareness and empathy toward various groups. There, student fellows, sometimes as part of their honors commitments, study an issue like access for the disabled and make recommendations to the college’s board.

History and Heritage Months celebrate Latino, Chicano, Filipino, Alaskan, and other cultures, explore the legacy of colonialism, societal problems like hunger and homelessness, and aesthetic currents like graffiti and muralism.

"Our goal," says Yasmine Willis Fernandez, interim student services-specialist for student equity, "is to have programming that really shows that these students are represented and valued on our campus." The activities are student-organized, and speakers include faculty and staff members and alumni.

Tereza Zafra Lopez is a second-year MiraCosta student from Oceanside, Calif., who is working toward an associate degree in business administration, and who interns in the Social Justice & Equity Center. She says the college’s focus on diversity is constructive and eye-opening, for her and for others who participate in the center’s activities.

"There are so many students out there who want to talk about different issues," she says, including identity, race, and culture. "They don’t know where to have that conversation, how to have that conversation," and the center is a haven for them.

Zafra is organizing a month of activities and workshops for and about unauthorized-immigrant students — including practical sessions on financial aid and social occasions like karaoke mixers.


Mistaken Priorities?

Even as colleges like MiraCosta prioritize identity-awareness programs, cultural competency, diversity hiring, and curriculum reform, skeptics think those efforts reflect an academy gone wrong. Heather Mac Donald, a journalist and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is among them.

"I would like to see evidence that the faculty has been discriminating against qualified minority candidates before I would support a diversity-hiring mandate," says Mac Donald, who is the author of the new book The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture.

Mac Donald is also disdainful of tailoring curricula to certain populations.


"To encourage that viewpoint," she says, "is an abdication of the responsibility of the faculty to open students’ minds to greatness. If there are Chicano works that have been unjustly ignored, that reach the heights of insight into the human condition, by all means bring them into the canon. But to judge an author as unworthy of attention based on the irrelevancies of gonads and melanin is an incredibly tragic and closed-minded approach to what should be the joy of experiencing the greatest in human expression."

MiraCosta leaders see things differently.

As its board looked at student-outcome data about six years ago, it became obvious that student success, diversity, equity, and inclusion were all pieces of the same puzzle, says David Broad, the board’s president.

"Apart from wanting a campus where everybody feels welcome," he says, "it’s an economic imperative for the state." By 2025, California predicts a shortfall of one million college graduates to fill its work force. And in San Diego, with its high cost of living, it’s hard to recruit workers from elsewhere, Broad says. He learned this firsthand as an executive for Genentech seeking qualified employees for the biotech company’s Oceanside operations. There weren’t enough candidates, so he collaborated with MiraCosta on a certificate program to train more.

Focus on demographics is less about identity politics than about student success, says Wendy Stewart, MiraCosta’s dean of counseling and student development. Feeling accepted and involved, Stewart and other MiraCosta leaders say, is important in itself, but more practically it is key to students’ enrolling, persisting, graduating, and moving on to other educational and career goals. In that sense, diversity and inclusion aren’t just wafty ideals but are key to the college’s basic mission.

Cooke, MiraCosta’s president, has no illusions of tidy epiphanies or quick fixes as MiraCosta tries to do better at helping students and faculty members navigate the wide range of backgrounds and perspectives on their campuses.

"We’re learning," she says, "that despite all these things we’re doing that we’re proud of, there are times that something happens on campus and you feel like you’ve taken a step back. Sometimes it’s discouraging."

Going beyond platitudes is difficult, she adds, and "we’ll be in for a pretty rough set of conversations as we go deeper into this work."

Alexander C. Kafka is a senior editor and oversees Idea Lab. Follow him on Twitter @AlexanderKafka, or email him at


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