By: Navid Farnia, M.A.
A of couple weeks ago, I decided to seek out Ohio State’s Middle East Studies Center. Having been at Ohio State for over a semester, I hadn’t heard about any activity relating to the Middle East on campus, be it lectures, discussions, or other events. I felt disconnected from my own background and wanted to engage important political issues regarding US involvement in the region.
The Middle East Studies Center is located on the third floor of Oxley Hall, but I couldn’t have imagined what I’d discover upon arriving there. Oxley Hall’s third floor not only houses the Middle East Studies Center, but also the Center for African Studies, the Center for Latin American Studies, the East Asian Studies Center, and the Center for Slavic and East European Studies. In other words, one floor in one building on Ohio State’s enormous (and expanding) campus covers the vast majority of the populated world. Needless to say, that finding upset me.
Now to be fair, the university has a Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (“Near Eastern” being a completely dated term referring to the Middle East), a Department of African American and African Studies (my home department), the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, and an International Studies program, which includes majors for Latin American Studies, African Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, etc., each located in different buildings, but I’ve found little programming and overall political engagement with current world events on campus. That’s why I thought the Middle East Studies Center would alleviate my anxieties. Unfortunately, I was wrong. (Just to be clear, my frustration isn’t with those running the center; I’m sure they are doing their best with what’s given to them.)
Admittedly, I’m very new to Ohio State. It’s still difficult for me to truly understand the racial dynamics on campus and the school’s attention to international political issues, but my experience thus far has been disappointing to say the least. At this point, I’m convinced that Ohio State does little for people of color, which includes people originally from the US, first- and second-generation immigrants, and international students.
Some surface research confirms my suspicions. According to the website collegefactual.com, The Ohio State University’s main campus ranks 1060th in ethnic diversity nationwide, with White students encompassing anywhere from 75 to 83 percent of the student population (information regarding the racial breakdown of international students isn’t available, hence the variance). Conversely, the student body is roughly 6% Black, 5% Asian, 3.5% Latin, and a paltry .14% Native American. In total, US students of color account for just 17% and international students only 8% of the population. Racial discrepancies in the faculty population aren’t any better. Faculty are 75 percent White and women comprise only 36 percent of the population, which means there are even fewer women of color on the faculty.
Moreover, the disparity between racial demographics on campus and Columbus at-large provides an even more startling context. As of 2010, Columbus’s general population was 28% Black and 61% White, meaning that White students are overrepresented and Black students are underrepresented at Ohio State, according to both local and national racial statistics, and the university isn’t doing anything to help racialized communities in the city either. Ohio State is directly responsible for gentrification in certain neighborhoods (including the largely Black Poindexter Village), as school officials press to expand the campus. Low Black student enrollment combined with forcibly relocating Black residents shows how the university lacks commitment to people of color.
Student demographics provide only part of the racial story on campus, however. The relationship between the student body’s racial composition, local politics, and the university’s apathy regarding international issues is more nuanced. In my short time here, Ohio State has facilitated very little political engagement, especially regarding current national and global events. For example, with so much happening in the Middle East, I expected to find more campus activities (lectures, community dialogues, panels, etc.) concerning the region. This is particularly true given the US’s repeated and seemingly unending interventions in the Middle East and surrounding regions, but little such campus activity exists. All told, Ohio State allocates minimal resources to serve people of color. More importantly, the university’s local ambitions along with a lack of political engagement with the world speak to its racial politics. By marginalizing students of color and non-Eurocentric worldviews, the university shows its ideological investment in whiteness.
As I become more acclimated to this school, I hope I’ll find less apathy and more engagement with issues affecting people of color. Nevertheless, I’ve been at three universities now and have so far found that Ohio State is the least committed of the schools I’ve attended (and that says a lot). Ohio State has 65,000 students and an endowment of over $3.5 billion and, yet, little commitment to enhancing the experiences of students who aren’t White.
Navid Farnia is a Ph.D. student in the Department of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University.