A rosy picture: The illusion of diversity in university marketing

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When Noura Liben discovered her photo being used to advertise the African and Middle Eastern Studies major in SMU’s course catalog, she was shocked. Liben graduated from SMU in 2013 with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mechanical engineering. She was pictured with three other women of color, none of whom were in the program.

“I was hurt and found it incredible that my alma mater type casted my friends and I based off our looks,” said Liben. “Some may argue that it was a haphazard selection, I wish that was the case but how else would an English, chemistry, biology and ME major end up as the face of African and Middle Eastern studies?”

Liben, who discovered the photo in October, took to Twitter, stating that none of the women in the picture were in the program and asked SMU what prompted their decision to use the photo.

SMU responded to Liben’s tweet stating, “The photo was mistakenly used on a University web page and is being removed. We apologize for its use and thank you for alerting us.” SMU later tweeted that they understood Liben’s “anger” and stated that they would do better.

Liben said she doesn’t think the photo selection was inherently malicious, but a result of unconscious bias.

“Unconscious bias is a well researched phenomenon, and many people are not aware in what ways they act on it, which can prove to be problematic and inadvertently hurt people,” said Liben.

The Daily Campus contacted SMU’s Office of Public Affairs, as well as information officials in Meadows, via email and received no response.

Liben’s case is not an unusual one. Researchers at Augsburg College in Minnesota recently conducted a study of viewbooks from hundreds of four-year universities. Viewbooks are promotional booklets published by universities with the intent of recruiting students. Researchers counted the racially identifiable students in the photographs and compared them to the actual makeup of the student body.

Researchers found that African-American students made up an average of 7.9 percent of students in the colleges studied, but 12.4 percent of those in viewbooks. When they looked at predominantly white schools, African-Americans made up about 5 percent of the student body, but were photographed at 14.5 percent.

Overall, the whiter the school, the more diversity was depicted in viewbooks relative to the actual makeup of the student body.

Of the 10,936 students enrolled at SMU in the fall of 2012, 9.9 percent were Hispanic, 6.4 percent were Asian and 6.1 percent were black. There is currently no available data on the racial breakdown of students in SMU’s viewbook photos.

The study states, “it is clear that racial diversity is being used as a commodity in the marketing of higher education and presenting an image of diversity is more important than accurately portraying the student body.”

The study also states that universities are trying to present an image based on the type of institution they would like to be rather than the one that they are.

Candice Bolden, an SMU junior, said she has been asked to appear in photos for SMU, usually at events.

“I was at a Tate lecture, and they had a photographer there,” said Bolden. “One of my friends, who’s Caucasian, asked a question and [the photographer] didn’t come up. I asked a question and immediately got a few pictures taken.”

Bolden also said that she noticed the difference in the student body she sees while walking around campus and that depicted in SMU’s marketing. “When you see slideshows or pamphlets there are way more minorities than I feel like you see when you’re walking around SMU,” Bolden said. “It’s a bit dishonest.”

It can be argued that exaggerating diversity in college viewbooks is dishonest and a reflection of a university’s desire to sell their institution to prospective students. It could also be a marketing strategy designed to create a more diverse environment on college campuses.

Bolden said she believes that photos depicting a diverse campus may bring more minorities to SMU. “Maybe eventually through trying to appear more diverse SMU will have a more diverse student body,” said Bolden.

However, not all students agree.

“I see it as a pure recruiting ploy,” said an SMU junior. The student did not want to give her name because she has many leadership positions on campus.

“That’s why they put me on everything. I happen to be a good representative of the university, yes, but I’m keenly aware that the university also likes to use me for recruiting,” she said.

Liben believes that SMU should be responsible and truthful, and not use the minority students as a marketing ploy. Though she said that SMU does not have a good reputation when it comes to inclusiveness, this can be turned into an opportunity for growth.

“I have faith that as an educational community we can think critically while broadening our perspectives by refraining from using anecdotal and dismissive examples to negate experiences and instead listen to each other,” said Liben.

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