When the pictures don’t reflect reality: Study shows that most universities use potentially misleading images of diversity

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Postcard for D.U.’s Pioneer Leadership Program that depicts a  potentially misleading image of the university’s diversity. [Photo by Donovan Rice]

Every now and then a story surfaces about a university photoshopping a student of color into one of their brochure photographs. For example, the University of Wisconsin received heavy criticism after editing a black student into a cover photo of their admission booklet in 2000. But these cases are relatively uncommon and ignore what some people would like to call a much bigger issue.

Rather than editing students of color into their brochure photographs, many schools intentionally select particular photos that overrepresent these students compared to their actual populations on campus.

A recent study found that 81.2 percent of non-traditionally-black colleges overrepresent their African-American students by an average of 106 percent (i.e., over two-times) the actual proportion.

“We are obviously trying to represent the university in the best way possible, and in a way that is realistic, but is also aspirational,” said Emily Forbes, D.U.’s Director of Communications for Enrollment. “It is always that fine line to walk, and there is no clear-cut way to make it work or right for everyone. But we try out best to keep things moving in the right direction.”

Forbes shared how she and her team try to balance the advancement of minority groups with a proportional representation that reflects the actual population of the university.

“I think we go somewhere between the two because we do want to be accurate in representing who we are, what campus is like, but, as any good organization, we are looking forward to who we want to be and what it would take to get there,” she said.

Morgan Carter, a first-year student at D.U., questions this aspirational stance.

“I feel like on the surface level, it’s more, ‘Let’s look like we have more diversity,’” said Carter.

As an African-American, Carter arrived at D.U. with a greater expectation for diversity than what she found, particularly regarding black students.

While she was aware that D.U.’s undergraduate population is roughly 20 percent students of color (not including international students), she did not realize that of these 1,353 undergraduates of color, only 139 are African-American, according to D.U.’s website.

That translates to just over 10 percent of all students of color at D.U. and less than 3 percent of the school population as a whole.

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Pie chart of D.U.’s diversity, according to their website. [Graphic by Donovan Rice]

While Carter is unsure where exactly her false expectation originated from, she thinks it, in part, can be attributed to the photographs.

“It was frustrating for me looking at the photos and seeing a bunch of people of color, whether Asians or Hispanics or Pacific Islanders or whatnot, particularly other African-Americans, and then when I got here, it was like, whoa!” said Carter. “I came to D.U. knowing it is very white… but I think I hadn’t grasped exactly how white.”

Carter shared how her frustration did not translate into a sense of betrayal, however.

“I wouldn’t say betrayed because I think part of it is on me for not looking into it further,” she said. “Maybe I was grouping [all] people of color to think that there would be more African-Americans.”

Carter is not the only person to have done this. Indeed, in a research article exploring the topic of overrepresentation in school brochures, the authors — Timothy Pippert, Laura Essenburg, and Edward Matchett — conjecture that African-Americans have become the symbol of diversity.

“It appears that ‘diversity’ and ‘minority’ have been defined by many campuses as having a sizeable percentage of African-American students,” they wrote.

The study found that the lesser the diversity of university, the greater the frequency and degree of overrepresentation.

As part of the research, the team analyzed over 10,000 photos from 165 four-year college institutions and compared the depicted diversity to the real diversity of these schools. What they found was that overrepresentation is widely practiced; however, its application depends on the racial group.

African-Americans were the most disproportionately overrepresented, followed then by Asians and, unexpectedly, whites. They also found that Hispanics and other racial groups tend to be underrepresented.

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Table 1 of study showing true percent of population, depicted percent of population, and the percent of difference between the two. [Graphic by Donovan Rice]

Forbes provided some insight on this topic, guessing why this tends to be the case.

“I would guess on purely a visual level, it is easier when the photographer is out taking photos to quickly identify someone’s race if they are African-American and say, ‘Oh there’s the student of color I’m going to include in this group shot that I’m taking,’” she said. “Compare this to a Latino or Hispanic student where on a visual level it may be more nebulous, and someone would probably have to ask about their identity before making a judgment.”

Carter said she can relate to this, as she humorously reflected on how photographers often tend to pick her out of a crowd at events.

“It’s always kind of funny, since it’s like, ‘Well, I’m going to wind up on something, because I’m the person of color here,’” said Carter. “To an extent it’s kind of fun because I get that face time, but it’s also kind of a bummer because it’s misrepresenting the school and the area, because when they come here and see me, they’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, so she’s the only one [African-American] actually.’ It just feels a little bit misleading.”

To get an expert’s view on the subject, D.U. sociology professor, Ellen Berrey, was asked for her insights.

Berrey focuses her studies to the rhetoric of diversity and published a book titled The Enigma of Diversity last year. In it, she explored how diversity has been used as a taming or watering down of the demand for racial equality: how including a person of color on an executive board (or school campus) would satisfy the demands of diversity but not those of racial equality.

Regarding school photographs, Berrey said in an interview this Thursday that she does not mind them as long as they are coupled with policy action to help students of color thrive in college.

“I think what is the most important thing is that image making comes with real, concrete policies that are effective at moving the needle in both increasing the numerical representation of students of color on-campus — and faculty and staff also — but also providing them the support they need to thrive: support services, mental health services, curriculum that represents their interests, and also shifting the broader culture in the campus environment to be more welcoming,” said Berrey.

She discussed how not including the photographs creates a culture that tolerates racial inequality. If all photos are of white students, then prospective students of color would not be as inspired to attend the college, she said.

“So the photos might be problematic, but it would be worse without them,” Berrey concluded.

When asked at what point should overrepresentation be considered overstepping, Berrey was unsure where to draw the line.

In fact, no one interviewed seemed to know where this line should be.

Forbes mentioned how she thinks her team effectively balances it; however, she also said there is no definite line.

“I don’t think there is a clear line,” said Forbes. “I think that we’re juggling that everyday with every piece of communication.”

One area of consensus across all interviews was that when it comes to photographs of groups where it cannot be perfectly split proportionately, it is preferable to overrepresent than underrepresent students of color.

For example, when selecting a photo of six students, Forbes and her team debate whether to include one person of color (making it 16.6 percent representation) or two (making it 40 percent). While technically 16.6 is closer to 21 (D.U.’s percent of students of color), Forbes said that her team is more likely to go for the 40 percent figure.

This logic concurs with Berrey’s argument that overrepresentation is less problematic than underrepresentation.

Even Carter agreed to an extent. She reflected how to her, even if it is not a perfect, proportional match, seeing the students of color on a brochure gives her a sense of comfort.

“When I was looking for colleges, I wanted to see that there was a person of color on the brochure,” said Carter. “It was one of those things where I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, I understand 80 percent of the people here are white.’ But that [brochure] cover was something somewhat comforting.”

One proposed area of improvement by Berrey was to include a photo of students of color from just one race.

“I think it would be very provocative if there was a photograph of only Latino students,” said Berrey. “That might be a different kind of reality that students experience on campus, that would be more honest because there’s internal segregation on campus in terms of who people are friends with. I think that would be a little more provocative and pushing the edge, but that would be a little more honest as well… That might even make it more attractive to minority students.”

As these multiple perspectives suggests, there still remains much to discuss and improve. However, in the meantime, one can consider it reassuring that these discussions are beginning to spread, as is the much larger quest for racial equality across universities and society as a whole.

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