Morgan unites over its diversity

Ad proposal's hairstyles wouldn't wash with students

December 14, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The public relations firm hired by Morgan State University was looking for straight hair, but its request caused a tangle.

Sahara Communications, a Baltimore company hired to create a television commercial promoting Morgan State, caused a brief uproar on campus this week with its letter inviting students to appear in the ad. The letter specified that the company wanted only students with straight, processed or short hair - no dreadlocks and no head wraps, and for men, no corn rows and no braids.

The request outraged many Morgan students, who saw it as a blatant attempt to portray a false image of the historically black college in northeast Baltimore.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Dec. 14 editions of The Sun about a commercial being filmed for Morgan State University described a letter sent by the public relations firm Sahara Communications inviting students to appear in the ad. The letter specified that the firm did not want students with dreadlocks or head rags, or male students with corn rows or braids. It did not specify that the firm was looking for students with straight, short or processed hair. Morgan students, however, said they understood the letter to mean that the firm was looking for students with those hairstyles.The Sun regrets the error.

"It's ridiculous that a black college would typecast its students," said sophomore Zakiyyah Seitu, a theater major from Baltimore. "For a long time, black people have had to change who they are so they can fit in, and a lot of us go to a black college so we don't have to change who we are. A lot of people are infuriated."

Students complained to the university administration, which, after meeting with them, disavowed the letter and said all students were welcome to participate in future filmings - whatever their hairstyle.

"We pride ourselves on our diversity, and that includes things in addition to skin color, ethnic background or religious orientation," said Morgan State spokesman Clinton R. Coleman. "It includes various styles of dress, headwear and hairstyle."

Coleman said the letter was written by Sahara Communications without input from the university and called it a "misstep."

"I assume they wanted a certain look," he said.

In an e-mail response to a call from The Sun, Sahara public relations director Karen D. Sloane-Thomas said company officials met with students Tuesday and that "the issue discussed has been resolved." The firm, which is owned by Morgan State alumna Sandy Harley, declined to elaborate.

Administrators and students agreed, though, that the episode was yet another sign of the challenge the 5,700-student school faces as it tries to broaden its appeal while retaining its historical identity.

"They don't want to portray Morgan as a historically black college, but other people have got to be aware, if they come to Morgan, they're going to be around people with head wraps," said Yullanda Hinds, a senior arts major from New York. "If you look around this campus, what do you see? Hair."

Morgan State signed a three-year, $1 million advertising contract with Sahara in July, part of its bid to build the school's name recognition.

Founded in 1867 as a Methodist seminary, Morgan evolved into a teacher's college, ultimately becoming a comprehensive public university primarily known for its music and engineering programs.

Sahara's letter, which arrived at the school's theater department on Monday, was seeking participants for a demo video for a commercial promoting the school that Morgan hopes to air next spring on area television stations.

Students got word of the letter Monday night and quickly organized a protest for Tuesday morning at the fine arts building, where the filming was to take place.

Students posted fliers around campus quoting Sahara's letter and alleging that one student was told by the public relations firm that "This is NOT a hip-hop university."

"Are we not ALL fit to represent the University at which we pay tuition?" the fliers asked.

The scene of the filming was tense, students said. The only two male students in the Morgan State theater department were told they couldn't be in the demo because of their hairstyles, and a female student was asked to go home and change her hairdo, students said.

While the filming proceeded, school administrators met with about 20 upset students and assured them that all interested students could take part in the filming, Coleman said. "The commercial was not intended to be exclusive from our point of view," he said.

Students said they were gratified by the meeting, but suspected the university had a role in the letter's wording.

Some students said the attempt to handpick the students in the commercial was part of what they see as Morgan State's campaign to draw more nonblack students.

"I understand their intention to bring in other forms of diversity, but they're neglecting what's already here on campus," said Jesse Winston, a senior arts major from Washington, as he worked in Morgan's art studio. "We need diversity, but I don't think they should fake our image."

If the school's goal is to attract more applicants with the commercials, the Sahara strategy could backfire, said Seitu.

"It's a bad image," she said. "It's not welcoming to young students who are comfortable with who they are."

The university spokesman played down the students' concerns, saying that Morgan, which remains more than 90 percent black, has no plan to overhaul its identity. "Morgan has and always will be an historically black institution," Coleman said.

The force of student reaction surprised administrators, Coleman said, but the episode turned out to be a "good thing, because the students are expressing views we were not aware of."

"Hopefully, this will lead to a process by which students will have more input in some of the projects that are done here," Coleman said.

Seitu said administrators shouldn't have been surprised by the uproar. The hairstyle request might have seemed superficial, she said, but it struck a nerve.

"It's an old controversy: whether we should assimilate or embrace who we are," she said. "It's difficult, and it's heartbreaking."

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