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The gay Cuban-American breaking barriers in Washington

Ana Mari Cauce Image copyright University of Washington
Image caption Ana Mari Cauce told her students about her own struggles against prejudice and intolerance

University leaders might talk about the virtues of diversity but they don't often embody it.

When vice chancellors and presidents are gathered together, they often match the stereotypes of being grey, male and pale.

But not Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington in Seattle in the United States.

As well as being a first lady in Washington - as in the first female president of this major US university - she is also Cuban-American and gay.

It gives her a different perspective on the wave of protests about race and identity that have hit US university campuses.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Universities across the US have faced protests and debates about race and identity

When Dr Cauce delivered a speech to students about prejudice and arguments about campus racism, it was a long way from the usual platitudes.

Her own story has been much tougher than those of the many students now protesting.

She told her students, in painful detail, about how she had been rejected by her mother when she came out as gay.

Born in Cuba, she came to the US at the age of three, and her parents worked in a shoe factory - despite her father having been a minister of education in Cuba.

Her brother was a civil rights campaigner who was killed at an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally - and she told her students how she had had to break the news of his death to her mother.

"Because my mother didn't understand English well, it fell on me to tell her what had happened. I'll never forget the sound she made. It was not quite human. It was unbearable for us both."

Image copyright Katherine B. Turner
Image caption University of Washington has 45,000 students on its campus

It was a long way from a traditional speech of a president from a top-ranking university.

So what does she think is causing the current soul-searching about racism in universities?

"It's everything to do with changing demographics," says Dr Cauce, speaking in London.

"It's now in your face, literally. The face of our country. We tend to think in terms of majority and minority, but in the US we're at a point where there is no majority."


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Dr Cauce, a professor of psychology, says universities have still to catch up with a society in which there is no longer a single dominant group or culture.

In the past, she says, black and Latino students, or those from poorer backgrounds, might have felt that the university system "wasn't made with you in mind".

But now universities, with their own long traditions, are facing difficult questions about how to be more inclusive.

Such debates have seen Harvard Law School change its seal, part of which was the coat of arms of a notoriously brutal slave owner. Harvard has also dropped the title "master" for members of staff, because of uncomfortable associations with slavery.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Protesters at Yale challenged what they claimed was racism on campus

Dr Cauce says that such symbolic decisions are difficult for universities, which are balancing a sense of continuity and tradition with the need to be sensitive to contemporary expectations of students. They have to be "timely and timeless," she says.

But she says fear of being accused of being racist or bigoted should not be used as an excuse for avoiding controversial subjects.

She argues it is better to have "difficult conversations" rather than hide behind a cosmetic appearance of inclusivity.

Dr Cauce uses the image of a university cafeteria - where it might appear from the outside to be an integrated student body but where, on closer inspection, ethnic groups are sticking to their separate tables.

Image copyright Doug Plummer
Image caption Dr Cauce says that universities need to have difficult conversations about race on campus

"You can have all the diversity in the world but if all the kids are sitting in their own spaces in the cafeteria but not talking to each other, you're missing the point."

She says there is no point in trying to "sugarcoat" the racism and prejudice that is part of society.

But when it is challenged it is often about misunderstandings rather than malice.

"In my experience, often when students do things that are very offensive, it can be done more out of ignorance than purposefully," says Dr Cauce.

The polarisation in politics - being played out in the presidential election campaigns - is also adding to the rising temperature on such issues, she says.

What makes the stakes even higher is that universities have increasingly become the "gatekeepers" for entry into middle class professions.

This means that ethnic groups missing out on university, or feeling that they don't fit in, can be excluded from getting a good job.

"More and more a university degree is becoming the calling card to success in the future, to being able to achieve leadership positions," says Dr Cauce.

"We have a real obligation to make sure higher education remains accessible - either by low cost or a good system of scholarships."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Harvard has dropped the title "house master" because of associations with slavery

In terms of affordability, Washington's tuition fees are cheaper than universities in England.

Fees for students from Washington state are about $12,000 (£8,200) a year and after means-testing for financial support, about a third of these students pay no fees at all.

It's also reaching a lot of people, with 45,000 students on campus and another 50,000 studying online.

Dr Cauce says she would be delighted if her own story helped to give confidence to a young person thinking of applying to university.

But she also says that people can "transcend" their own history.

The conclusion of the story of her relationship with her mother, after she told her that she was gay, shows how attitudes can change. And it's hard to think of a more honest speech from a university head.

"She even offered to sell her condo, her only real possession of worth, to get me conversion treatment," Dr Cauce told her students.

"It was tough between us for several years, until finally something changed. I'm still not quite sure how, but she was ready to visit me in our house.

"She grew to love my partner, now spouse. Years later, trying to fight her way back from a massive stroke, my mother died in my arms, and I knew she was proud of me.

"I think she knew I was proud of her. It was the last gift we gave each other."