History of the Multicultural Student Center

25th Anniversary Digital Archives

Compiled in conjunction with the MSC’s 25th (Silver) anniversary, this archive strives to document and preserve the history of UW Madison students who are underrepresented in campus collections. The bulk of the MSC Archive comprises representative samples from photograph albums arranged by Candace McDowell, the founding Director of the Multicultural Student Center. The photo albums cover the years between 1991 and 2007 and document events and activities sponsored by the MSC. The annual Multicultural Student Orientation and Reception (MCOR) and yearly MSC graduation celebrations are particularly well represented in the collection.

Visit our digital archive at the University of Wisconsin Digital Archive.

Our history of the MSC

May 1968

Chancellor William H. Sewell appointed an Ad Hoc Committee on Studies and Instruction on Race Relations which was ” …to review present curriculum offerings and to consider what this University can appropriately do to help its students become better informed on problems of race relations.” One of the first recommendations of that committee was the creation of an Afro- American and Race Relations Center (which was established in August of 1968) to improve the academic, cultural, and social climate for race relations at UW-Madison. It provided an environment in which Black students and others gathered to exchange ideas, work, study, and socialize. It furnished an academic atmosphere and focus for academic and cultural events as a home for a number of visiting scholars and artists.


By early 1971, the academic functions of the Center had diminished; to some extent they had been taken over by the newly created Afro-American Studies Department. The Center’s focus had become more social and political; the Executive Committee had ceased to function; it was torn by a series of both internal and external disputes; and there was growing realization that the concerns of various targeted American ethnic minorities were not being met. Because the participants failed to reach a satisfactory resolution of a wide variety of issues related to the Center, it was closed in 1971.

During the 80s a new consensus about the need for a center was emerging and there was a sense that the governance which affected the previous center was not insurmountable. The time was ripe to reconsider the need for and potential place of a multicultural center at UW-Madison.

December 1987

The Final Report of the Steering Committee on Minority Affairs (the “Holley Report”) was issued on December 1. The second of its six recommendations called for the development of a multicultural center on the UW-Madison campus. On February 10, 1988, Chancellor Donna Shalala appointed and chartered the Ad Hoc Committee on a Multicultural Center “to study and make recommendations concerning such a center.”

April 1988

The Ad Hoc Committee on a Multicultural Center noted the following:

“Precipitating both of these reports were problems of racism, recently manifested anew on the campus and in the community, and feelings of alienation and isolation felt by large segments of the minority population of the UW-Madison. As the 1980s draw to a close, the University [of Wisconsin] and the society at large in the United States remain enmeshed in a tradition which focuses almost exclusively on the Euro-American experience. This situation prevails, in spite of extensive alterations now underway in the demography of the country. Despite efforts in the past twenty years to reflect the demographic changes, the University continues to have glaringly low percentages of people of color among our faculty, staff, and students, and a rather dismal record of retention rates for minority students. As previous students have made abundantly clear, the UW-Madison has fallen short of its stated goals and ideals.”

After careful consideration of a wide variety of alternatives, the Committee recommended the creation of a centrally located Multicultural Center at the UW-Madison, which, at the outset, was to focus on the needs of five targeted American minorities: Afro-American, American Indian, Chicano, Asian American, and Puerto Rican.

The Committee believed that such a focus would “provide an atmosphere and program that will increase the chances of academic achievement; help create a sense of belonging and well-being among minority students; foster better relations within ethnic minorities, between minorities, and between minority and majority communities; enhance minority recruitment and retention; and concentrate our resources in a way that is likely to provide the greatest opportunity for improving the condition of minorities at the UW-Madison.”

The current Multicultural Student Center (MSC) was founded in 1988.

Its founding and current mission is to focus on the needs of five designated American ethnic groups: African American, Native American, Chicano/as, Asian American, and Puerto Rican. Its purpose is to create programs that will enhance the academic achievements of students of color and develop activities which promote cultural diversity. Additionally, the Center will create an atmosphere of warmth, identity and sense of belonging among students of color; foster better relations within designated groups, between designated groups and between American students of color and Euro-American communities. The Center will also build stronger links with the institution and the Madison community. The MSC was chartered with three key goals:

Academic: The principal activity of the Center is to facilitate the academic life of students of color. The Center serves as an academic clearinghouse to direct students to academic programs of interest and to call attention to tutorial and other student support services. The Center will also assist in the recruitment and retention of designated student groups. A center Fellows program will be implemented in the future. Fellows will serve as role models, stimuli and as an important base for exploring and discussing the social and cultural foundations of people of color.
Cultural and Social: The Center provides a central meeting place and open environment for students of color. While we are concerned with ethnic issues in general, the Center targets African American, Native American, Asian American, Chicano/a, and Puerto Rican students. The Center provides an environment for maintaining and sustaining the cultural heritage of these groups. Additionally, the Center provides a variety of cultural and social programs and activities that will enhance Euro-American’s understanding and appreciation of the cultures and experiences of people of color.
Communication and Understanding: The Center serves as a clearinghouse for information about various campus programs and events relating to Multicultural interests.

In 1988 Candace M. McDowell became the founding director of the UW Madison Multicultural Student Center. After 22 years of leadership Candace retired with distinction earning her the title Director Emerita. During her tenure as Director, the MSC served approximately 500,000 students and helped to establish its pivotal campus role as a social justice education center and gathering place that enabled students to live the “Authentic Wisconsin Experience.”


The student organization, Multicultural Student Coalition (MCSC), lost its Student Services Finance Committee (student government) Funding for their Diversity Education Program. In preparation for this loss, the Dean of Students appointed individuals to serve as members of a comprehensive planning group and requested that the group prepare a report that would identify how the mission and work of the Diversity Education Program (DEP) could continue on the UW- Madison campus. The Comprehensive Planning Group (CPG) was comprised of, DEP staff, MSC staff, LGBTCC staff, students representing MCSC and a graduate student. The planning group met from November 2006 Ð January 2007 and compiled a comprehensive report which was presented to the Dean of Students and the Provost. After reviewing the report the Provost made a decision to allocate funds for 4.5 of the positions recommended in the report. Four positions were earmarked for the Dean of Students Division. Two of these positions were earmarked for student organization advisers, two positions were earmarked for social justice education specialists and the remaining .5 position was earmarked for an Intercultural Dialogues position to be given to an academic unit on campus. It was determined that all of these positions would be permanently funded and funds would become available on July 1, 2007. The Dean of Students’ management team decided at its May 24th meeting that the advising positions would be housed in the Center for Leadership and Involvement (formerly Student Organization Office) and the social justice positions would be housed in the Multicultural Student Center. Dean Berquam recommended that two separate Think Tanks be formed to discuss the campus wide impact of these positions and that the Think Tank groups would create responsibilities for these positions. Candace McDowell, Director of the Multicultural Student Center was charged with chairing the Social Justice Think Tank group with the goal of moving expeditiously to oversee the recruitment and screening process and make hiring decisions for both Social Justice Specialist positions by September 2007.

The Social Justice Initiative officially became a part of the Multicultural Student Center in 2007 with the hiring of two Social Justice Education Specialists.

The role of the Social Justice Initiative was developed based on the goals of the former Diversity Education Program as well as the Social Justice Institute’s definition developed by “Adams, Bell and Griffin (1997)”:

Diversity Education Program Goals DEP operated under the premise that identity matters. The Diversity Education Program viewed social identity as being an aspect of who we are as individuals that impact how we experience life at individual and institutional levels in both negative (oppressive) and positive (privileged) ways. The mission of DEP was to improve campus climate for all groups by making salient how social identities and inequalities affect our experiences and interactions.
Social Justice Definition – Adams, Bell & Griffin (1997) “The goal of social justice education is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society that is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure.”
The Social Justice Initiative expanded its role on campus in 2009 and is now known as the Institute for Justice Education and Transformation (IJET). The Institute provides and supports campus-wide opportunities for deep intra/interpersonal and intra/inter-cultural reflection and action (praxis) around issues of Social Justice for Multicultural Students and their allies. The goals of the Institute are to foster cross-community ally-ship; to celebrate and reclaim the profound legacy of student movements and build students’ capacity as effective activists and organizers in their contemporary context; and to support students in being institutional change agents and transformative leaders in working towards a just society.


The mission and key goals of the organization have not changed. The organization provides numerous programs and services in the three goal areas. Examples of programs, resources and services provided by MSC include:

Programs/Events: Multicultural Orientation Reception, Multicultural Leadership Summit, Multicultural Leadership Awards and Graduation Program, Social Justice Speaker Series, Nacho Average Wednesdays

Workshops: Social Justice 101; Organizing 101; Safe Space 101; Facilitation 101; Transformative Leadership 101; Messaging for Justice 101; and an intensive 201 series during the spring semester.

Staffing and oversight of the Multicultural Student Center and its programs are provided by a full-time leadership team consisting of the Director, Associate Director, and Assistant Director; one full-time Social Justice Education Specialist; one full-time Communications Specialist and Social Justice Educator; and 10-12 part-time student interns.

The Future

As with any organization, the MSC is experiencing change at many levels. While the country continues to embrace and be challenged by the potential of diversity, new mindsets emerge about the best way to create an inclusive society.

A new generation of students is showing up on college campuses-one that is technologically savvy and more open and accepting of human differences than their predecessors. They have not directly experienced the racial tensions and challenges of the 60s and 70s. Many of these students don’t wear a dominant racial or cultural identity; they believe they can move across many different identities. They are more likely to believe that one’s racial and cultural identity do not significantly limit one’s potential.

Because of its commitment to diversity and inclusion, the University of Wisconsin has initiated a number of programs and services designed to create a more welcoming, inclusive, and supportive culture for all students. Today, there are more than fourteen schools/colleges and divisions addressing diversity and inclusion as part of their mission and goals.

In order for the MSC to remain relevant, it must understand these societal and institutional changes and continually review and renew itself. This is the goal of this strategic planning process. Specifically, it is designed to answer these questions:

What are the needs of students of color on campus today and how do these needs differ from those articulated 20+ years ago?

What is the unique purpose of the MSC that aligns with the University of Wisconsin-Madison academic mission and fits into the campus’ Inclusive Excellence framework?

How does the MSC help students of color have an affinity for the University of Wisconsin-Madison?

How does the MSC position itself as a leader in its area of focus?