By Tom Ballard
How can the College increase inclusion and diversity on campus? That was the question students, faculty and College administrators tackled in the first inclusion and diversity forum held this semester by Student Government (SG) on Tuesday, Feb. 16.
“The goal (of the forum) is to get a greater sense of experiences, thoughts, suggestions and concerns students, faculty and staff have,” said sophomore deaf education and history double major Priscilla Nuñez, the SG vice president for Equity and Diversity. “Some students may feel very safe and included at (the College) while others do not, and these series of fora help me and the Chief Diversity Officer of the College (Kerri Thompson Tillett) get a better insight as to short-term and long-term goals that the College as a whole can work toward.”
Issues at the forum ranged from discussing race-relations on campus to how to better incorporate professors into campus life at the College.
Students praised the College Union Board (CUB) for what they considered to be a more diverse collection of events that appeals to a wider variety of students.
“I’m really happy with CUB’s programing as of late,” said sophomore marketing major Baldween Casseus, president of Haitian Student Association. “I feel that they have (gotten) a little more diverse.”
At the forum, some students expressed concerns that students, particularly those who are racial minorities, are sometimes only one of the few minority-status students in a class that discusses topics relevant to diversity. Students said that they often feel that other students in their classes look to them as the sole representative of their minority group.
“A lot of people think diversity is just a matter of black versus white,” Nuñez said. “But it extends to more than just that — diversity encompasses religion, academics, beliefs, lifestyles, sexual orientation, disabilities and even abilities. There’s no specific focus. It’s a matter of talking, sharing, disagreeing, seeking to understand, questioning and listening to each other and challenging ourselves with how we can move forward with it all.”
Students and faculty also expressed the importance of having clear communication between students and professors in order to make sure that everybody is comfortable in the classroom.
“It would be extremely valuable… for (the College) to create a space where faculty and staff and students can hear those perspectives because I think that it’s probably the most informative thing people can know to say,” Professor and English Department Chair Glenn Steinberg said. “We should speak more directly to it. I think we need to become more sensitive to the little aspects of our interactions that we don’t realize (may cause discomfort).”
Steinberg also said that he is working with faculty to schedule luncheons so that they too can discuss issues of diversity at the College.
“We are getting faculty to talk amongst themselves to address the issue outside of the regular school in a more informal manner where people might feel more comfortable talking about things,” Steinberg said.
Staff members also addressed the concern that some students may have a hard time discussing issues of diversity in the classroom.
“It’s important for (students) to know… that where you may feel uncomfortable and a little afraid about talking about certain things, your teachers will have that same feeling,” Dean of the School of Arts and Communications John Laughton said. “That’s a very important thing to remember… they’re people, too.”
Steinberg said that professors are not necessarily trained to discuss topics of inclusion and diversity in the classroom and it is something that they try to improve upon as time goes on.
“Let’s face it: if you’re trained as a Ph.D in English literature, you spend your whole life to be the very best English literature person that you can… so you get that job at the university and all of a sudden it’s like ‘I know a lot about this… Oh no, I have to know about this, too?’ So we’re working on (dealing with inclusion and diversity),” Steinberg said.
Steinberg also went on to say that it is often difficult for a professor to know how their students are feeling, which makes their students’ feedback essential.
“The professor can have the best of intentions and try really hard to know what is going on in a classroom among the students or in the student’s mind and totally miss it, and that’s really easy to do, even for an experienced teacher,” Steinberg said. “I think that it’s important… to give your professor feedback because we try to read your body language, face and participation in class, and that’s really not always the best indication of what’s going on inside of your head.”
Participants also discussed the importance of leading a conversation about inclusion and diversity on campus in order to educate the campus community.
“We have to change the culture of the institution, and it happens at all levels,” journalism Professor Kim Pearson said.
Pearson said that the best way to facilitate change would be to not just talk about diversity, but to also avoid automatically assigning certain ideas of people based off stereotypes.
Until then, SG hopes to gather a diverse collection of opinions from students about the inclusionary climate of the College.
According to Nuñez, SG decided to begin what will be a monthly series of fora on inclusion and diversity on campus in order to let members of the College community express any concerns they have regarding those topics.
“There has been a large demand for this type of conversation from both ends of the spectrum — students all the way to administration,” Nuñez said. “The College is undergoing several changes, one in which is diversity and fostering a more inclusive campus. Since SG is an organization for the student body, it’s only reasonable for SG to host these forums. It is currently on the Equity and Diversity agenda and will continue to be for future vice presidents to come.”
Although the forum focused mainly on racial and student-faculty relations, participants recognized that there are more issues of diversity that still need to be addressed.
“A lot of students would come to me to talk about concerns that they had and a lot of times — and this is something that is not specific to when we talk about race and ethnicity in the classroom — this is something that comes up when you’re the only woman in the engineering class or when you’re a Muslim and you wear the hijab,” Pearson said. “There (are) all sorts of dimensions that I saw… also in terms of inclusion.”
Participants felt that the topics of inclusion and diversity were important topics to talk about, especially in a close-knit community like the College.
“Every forum is so different and it is truly eye-opening to see how everything is interrelated,” Nuñez said. “Campus activities, classes and class requirements, professors and so on — it all makes an impact to the environment. Moreover, today’s conversation truly gave administrators, faculty and staff something to ponder on just as much as it gave students something to think and dwell on after the forum finished.”
Nuñez said that while she was very satisfied with the outcome of the first forum, she would like to see an increase in interest for the future fora. The forum was attended by approximately 15 people.
“One thing I would like to see is a higher attendance record. Today’s forum was an amazing start,” Nuñez said. “Everyone’s opinion is important when talking about this topic. Each person gets affected by inclusion and diversity in their own way. The greater the attendance, the greater the insight and the closer we get to seeing change.”
According to College spokesperson Dave Muha, the College takes the issues of inclusion and diversity very seriously and it is continuing to make progress.
“(The College) takes very seriously its commitment to diversity and inclusion,” Muha said in an email to The Signal. “We strive to create an environment that supports the campus community. This commitment is embedded in the personal philosophies of (President R. Barbara Gitenstein) and her cabinet, as well as being an intricate part of the College’s strategic plan.”
Muha points to various events, such as the forum hosted by SG and events for Black History Month — along with famed feminist Gloria Steinem speaking at the College to kick off Woman’s History Month next month — as some of the examples of the College trying to create inclusive environments.
The next forum will be held in March and SG will host a monthly forum on inclusion and diversity for every month for the rest of the semester, according to Nuñez.