Behind the headlines: Student outcry over campus diversity issues
Throughout the month of November, the call for increased policies to support diversity, inclusion and free speech roared no louder anywhere than on college campuses across the country. From Amherst, Massachusetts to Columbia, Missouri to Claremont, California, there have been protests, bitter exchanges and even top-level administration resignations after student allegations of college policies, practices and responses being racist, sexist, ignorant, outdated or unfair.
That the matter of addressing people's differences in terms of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, ability, socioeconomic status or other indication is complex, personal and potentially upsetting to someone is nothing new.
"We have had a diversity committee for 20 years and obviously, over the years, the focus of that committee has changed with people's needs," said Eleanore Velez, multicultural admissions counselor and coordinator of the Multicultural Center at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Mass., from which she is an alumna.
"It's important that what we do, rather than be reactive, is to be proactive," she said.
By working to adopt authentic, long-term, and regularly revisited policies, practices and values, area colleges hope to address student and staff concerns before they ever become headline-making, class-stopping issues of contention.
By history and nature of geography, the Berkshires and southwestern Vermont aren't exceptionally diversified, but increasingly the populations of students and staff on college campuses are growing so, and colleges are trying to fulfill their missions to meet the needs of all the students they recruit and serve. In the past, when these institutions have not walked their talk, students and staff have let them know through petitions, sit-ins and rallies.
Isabel Roche, provost and dean of Bennington College in Vermont, said the institution's current population is "the most diverse class ever on campus," by nearly every demographic category.
"But we have to remember that a diverse campus is not the same as an inclusive campus," Roche said. So this year, Bennington College hired a coordinator for institutional diversity and inclusivity to open up dialogues and identify what is and isn't working for the school and its constituents.
Southern Vermont College President David Rees Evans, Ph.D., came into his leadership role at the beginning of the year and has been coming to understand the differences between where students are coming from and where they're being educated.
He said about 25 percent of the college's students "are from diverse populations."
"A lot of our students are from metropolitan areas like New York City; Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, Yonkers. They come in from a very different set of perspectives. Bennington's very rural, so it's not just a matter of ethnicity we're dealing with, it's looking at how you grew up in your neighborhood and culture," Evans said.
One of the ways SVC and other colleges are working to be proactive is to simply listen to the needs of staff, students and also make time to hear from members of the surrounding off-campus community.
Currently, SVC is partway through a strategic planning process, and one component of that process, Evans said, is to survey the campus community, alumni and Bennington residents about how they'd like to see issues of diversity and inclusion, among other areas like academics and environment, addressed on campus. Evans said he expects this to be a big discussion topic in the spring.
"There's a lot of campus leadership right now from our diverse student population," he said, "and they're helping to see what more we can do to make everybody welcome and successful."
At the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Mass., and Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., designated committees comprised of faculty, staff and students, meet regularly to talk about how to better include different kinds of people into campus classes and activities.
"I work on these issues, every day, and not in isolation," said Leticia S. E. Haynes, PH.D., who was appointed in July as the vice president for Institutional Diversity and Equity at Williams College.
On Tuesday, Williams president, Adam Falk, announced the formation of a new committee designed to address the "historical representations on campus," and cited for example a mural in a public tavern and meeting place on campus depicting Mohawk Indian Chief Hendrick Theyanoguin, Col. Ephraim Williams Jr., and others before a battle. Falk, in his campus-wide memo, wrote, "... what should be done about historical images that portray Williams as less welcoming than we are or aspire to be?"
Haynes said "communication is critically important" when talking about policies, needs and change, and that "authentic communication, and meaningful ways of doing that can go a long way in showing students and others what they can bring to the table."
MCLA Vice President of Academic Affairs Cynthia F. Brown, Ph.D., said, "To think your institution is somehow immune from what's going on in the country is a mistake and quite frankly a concern for people here on campus."
She said that students these days expect to arrive on college campuses to a welcoming community "with a sophisticated way of talking about issues of diversity ... but sometimes it's disappointing when they get there."
Brown said that while college administrators may not always agree, students have the right to question policies and practices and ask, "If they're not there, why is that?"
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