On May 1st, the Working Group on Equity and Inclusion released their recommendations for the college, as part of their charge given to them by President David Anderson. At this release date, they also provided the St. Olaf community the opportunity to respond by May 15th.
Here is our response.
As per their charge from the president, the Working Group was to “identify barriers that exist to members of our community experiencing a consistent sense of belonging, and to recommend ways to eliminate those barriers.” The main issue we find with the release of this document is in reference to the latter part of this particular section of their charge is that the recommendations made do not directly “identify the barriers that exist to members of our community”. The recommendations themselves also raise more questions than solutions to addressing the institutional racism present at St. Olaf.
The Working Group divided their recommendations into sub-headings to cover a wide range. Within these sub-headings, there is a repetition of wanting the students to commit their efforts in creating change on campus. We acknowledge that there is a need for a change be done to the campus culture, but that is done through the implementation of changed policies and structures within the institution of St. Olaf. By changing those structures and policies currently in place, students and other community members will be able to enact those changes, thus producing a better culture and environment.
Beginning with the section titled “Climate and Community”, there is no explicitly stated “barrier” identified in this section, denoting a failure in achieving an important aspect of their charge. They focus on Admissions practices without noting which practices in place pose barriers in students partaking in the “St. Olaf experience” (pg 17). This section also fails to identify which students experience the unmentioned barriers, instead it focuses on “perceptions of ‘how’” students are admitted without addressing any specific Admissions practices to be changed.
This section calls into question why the recommendations focus on emphasizing the “importance on ‘why’” students’ admission is important to the community.This brings up the question of what Admissions will from here on be providing admitted students in order to explain this “why”, and what is the purpose of examining this “why” over examining Admissions recruitment practices.
The following subsection, “Sense of belonging”, repeatedly references “consistent onboarding and orientation” for new community members, without specifying a timeline defining this consistency. Will these efforts be a yearly orientation style, or an ongoing campus conversation?
What is particularly concerning about this subsection is found in the second bullet point, which calls for an assessment and enhancement of current pre-orientation and bridge programs designed to support underrepresented populations. By focusing on this particular group and considering expanding these types of programs for all who would fall under this umbrella, the recommendations runs the risk of further otherizing vulnerable student populations by explicitly singling them out to prepare them for an environment that is not designed for them. We recognize and affirm the TRiO SSS Bridge program and the positive effect it has on student adjustment to taking college courses, but we feel that this kind of effort in response to a problem like institutional racism is inappropriate. These programs highlight and attempt to mitigate the disparities in educational systems nationwide, and are not a program meant to prepare students in attending predominantly white institutions. It is the institution’s job to implement and reform policies to promote more racial equity. It is not a student’s job to provide this for themselves.
In addition, the Working Group wants to implement relationships of mentorship that will help minority students perform better. These types of relationships occur naturally and organically within the community already. If the Working Group is recommending these relationships be institutionalized, how will these efforts be funded and supported? How will the faculty be compensated and supported for their energies, considering the increasing numbers of “diverse students” and the stagnancy in the diversification of faculty? What is the specific vision for this kind of initiative, other than simply assigning students of color with faculty advisors of color? There are no methods of actions outlined within that recommendation.
Residence Life is the next bullet point within the subsection. Resident Assistants (RAs) and Junior Counselors(JCs) are essential leaders on campus, but there is currently not enough in place to help foster their leadership. There is a need for these groups to learn more about the phobias/-isms that exist in order to provide the leadership and “foster better understanding” (pg.19) similar to the program found at Earlham College. Without this proper support, they will not help foster this “sense of belonging”. Even though there is this want to implement a leadership role within this particular community, the Working Group recommends that the RAs and JCs to “make connections and friendships across difference” (pg.19)- we understand that dialogue is important, but to constantly appease the conservative voice on campus does not allow for that relationship to develop, instead it develops further repression.
The following bullet point relates to the Center for Multicultural and International Engagement (CMIE). We agree that there should be at least 3 full time staff members for the office to truly support student needs, as CMIE serves as a valuable resource for many in the St. Olaf community. We do hold concern regarding the grouping together of the Gender and Sexuality Office (GSO) and CMIE, as we believe both deserve separate and direct support as fully-funded offices on campus. The Gender and Sexuality Office deserves its own line of leadership to best fulfill its mission, which is different from the mission of CMIE. The integration of the GSO under the CMIE “cultural umbrella” (pg 19) serves to further place all students of “difference” into the same category, as if they all have the same needs. With the restructuring of CMIE, adequate attention should also be given to building up the GSO so it can serve as a proper resource for students on campus.
The final main bullet point of this section outlines what the Working Group describes as St. Olaf’s “Vibrant community”, which again provides no solid recommendation as to what should be done to “make events more accessible, and encourage greater participation from faculty, staff, and alumni” (pg 20).
The subsection “Sustainability” again reaffirms the Working Group’s commitment to attempting to enact “cultural change” on campus instead of institutional changes, which again fails to speak to the charge of identifying barriers students experience on campus.
With the header of “Sustainability”, the Working Group’s recommendations for sustainable change on campus are actually not quite sustainable. We agree that there is a need for a permanent group on campus to continuously investigate and challenge the institution’s current structures, but the make-up of the potential group includes members of the president’s leadership team, athletics, music, race and ethnic studies department (which is currently a program and not a department), students, faculty, staff, and alumni with the suggested option of including an outside expert. These members, according to the Working Group, will be “chosen for this work…to eliminate racism and enhance social justice at St. Olaf” (pg.22). That is a wonderful, potential charge, but which one of these members will have the experience and knowledge on making policy changes within the institution? Outside of the race and ethnic studies program representative, who else will have the knowledge and experience when it comes to institutional racism, systemic racism, and intersectionality?
The inclusion of outside expertise should not be a second suggestion, but rather should be an investment.The permanent group should be making proper, policy changes for the institution where institutional and systemic racism and intersectionality are highlighted, so that their strategic equity and inclusion plan can be properly implemented and differentiated from other strategic plans in place in other areas of the institution. We appreciate the want to make this group “transparent [and] collaborative”, but why will this process begin in the summer of 2018 when there are no students and other representatives of the campus to partake in this process? “Students members [will] join in the fall” because the “President and the Board of Regents chair [will] select the chair of the Council… and help recruit members” (pg.22); this is problematic because once again, we find ourselves in a similar situation on how the Working Group members were chosen. The want of transparency and collaboration calls upon a democratic election where the voices of the St. Olaf community is probably heard and acknowledged.
With the subsection of “Access and Inclusion”, the Working Group addresses similar sentiments found in the previous subsection of “Climate and Community”; they look at Admissions practices and make similar suggestions that we make in this letter, but the formation of this document seems to be too scattered where direct connections between suggestions are not being made.
One portion of this subsection that we would like to note is the end of “Student recruitment and retention”, it highlights the disparities among the demographic of students that study abroad. Some recognizable barriers not mentioned in the recommendations is the $100 fee for applying to abroad programs that is difficult for many students to cover, as well as the programs themselves. Resources should not only be “better marketed”, they should be better structured and implemented, so that students that need them have more access to study abroad programs, and the programs themselves should be analyzed and revisioned to ensure that the abroad opportunities offered by St. Olaf do not follow in the tradition of exotification of the countries traveled.
As part of our List of Demands, we demand better support for Faculty and Staff of color, and we are glad to see a similar suggestion within the Working Group’s Recommendations, but one of their focuses is on having the “faculty [undertake] work concerned with diversity and inclusion and/or developing new courses that explore matters related to equity and inclusion” (pg.26). We agree these topics are important, but there should also be a focus on having classes that cover race relations, exploration of white power/privilege, etc. Currently, some courses of the Race and Ethnic Studies Program are undergoing a pattern of high demand from the student body, but those demands are not being met due to inadequate funding. Having more faculty within this area of expertise will meet this demand and help further and foster conversations on campus that will produce this change within the campus culture, as well as provide more even distribution of labor so the same professors are not taking on the full brunt of this task. These ideas connect to the following subsection of “Scholarship and Learning”.
Within this subsection, we find suggestions for the curriculum, general education requirements, classroom environment, and student retention and graduation rates. Again, we believe that the Working Group should have developed a better relationship with the General Education (GE) Taskforce, but we hope to see that with this new, permanent group. The college undergoes the process of rethinking, relooking, and reestablishing the curriculum and and the general education requirements every twenty-five years- that process should be looked at and reexamined. The Working Group acknowledges the changes found within our society, but those changes are not met with how the general education requirements are examined. We agree with the Working Group’s recommendation of having the “College provide the resources required for departments and programs” (pg. 28), but as we had mentioned before the Race and Ethnics Studies Program is not being adequately funded. As part of our List of Demands, we address the need of mandatory, introductory courses in Race and Ethnic Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies which is similar to the Working Group’s recommendation, but their focus is on “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (pg.28). We understand for this need to be met within the classroom environment, but in order to tackle the issue of institutional racism there must be an acknowledgement of it within the classroom setting as well. The sole promotion of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” will not bring this naturally.
Within this same section, the Working Group calls upon the need of “faculty [being] culturally competent” (pg.29) which highlights another portion of our List of Demands. The College tried to meet this demand through the use of DiversityEdu and poorly advertised, follow-up, in-person sessions. As part of that demand, the students needed to partake within the training prior to registration, but we are not certain if the faculty or staff underwent that training. We hope that there is an implementation of a cultural competency training for everyone in the St. Olaf Community, but we hope that is does not come from DiversityEdu and that efforts to continue the conversation following the training are given adequate time and attention.
The final subsection of the Working Group’s recommendations highlights many of the main issues we find with the document as a whole. This section is the weakest of the entire document, as it takes the time to again highlight that the purpose of these recommendations and the language used are not those of directly addressing institutional racism, or even address the institution directly. Instead “the language of these recommendations- engagement, listening, welcome- is relational”, which misses the point of institutional racism completely and takes the burden of work off of the institution and places it upon students, urging them to simply live with and work with one another. This section lacks the assertiveness and urgency needed to prompt an institution into action, rather, it makes the mistake of portraying St. Olaf, the institution, as a neutral party in addressing issues of racism on campus, which is completely untrue.
Sustained Dialogue is a program lauded by many on campus as a useful and necessary resource for facilitating dialogue, and the Working Group mentions this program as a way of achieving their wish for “the formation of deep human relationships across barriers” (pg 30), yet this year we have seen the program effectively stifled and its content edited and clipped, with little, full institutional support. If following the Sustained Dialogue model is a recommendation, it should also be asserted that the model must be fully realized in its intended form in order to reach its full effectiveness on campus, as well as be officially supported by the school administration. As it stands, much of the work to pull together the initiative falls to a handful of students and a couple of staff members in varying departments on campus, which is an ineffective and unsustainable model.
The following bullet point regarding holding listening sessions further emphasizes the Working Group’s fixation on markedly not addressing the institution, asserting that “diversity, equity, and inclusion are relational issues”. We disagree. These issues can be relational to the extent that individuals can participate in the maintenance of disparities, but are ultimately issues of policy and structures and should be talked about and addressed as such.
The remainder of this subsection furthers this idea that the institution need not make immediate structure or policy changes, as the “Points of welcome” portion suggests that the challenges students face adjusting to the hill only occur in the first year, or that the issues that need to be addressed as simply the initial “welcome” students, faculty, and staff encounter during their first moments at St. Olaf. This fails to address the concerns brought up repeatedly, year after year, by older students, who these suggestions fail to acknowledge.
We feel that the document as a whole provides a vague selection of recommendations that call for very little critical, urgent, institutional change, and continues in the St. Olaf tradition of painting “diverse students” as different through the language used throughout the document, and depicting “diverse students” as ways to enrich other students’ experiences on campus.
We acknowledge that that the production of these vague recommendations comes with the vague term of “recommendation” itself and the very broad charge that the Working Group had during its seven month service, but The Collective for Change on the Hill will continue to push for institutional changes. We will continue to push the importance of institutional change since that is the way that the Working Group’s focus of a cultural, campus change will occur. The formation of the Collective was based on this charge, and we will not lose sight of it.