On Tuesday I joined a few hundred Wesleyans, mostly members of the student of color community, who walked in protest through the main part of campus to the front of South College looking for a renewed commitment to equity and inclusion on our campus. Racism remains a significant fact of life for many of our students, faculty and staff—both within and beyond the borders of our campus. And even to say that is not to say enough. Here is how Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it: “racism is a visceral experience…it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this.”
While Wesleyan has long fought against discrimination in many of its forms, it is clear that we have also perpetuated some of them. We must not look away from this. As an educational institution that depends on free inquiry, it is our duty to do more. And so, it is with this in mind that I—together with members of cabinet—have examined the 5 demands of the student protesters.
The first, the demand for equity and inclusion, we embrace wholeheartedly, even as we acknowledge that for many students of color and their allies, we have not lived up to our own rhetoric. All of the other issues connect back to this one.
Demand #2 is a statement of accountability for the ways in which I and my administration have failed to meet student expectations or unwittingly hurt certain students by expressing sympathy for some people and principles and not others. I have tried to call attention to serious issues and tragedies here and around the world, but I understand that some feel I have defended those in positions of privilege at the expense of others. This has never been my intention. Sympathy is selective, to be sure, but I am happy to recognize that the circles of concern in the Wesleyan community are very broad. Indeed, as I write this many of us are focused on the hostage situation in Mali, yet another in a series of brutal terrorist attacks.
I continue to defend freedom of expression, and I also continue to recognize that not everyone has equal access to the tools for making use of that freedom. I will continue to support those who want to speak out with views that may be at odds with the campus mainstream. That’s a simple commitment to free speech, and I view it as core to the educational enterprise. Professor Jelani Cobb, among others, has taken a somewhat different position, offering a strong argument about the issue of free speech being a “diversion” from questions of racism. Last week I reached out to him, and he will be visiting campus on December 2 to meet with faculty and students so that we can all engage in the conversation on these issues.
There are many ways in which I (and frankly, everyone at the University) can benefit from criticism. It’s how we/I learn, and that’s what a university is about. By learning from one another, from keeping our conversations robust and meaningful, we will become a more equitable and inclusive place.
The proposed job description in the third demand is for an equity advocate, and it includes things that some staff are already doing. We will learn from students what needs are not being met now and what particular programs would be most helpful in the future. A related example (though not part of the students’ list) is our authorization to hire a new person with inter-cultural expertise in Counseling and Psychological Services. We authorized this position because dialogues with students identified a strong need, and we will continue our discussions about additional resources that will help all thrive at our university.
At the heart of Demand #4 is the establishment of a multicultural center. We look forward to talking to students about what this space should look like and how it might be staffed. We have some ideas in this regard, but we need more detailed student input before moving forward. We will be convening a group of staff, faculty and students early next semester to make recommendations. Before the end of this academic year, we should have plans we can implement. As we develop these ideas, we will want to know how we will be able to determine if such a Center is successful.
The fifth demand is for a vehicle for addressing faculty and staff bias and discriminatory behavior. We have to communicate better about our existing resources, because students already have the ability to report such incidents through Maxient. In addition students can use their course evaluations to describe these issues. We currently are running a pilot program for a new course evaluation form. I have asked the Provost to scan current evaluations for incidents and patterns, and we commit to using our reporting vehicles for evidence of troubling trends.
We must also remember that there are legitimate concerns about anonymous criticisms damaging those at whom they are leveled without giving those accused an opportunity to defend themselves; we must be sure to protect the rights of students, faculty and staff, especially those whose views are not aligned with those of the majority. Many have begun a discussion about how we might learn from various reporting mechanisms while building in the appropriate protections. Prejudice in and out of the classroom is real and causes harm; people sometimes discriminate against others or act to marginalize them. We can address incidents when we know about them.
Although not specifically called out in the list of demands, in order to become more inclusive we have much work to do in regard to low income and first generation students. Enhancing financial aid through enhanced internship opportunities and reduced family payment contributions should make our community more equitable. We are working on plans right now to ease the economic burdens on those of our students most vulnerable to financial exigencies.
Although we will not always agree on how to frame particular issues or which tactics are most effective, I do not see the marchers and myself as adversaries. At the beginning of this week I “encouraged Wesleyans to stand up and make themselves heard.” I vowed to listen, and I will continue to do so. We now have more concrete tasks in front of us. With your continued support and input, we will continue our work and together make progress on these crucial issues. We will not look away from this.
Michael S. Roth