Diversity summit attempts productive conversations on climate

E. Royster Harper, Vice President for Student Life, speaks to a group of students at the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Summit at the League Wednesday.

E. Royster Harper, Vice President for Student Life, speaks to a group of students at the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Summit at the League Wednesday. Buy this photo
Danyel Tharakan/Daily

 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017 - 10:32pm

One year after the introduction of the five-year strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion, students, faculty and staff gathered Wednesday evening to evaluate the plan’s effectiveness.

Most students in attendance at the summit — about 50 total — were members of Central Student Government or student advisory boards related to the DEI or the Office of Student Life. The evening kicked off with an introduction from Central Student Government President Anushka Sarkar, an LSA senior, followed by Robert Sellers, vice provost for Equity and Inclusion. Both speakers stressed the idea of creating a safe campus community for all students.

E. Royster Harper, vice president for Student Life, called on values-based problem solving.

“When times are tough and you’re up against a wall, that’s when you have to live and act your values or else they’re meaningless,” Harper said.

After a series of racist incidents and questions surrounding white supremacists’ appearances on campus, breakout sessions identified institutional measures. Administrators said the distribution of students already involved in these conversations would make for more productive conversations.

Breakout Sessions:

Free Speech

The second breakout session revolved around protected versus unprotected speech, and how both intersect with campus values. Sarah Daniels, the associate dean of students at the Dean of Students Office, prefaced the discussion by distinguishing opposing views from planned, controversial events, referring to the possibility of avowed white nationalist Richard Spencer coming to campus. Many students questioned protocols regarding safety, values and what could be done to prohibit Spencer’s request to speak on campus.

Communications professor Faith Sparr explained the University must uphold free speech, but can also consider safety and whether the ideas meet with educational philosophy.

“We need to stand up and say, ‘This is Michigan,’ not him,” she said.

The conversation then turned to campus climate as a whole, and focused on what students and faculty members could be doing better. Students expressed they would like more training on how to voice their opinions effectively, and some professors’ responses were inadequate in understanding the impact racist incidents can have on academic performance. Public Health senior Lloyd Lyons, a CSG representative, lauded the School of Public Health director for encouraging professors to read the news more often, and allow for time in class to discuss current events.

Group members also asked how to spread information in this discussion to the campus as a whole. Daniels said students on the Dean’s Advisory Board are drafting a flyer answering frequently asked legal questions, while the faculty is planning a teach-out to address these issues next semester.

Education & Prevention

The session about education and prevention began with an overview of the work done over the past year to spark conversations about DEI around campus.

Many Student Life efforts focus on freshmen, including an online Community Matters program that incoming freshmen students must take before move-in day, in-person education efforts during new student orientation and cultural appropriation prevention education in the fall leading up to Halloween. 

“The University basically has a system in place so that people in residence halls are getting doses of this education,” Public Policy junior Gabrielle McFarland, a member of Students4Justice, said.

The Race and Ethnicity requirement was another point of debate in the session. LSA revamped the measure in 2015, adding it to LSA students’ list of distribution requirements. Angela Dillard, associate dean for undergraduate education for LSA, explained the R&E requirement has not yet been worked into other schools and colleges because it needs to be tailored to fit each school’s specific curriculum.

“We’re talking about stuff that has to sit inside of a degree program,” Dillard said. “It has to work in terms of what the overall academic environment is and what our learning goals are.”

The discussion shifted to broadening the scope of students involved. LSA senior Isaiah Land, president of the campus chapter of the NAACP, spoke on competing demands on students’ time, especially in their first few months of college.

“It’s harder to get people to care about these things when they have so many other things going on,” Land said. “It seems kind of like a chore rather than something that they are supposed to be doing to learn from it.”

Accountability Statement Revisions

The breakout session on accountability focused on the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities while covering the meanings of justice and values in the University community.

The conversation began with participants pairing off and defining what justice means to them in terms of a community. The group arrived at the conclusion that justice is subjective to each person. Public Policy senior Andrew Watkins is involved in efforts to revamp the statement, and served as the session’s student lead.

“The need to understand everyone’s understanding of justice is equally as important as defining it,” he said.

Administrative lead Erik Wessel, the director of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, wanted to gauge how much students were aware of the document they sign after admission into the University; some responded they had never heard of this document.

After the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, the group transitioned to discussing the consequences of being responsible for harm and establishing justice, focusing on re-education measures or punishment.

“That’s what accountability looks like at Michigan,” Wessel said. “It looks like people owning the harm, people owning their behavior.”

At the conclusion of the session, the group ended with ideas from LSA senior Ayah Issa. Issa compared the values held by University students and how they are primarily implicit, not explicitly agreed upon.

“My main takeaway was that things should be more explicit,” Issa said. “It’s a lot to change the whole world, but we can change the community.”

Restorative Justice

In the restorative justice breakout session, students and staff focused on promoting awareness of restorative measures for students and faculty through seeking to embed resources and tools into campus culture.

Some students expressed amazement at the lack of awareness. Rackham student Katherine Jones, a member of the Graduate Student DEI Board, said resources for reporting bias incidents were not covered in her introduction to the graduate school. 

“It should be embedded across all the University’s practices,” she said. “It’s not just, 'OK, here at orientation, check we covered it.' It should be interwoven because that’s how systemic change can happen.”

LSA sophomore Yolanda Marti, a program assistant for Expect Respect and DEI advisory board member, argued that educating faculty on how to respond to bias could lead to further understanding and support for students.

“Undergraduate or graduate, these incidents impact people in different ways,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to attend class the next day, and it’s hard to sit in lecture next to a student who may have been on the side of hate. If you felt like your teachers realized what you’re going through and supported you that’s huge.”

Members of the breakout session also discussed ways to make the system more accessible and attractive to students, throwing out ideas of developing an app or adding the restorative information into required first-year events like orientation, or the Relationship Remix.  

When staff members turned to explaining tools already in use, Julio Cardona, interim assistant dean of students, and a member of the Bias Response Team, explained the office currently keeps a public report of incidents, as well as a form for reporting these bias incidents.

In response to studying the bias incident report forms, as well as the public report, group members came up with ideas for an immediate response to incident reports through confirmation emails to affected parties. Marti argued an immediate response could help ease some of the anxiety of reporting the incident.

Throughout the session, many members expressed a need for validation and understanding for victims, highlighting a need for peer mentors in addition to the education of faculty and staff.

Each breakout session had compiled a list of main points they discussed, which were posted around the room for other group members to view. Then a lead from each group explained their main points to the entire group. Sarkar emphasized action in her closing statement, though most attendees left before sharing conclusive follow-up measures.