Panel talks history of diversity at the University
Though the event’s original intent was to convene a group of leaders to speak about the history of campus activism and diversity efforts, a panel discussion Monday afternoon instead largely focused on the fact that past grievances related to many issues of race and gender at the University continue to hold true today.
“It’s sad to think it is 2015 and we’re talking about the same stuff we talked about in ’49 when the first Black woman was allowed to live in a dormitory,” said panelist Charles Moody, vice provost emeritus for minority affairs.
Along with Moody, four other panelists discussed their experiences working to foster an inclusive community for minority students on campus: Associate Prof. Maria Cotera, former director of the Latina/o Studies Program; University alum Cynthia Stephens, a judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals; Abigail Stewart, director of the ADVANCE program, which aims to advocate for female faculty in science and engineering fields and the former director of the Women’s Studies Program; and James Toy, co-founder and former director of the Spectrum Center, then known as the Human Sexuality Office.
Lester Monts, a professor of music and former senior vice provost for academic affairs, moderated the conversation.
The panel was part of the University’s campus-wide diversity summit, which is to be headlined by an interview between University President Mark Schlissel and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Clarence Page Tuesday morning.
The summit is a piece of Schlissel’s ongoing Strategic Plan for Diversity, which he launched in September by asking each campus school or department to design its own internal programs for enhancing diversity.
Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity, inclusion and academic affairs, introduced the panel, explaining that its aim was to contextualize the current state of diversity at the University before continuing to develop future plans later in the week.
“Whatever progress we make in the future has already been purchased by the blood, sweat and tears of those who have come before us,” Sellers said. “Whatever heights we reach in the future, we can only reach those heights by standing on the shoulders of the gargantuan contributions of those who have come before us.”
Cotera argued that despite the University’s history as a leader in promoting diversity on campus — most notably through defending affirmative action in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case Gratz v. Bollinger — the administrative leadership has often minimized its commitment to diversity.
She cited the critically low enrollment numbers for Black and Native American students — 4.82 percent and 0.25 percent, respectively. Noting a lack of administrative leadership in recruiting and retaining faculty of color, Cotera said the campus climate for minority students is unwelcoming.
“Not a week goes by that a student of color, whether graduate or undergraduate, does not come crying in my office,” she said. “It happens every week.”
Stephens said the low enrollment numbers for minority students is also due to the normalization of microaggressions on campus. She said many students of color believe the University is a hostile place for minorities, even before they set foot on campus.
“The University needs to come to understand that that 4 percent is in part based on how the University does business,” she said.
Despite the critical words panelists had for racial diversity on campus, Toy remarked on how receptive and courageous the University was when he first conceived the Human Sexuality Office in 1971.
“The University took, I believe, an enormous risk in creating what we now refer to as the Spectrum Center,” Toys said.
In addition to panel members, a number of other distinguished campus leaders attended the discussion, including Nellie Varner, the first Black regent at the University; Harold Johnson, the first Black dean; and Henry Johnson, former vice president of student affairs and the first Black vice president.
Business sophomore Dhara Gosalia said she said left the event feeling that achieving a more diverse University community must occur through an institutional, systemic way.
“When I came in, I expected them to talk more about the history, but I thought it was really cool that they connected it to the present times,” she said.
Rackham student Tissyana Camacho said the panel made her realize how the University will need to remain committed to attaining a diverse student body for a while before achieving it achieves goals for inclusion.
“I think my biggest takeaway was realizing that this is something that is a long-term commitment,” Camacho said. “I think many if not all of the panelists discussed that the change is not going to happen overnight.”
Toward the end of the discussion, all panelists encouraged senior leaders and administrators, not just students and faculty, to make campus inclusion a priority at the University.
“We need everybody involved,” Stewart said. “We know that when institutional change happens it happens when it converges from bottom up, top down leadership.”