In response to student input on campus diversity issues from the Winter 2014 semester, the University appointed the now-former director of the University’s Spectrum Center Jackie Simpson as the new director for the Trotter Multicultural Center Monday.
Simpson will focus on improving programming alongside ongoing efforts to improve the physical space for the upcoming academic year. In an additional appointment, Trey Boynton, currently director of diversity and inclusion in University Housing, will be appointed director of MESA in August. Prior to these appointments, one director, Nina Grant, oversaw both organizations.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily Tuesday, E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, praised the two new appointees for their dedication to improving student life on campus and willingness to work with students during their time at the University.
“What I’m trying to do is have two really strong leaders in those areas, as we rethink how we engage most students,” Harper said.
In a Wednesday interview, Simpson said she was just beginning the process of learning about the renovation projects already underway. She also noted that, while the building was certainly in need of repairs, it was still beautiful and a great space for students to meet.
Simpson added that she has already begun meeting with campus groups and plans to meet with others leading up to and during the fall semester. She considers meeting with the BSU an important step in acknowledging the legacy of the Trotter Center’s creation.
BSU vice chair Geralyn Gaines said her organization was optimistic about the appointment of a new director, but has plans to continue work in the fall to ensure all of the issues raised in January’s seven demands protest receive appropriate attention and action from the University.
“We’re still working hard to obtain these goals that we’ve set in place,” she said. “I hope that in several years all the demands will be met … No one coming up into the BSU and the BBUM movement is going to be okay with these demands not being met.”
Gaines said she hopes the new director will ensure the necessary renovations are completed to make the physical spaces in Trotter Center safer.
While facility improvements have been the ongoing topic of conversation ever since January’s protest, Harper said improving student programs at the center was an even greater challenge.
“It’s not that we’re moving away from paying attention to improving the facility,” Harper said. “But we also need to strengthen programmatically what’s going on there — so it’s a shift in focus.”
Simpson said she plans to organize programming based on student input and has plans to form a student programming board to oversee event planning for the various campus organizations that use the space.
In addition, Simpson also plans to form a student multicultural advisory board that could work with the administration to address minority issues in a proactive, rather than reactive fashion. She helped moderate similar student groups at her former position in the Spectrum Center, which during her time as director helped establish gender-neutral housing and other programs on campus to support the LGBTQ community.
Simpson said she envisioned that the board would work closely with Harper and other University officials to foster conversations about multicultural issues on campus. She added that such a board, if it had been in place sooner, may have identified the need for Trotter Center updates sooner and would have had more ability to voice those concerns to the administration.
“If we’d have an advisory board, we could have had that conversation early on and tried to move that agenda forward, rather than having student have to put together a set of demand to say, ‘These are the things I want,’ ” she said. “The idea is to hear what it is the students are feeling so that we can be responsive ahead of time, before they get to a breaking point.”
The University is also continuing the long-term process of establishing a new multicultural center on Central Campus, which Simpson said she adamantly supports. Harper said working on programming changes at the current facility is an important step in determining the best plan for the new center.
Harper also said she felt it was important to capture students’ energy while the protest was still at the front of their minds.
“Lots of students have been talking about the multicultural center and being involved,” Harper said. “We really can’t wait. We need to harness that energy and that commitment right now and have some honest conversations about what it isn’t and what it could be. I think the possibilities are endless, but we have to do that work now while we also plan for a new facility.”
Though she did not reference specific program proposals, Harper said the University plans to work with students to evaluate the best use for the space, potentially including classes, retreats or workshops.
Harper also referenced the current struggles between the Trotter Center and local Greek community, citing student complaints of homophobic, racist and sexist language that gets “hurled out of dark windows” on their way to the center for events.
Simpson said she plans to work to improve the neighborhood around the Trotter Center by engaging local Greek houses through regularly scheduled community meetings and retreats, allowing members of those houses and students who use the Trotter Center to engage in dialogue and build understanding about
“We just want to think differently about that work and work with those students that live around the multicultural center, so that they have that as part of their University experience also,” Harper said.
From the BSU’s perspective, most students on campus are still not aware of the issues surrounding the Trotter Center and minority inclusion on campus. Many continue to live in sheltered communities that prevent them from engaging with these issues, Gaines said.
“We’re just trying to make people aware, to educate,” Gaines said. “I think we know vice president Harper has our back, but we all could do a better job making campus aware.”
The new appointments will also allow both MESA and the Trotter Center more freedom to develop programs specific to the needs of their students. Harper said the current system, with one director overseeing both facilities, presented problems given the physical separation of the spaces — Trotter Center is located off of Washtenaw Avenue and MESA offices located in the Union — and the specialized needs of each office.
“In the past, we’ve focused on the facility,” she said. “What we need to focus on now is how we make sure there’s something going on inside the facility.”
In a press conference on Friday, University President Mark Schlissel also addressed the issue on diversity on campus, noting that it was a topic of discussion throughout his interview process and during the months leading up to his appointment.
“Last year was a very important year on campus from the diversity discussion perspective,” Schlissel said. “I’ve never been at an institution where it’s closer to the top of the mind of people that you talk to … It’s very much part of the fabric.”
Harper agreed with his comments, citing the long history of diversity issues on campus, which she said positioned the University as a national leader on the topic.
However, she said the added attention can put pressure on administrator to create a perfect campus.
“It’s hard, but it’s doable,” she said. “We just have to do it with our students, not to our students.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Simpson had already met with members of the BSU and that the organization had office space in the Trotter Center. Simpson has plans to meet with members in the future and the BSU is not one of the organizations to hold office space in the center.