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R.I. college students demand expanded diversity initiatives

PC, RISD, Roger Williams University students seek inclusive curricula, sensitivity training

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2016

As students at Brown urge the administration to take greater measures to address the lack of diversity and inclusion on campus, students and faculty members at other colleges in Rhode Island are also working to have their voices heard on their campuses. Such events represent students’ and faculty members’ accumulated discontent with the underrepresentation of diverse narratives in college curricula and the silencing of the voices of students of color on campuses.

Providence College

On Feb. 16, about 50 Providence College students participated in a 13-hour sit-in outside President Brian Shanley’s office to demonstrate against campus racism. On March 7, Shanley published an action plan with a list of proposals that included requiring faculty members to participate in a “cross-cultural competency training” as well as revising the school curriculum to incorporate a range of diverse topics.

But shortly after the plan was released, PC’s Coalition Against Racism wrote in a statement, “It is disappointing that … what we received was a largely repetitive response in the sense that these are answers that we have heard from him before,” the Providence Journal reported.

In recent years, PC has taken measures to improve the state of racial diversity on campus, said Rafael Zapata, chief diversity officer at PC.

“A lot of these initiatives take time,” Zapata said. “We’ve done fairly well in the past few years, but it can be up and down.” He added that attracting a diverse applicant pool for faculty member searches is a matter of “being intentional about our job descriptions and taking an active approach, not a passive approach.”

Last year, PC held its first open forum with the campus community to update students, faculty members and staff members on the school’s progress on the strategic plan for diversity, Zapata said. He added that simply recruiting more students of color is not enough — students need to feel included in the campus community. Brown, for instance, is a place where the student body is diverse but not necessarily inclusive, Zapata said.

But Kohl Peasley, a student at PC, said “there definitely needs to be a faster response time” to complaints related to diversity and inclusion. The administration took too long to respond to the complaints of student protesters earlier this year, he said.

Julia Jordan-Zachery, professor of political science and director of the black studies program at PC, said she wants to see the institutional approach to diversity move beyond rhetoric and become more substantive. “When will we begin to see, for example, retention rates improve?” she said, referencing retention rates for faculty members of color. “When do people begin to feel they really belong on campus and aren’t just there because they make the campus look good but are valued for their intellectual additions to the institutions?”

In February, white students at PC allegedly threw bottles at a group of black women who were standing outside of a party, the Journal reported. This incident marked the first time Harrison Meyer, a PC student, had heard of a racially motivated incident occurring on campus. “An act like that is rare,” he said.

But campus activists have been very active in the past year to raise awareness about the racial tensions that exist on campus, he added. “I’m a white male, so I’m not at the other end of it too much, but I do have friends who have felt attacked or uncomfortable for their sexuality or their race,” he said. “It’s a problem, but I think it’s been worse at other colleges.”

“There is a kind of invisibility and hyper-visibility around race” at PC, Jordan-Zachery said. On one hand, many class curricula leave out texts by scholars of color, rendering the narratives of people of color invisible, she said. Additionally, when there are not many people of color on a racially homogeneous campus, they can also become hypervisible, Jordan-Zachery added. It is damaging when “students are singled out to speak for all people of color or all people of their race,” she said, adding that “the kind of harm that happens from hypervisibility isn’t addressed.”

Meanwhile, there remains a stigma against speaking out about racial injustice on campus for certain community members. “One knows there’s going to be backlash” when choosing to speak about race and social injustice, Jordan-Zachery said, adding that it can be difficult to criticize the institution she works for. To remain silent is to perpetuate racism, she said. But “which one is worse: to become complicit in my own oppression as a black woman, or to speak out (and face) real consequences?” she said. “So for me, that’s why I take the risk.”

Rhode Island School of Design

Earlier this month, Rhode Island School of Design students and faculty members gathered at Market Square, chanting, “I am not your token!” and demanding curricular reform and faculty sensitivity training, among other initiatives, The Herald previously reported. The protest was the culmination of long-term discontent over the lack of engagement on diversity and inclusion issues on RISD’s campus.

Under the leadership of President Rosanne Somerson, RISD has been taking measures to promote inclusivity, wrote Jaime Marland, director of public relations at RISD, in an email to The Herald. In February, Somerson convened a Social Equity Action working group composed of students, faculty members and staff members to propose pro-inclusivity changes to RISD, she wrote.

“Our charge is really to look over and assess what RISD is currently doing,” said Patricia Barbeito, a member of the SEA and a RISD professor. But there have already been a number of diversity action plans implemented in the past, including an effort to bring artists, speakers and cultural theorists to campus whose works address social inequity and difference, Barbeito said.

“But the fact remains that the picture of students and faculty (members) … is nowhere near what we would like,” Barbeito said. Today, students demand that course curricula address issues of social inequality and reflect a greater diversity of artists, she said. Professors should rethink their assumptions and take into consideration the various identities of the students in their classrooms, she added.

The RISD core curriculum is limited in scope, said Sebastian Niculescu ’20, a dual-degree student at RISD/Brown who uses the pronouns they, them and their. Art history, for example, offers a “Euro-centric survey of art,” they added. Though some professors make attempts to include art from non-European backgrounds, it is concerning when one lecture covers 1,000 years of African art while another covers only 20 years of European art, they said.

“It’s strange that RISD only employs one professor who specializes in East Asian art,” said Jack Sivan, a sophomore at RISD. “Students aren’t required to be worldly literate in any way, which is problematic,” Sivan said, adding that the lack of faculty diversity — both with regard to personal identities and intellectual backgrounds — perpetuates homogeneous conversations.

But the underrepresentation of diverse narratives in lectures can affect the student experience in more subtle ways than final grades, Niculescu said. Professors at RISD are endowed with a specific power to decide what is good and bad art, and as such, they should be sensitive to a greater diversity of artistic backgrounds, they added.

Critique sessions, where students present their work to their classmates and professors, can also lack engagement, Niculescu said. “Whenever someone makes a piece about race, sexuality, gender identity … it will be silent in the room,” they said, adding that people will make superficial comments about technical choices instead of discussing how well the piece communicates underlying themes or achieves its goals.

“We are here to be the creators of culture,” Niculescu said, but it is difficult to do that well when people are not willing to critique controversial pieces or discuss certain topics. There is a sense that “they can’t speak about (certain) things because they have privilege,” they added.

Roger Williams University

At Roger Williams University, “students are becoming politicized about what they need,” said Laura D’Amore, assistant professor of American Studies at RWU. Faculty members are required to attend workshops that address topics such as Title IX and its implications in the campus’s context, as well as broader topics like the RWU mission statement, which stresses tolerance, civil discourse and civic duty, she added.

Change “is happening in pockets,” but it is unclear whether the mainstream population is as engaged in or aware of the issues that some student activists are bringing to the forefront, D’Amore said.

“The president and the administration (do) such a good job of making a stink that they’re doing something, but they’re really not,” said Aleksander Kusik, a student at RWU. In recent years, the college has created a multitude of programs and initiatives that have not proved particularly effective, he added.

For example, despite a multi-year search, RWU has still yet to hire a chief diversity officer, Kusik said. Without a professional, paid CDO position, there is no one on campus “whose job it is to diversify the school,” he added.

In addition, Kusik advocated for the creation of a black studies department at RWU. “There need to be courses that students are forced to take,” he said, adding that the current core curriculum has a Euro-centric focus and no explicit diverse perspectives requirement. This allows students to “easily graduate RWU without learning a thing about white privilege,” Kusik said.

The result of this homogeneity is a campus dialogue where student activists often feel the backlash of the mainstream majority, said Marquis Caesar, a member of the Multicultural Student Union at RWU. “A lot of people use the First Amendment to the best of their ability,” he said. Caesar added that the invention of Yik-Yak is “one of the worst things ever to happen to college campuses,” as it has given students an anonymous platform to post racist comments.

Students also noted that the funding system for clubs at RWU is disadvantageous to social justice and multicultural groups. Funding is decided and delegated by the student-elected student council, and social justice-oriented clubs receive the least funding, Kusik said.

Though the MSU had the largest percent increase in funding this year, the club was still not given the $40,000 it asked for, which would be used to bring speakers to campus, said John Rice, a member of the student council and MSU. In contrast, the student campus center, which hands out free t-shirts and sunglasses, receives $500,000 every year, Rice said.

“When we approach (the student council) with a food event, they ask us: ‘Why do we have to support what looks like a list of groceries?’” said Thuy Nguyen, former president of the Asian Student Association and a RWU graduate. During her time at the ASA, Nguyen would often be in charge of organizing events that involved serving food from different cultures. The student council’s resistance to funding food events suggested that it viewed the events as trivial, Nguyen said, but food is an integral way that members of different cultures express themselves and unite their communities.

Despite funding difficulties, clubs like the MSU and the ASA are spaces  for students to discuss diversity and identity, Nguyen said. “Within the clubs, we did well because we had a comfortable environment for closing the gaps of not just Asian-American students, but international students as well,” she added.

But at times, it is difficult to bridge the gap between the communities that form within multicultural student groups and the greater RWU community, Nguyen said. During her time at RWU, Nguyen said issues of diversity were brought up only once in a while. RWU should think about moving the discussion of diversity to more casual, colloquial settings because diversity, cultural differences and racial issues are daily realities, she said.

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