As the search for a new Director of the Student and Employee Accessibility Services office enters its tenth month, the University has overhauled its search process with plans to convene a new search committee and relaunch recruiting in the spring semester.
While the director position remains vacant, the University recently hired an associate director, whom administrators have yet to publicly name.
The slow pace and lack of transparency during the hiring process provoked frustration among members of the University’s community of people with disabilities who spoke with The Herald. Sumera Subzwari ’21, a member of the executive board of Disability Justice at Brown, said the process “has gone on for way too long.” DJAB leads advocacy efforts on campus to change school policies and tackle issues affecting students with physical and neurological disabilities.
“It started back in spring of the last school year and they are still looking,” she said. “I am feeling frustrated, and a lot of other students in DJAB also feel pretty frustrated about this.”
Catherine Axe ’87, former associate dean and director of SEAS, left the University in March, The Herald previously reported.
Lack of student participation
For the past eight months, a seven-person selection committee convened by the University and led by Vanessa Britto GS ’96, vice president for campus life and executive director of health and wellness, has conducted the search process. Britto wrote in an email to The Herald that the search thus far has been accessible to anyone who wanted to be involved. Britto declined to provide The Herald with names of committee members, but she wrote that “representation included a student, CAPS, Student Support Services, the College, Graduate School and a member of the faculty.”
Before each candidate visit, Britto wrote that the committee invited community members to meet the applicants. Interviews with prospective candidates were held with students within and outside the community of people with disabilities, Britto added. Another interview with each candidate was open to the University community.
But DJAB members said they did not know about opportunities to participate in candidate interviews until they met with Britto in September to see how they could be more involved. At that point, the search process had been going on for about eight months.
“You can’t say ‘there’s opportunities for students to weigh in,’ if you tell no one about it,” wrote Silver Mckie ’22, another member of DJAB’s executive board, in an email to The Herald. “And even if they did, the most prominent disability activists on campus didn’t hear about it — the ones who care the most and search this stuff out! — so it wasn’t enough.”
After they met with Britto, DJAB members were given the opportunity to interview one candidate and provide feedback for the search process. But Mckie said they felt unsure of how their feedback would influence the process overall.
“We don’t know if our feedback will hold any weight,” Mckie said. “The SEAS director directly serves the disabled student body population. … We want a voice in … hiring a new director who will work directly with us and work to support us.”
In addition to wanting more opportunities to be involved, DJAB members said they also lacked sufficient information and status updates on the hiring process as well. Ultimately, Subzwari and Mckie said that they, and rest of DJAB, want more information on committee members as well as an explanation for the hiring process’s length.
Britto wrote that “search processes are highly variable and unpredictable. It is important to have the selection process result in the right person being hired. In addition to requiring thoughtfulness, that can require patience.”
Representation within SEAS search committee, leadership
Professor of American Sign Language Timothy Riker said he also feels concerned about the lack of disability representation in the search committee. Riker, who is Deaf, said that to his knowledge, there is no one from the disability community on the selection committee. To him, this “feels like a double standard when it would not be acceptable for other marginalized groups.”
Britto wrote that the perception of the committee lacking disability representation “may be an assumption,” adding that “disabilities can be visible and/or invisible.”
“Disclosure of a disability was not a requirement for participation on the selection committees, or in any of the groups who met with candidates, nor should it be,” she wrote.
Mckie wrote they felt concerned by Britto’s unwillingness to share whether or not members on the selection committee had a disability.
“Even if someone on the committee had an invisible disability and chose not to disclose it, … there’s still a problem with this, because even though we value their closeted opinion, we need vocal disabled voices that bring their lived experience to the table,” Mckie wrote.
DJAB members and Riker told The Herald that they feel particularly passionate about being involved in the hiring process because they want a SEAS director who is part of the community of people with disabilities. Riker said the ideal SEAS director would not only be someone skilled in the administrative aspect of the role, but would also be someone who appreciates the unique challenges that college students with disabilities face.
Mckie wrote that having an able-bodied individual running the SEAS office is “comparable to having a (cisgender-heterosexual) director of the LGBTQ Center, or a white person in charge of the Brown Center for Students of Color.”
Thus far, Riker has had the opportunity to meet with one candidate who has a disability and “had multiple intersectional identities on top of being deaf.” But, despite Riker’s support, he said that the candidate did not assume the directorship.
SEAS’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan expresses a commitment to increasing the number of hired individuals with disabilities. “The disability services field is not particularly diverse and can even lack people with disabilities,” it reads. “We are focusing on diversifying staffing whenever we hire, prioritizing that (objective) over specific, disability-services experience when we can.”