Students Demand Diversity at Campus Wide Summit

Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography
Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography

On a cold, damp, Monday morning students, faculty, and members of the community attended a community assembly on diversity at the Rackham Graduate School. Featuring President Mark Schlissel himself and emceed by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Clarence Page, the event was just one part of a roughly week-long Campuswide Diversity Summit that focused on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Michigan.

The event kicked off at just after 9 a.m. to a full room of attendees. Once roped-off seating areas were made available and quickly filled up. It was hard to identify any undergraduate students sprinkled throughout the crowd as older individuals were the overwhelming majority of those in attendance. I assume these people were faculty, alumni, graduate students, and community members. The racial make-up of the crowd was far more balanced.

Robert M Sellers, Vice Provost for Equity, Inclusion, and Academic Affairs, spoke first and gave a brief introduction to the day’s events. He made it clear that the focus of the event was the people of the audience. “You are the reason that we are here today,” said Sellers, “We need your ideas.” Sellers concluded by mentioning that those in attendance were in a “free speech zone” before emphasizing the importance of respectful exchanges.

President Schlissel spoke next and echoed that the focus of the event was to hear from the community. He spoke about the steps that have already be taken to increase diversity on campus, including the newly introduced HAIL scholarship program and a program called Wolverine Pathways. According to a report by Michigan News, Wolverine Pathways will feature, “Hands-on and project based learning activities that extend and integrate core English-language arts, math and science content,” and is offered to students, beginning with the 7th grade, in school districts throughout Ypsilanti and Southfield with an eye at expanding the program to other areas, including Detroit. When President Schlissel mentioned that students completing this program would receive a full scholarship, the audience applauded loudly. In parting, President Schlissel underlined the importance of working together to achieve success. “If it fails, we fail together.”

Clarence Page was next to speak. He pointed out the difficult nature of speaking about race and compared it to speaking about sex, saying that, “Everybody feels personally expert at it, we all have something to say about it, we’re very reluctant to say it in mixed company or in front of the children.” The crowd enjoyed this comparison immensely. Page also referenced the racial unrest at Yale and Missouri briefly and described it as a worst case scenario. He then introduced the first topic of discussion: “If we are successful with our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, how would you describe the University of Michigan in 2015 and beyond?”

A video then played that featured interviews with faculty and staff in which those interviewed provided their own answers to the questions. Will Sherry, Director of the Spectrum Center, said, “It’s looking like every student being called by the right pronouns in every class that they’re in or every space that they’re here at the university.” Undergraduate Isa Gaillard said, “More staff and faculty of color and more…affordable housing on campus where not only minority students but students of low income and first generation students can stay and not only call home but can feel safe and can relate with students of similar backgrounds.” Executive director for the Division of Public Safety and Security, Eddie Washington, said that he sees “a community where even implicit bias is nonexistent.”

Next, open mikes were made available for those in attendance to answer the question themselves. Those who spoke were mostly faculty and students. They spoke for short periods of time and covered topics such as increased faculty diversity at both the University and in the health care system, increased diversity of the student body, and greater accessibility for disabled people. A program coordinator in the office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, Jerrica DeLaney, said, “One thing I would like to see next year is a classroom setting where professors from adjunct all the way up to tenured are culturally competent to handle the battleground and the arrows and the darts that are thrown at students of color in their classrooms.”  

Doctoral Student Jamie Tam said, “I want to know what kinds of incentives are being created for people to do the right thing…that is, people are rewarded for doing the good thing, the right thing, and also punished, penalized, for doing the bad thing.”

The next topic of discussion was: “What suggestions, ideas, or strategies do you have for how to achieve our vision for diversity, equity, and inclusion?” Once again a video followed the introduction of the topic where students and faculty weighed in on this question. One particularly interesting sound byte came from Professor of History and Afroamerican and African Studies, Martha Jones, who said, “I don’t think we get there by saying we are the leaders and best. I wish we could say we were the leaders and best, but what we know is that, on most measures, we are, at best, at the middle of the pack.” This sentiment received one of the audience’s largest applauses during the event.

Once again, open mikes were made available to the audience. One speaker believed that the focus on percentages, numbers, and minority quotas was “disparaging” and advocated that they be used less as a measurement of diversity on campus. Graduate student Ryan Moody said, “I don’t notice crossover between US students and international students at all…and I think that’s mostly the US students making them not feel comfortable.” She suggested that the University should create programs to promote dialogue between international and domestic students.

During the videos and the many different speakers from the audience, President Schlissel was seated and listening to what was being said. He did not acknowledge any of the audience’s statements until the event was about to conclude. Even then, he did not address any one statement directly. When asked for his thoughts about the event, President Schlissel said, “Well, I think I’ve heard a lot of honesty, I think I’ve heard a lot of subterranean anger and discomfort, I think I’ve heard a lot of ambition, a lot of shared interest in trying to make the University a place we can be increasingly proud of.”

While the purpose of the event was to bolster the campus conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion, not all minority groups felt represented. In response to the Diversity Summit, a group of Asian American students created a Facebook event for Project Elephant.  The Facebook page explained, “At the University of Michigan’s most recent Diversity Summit, Brendan and Jenn, as two Asian American students, felt like nothing in the presentations or panel discussions acknowledged their existence.” It continued, “We are here in numbers but always swept under the rug and dismissed. We are the elephants in the room.” They plan to conduct a photo wall on the diag, November the 23rd, for those who have an ‘elephant in the room’ issue.

Earlier in the event, President Schlissel mentioned that he had some fear as to the success of the equity and inclusion aspects of the plan. After one speaker suggested punishing those who did the so called “bad thing”, I too had fears over how far the University was willing to go to punish those who did not buy into their diversity, equity, and inclusion crusade. I asked Vice Provost Sellers if he believed the University of Michigan would seek to punish non-inclusive attitudes as a way to accomplish their goals of inclusivity on campus. Sellers answered, “No, I don’t think the University should punish anyone for any attitudes.” Whether or not this belief will hold true as efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion push onward is something left to be seen. If the administrative decisions at campuses nationwide are any indicator of the future, I would not be surprised if this passive attitude is exchanged with a more aggressive alternative.

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About Jason Weaver

Jason Weaver was a contributor to the Michigan Review.