On Monday, Nov. 12, a student-organized discussion forum called “Diversity University: In Theory and In Practice,” was held in Beckham Hall. Such a large number of students attended the forum that several had to either stand or sit on the floor, and some estimates put the attendees at about 400 people. President Michael Roth responded to concerns students raised at the forum by saying he planned to assign staff to work on these issues during the coming months.
The panel members included Roth, Director of Public Safety (PSafe) Dave Meyer, Chair of the Religion Department Elizabeth McAlister, John E. Andrus Professor of Sociology Alex Dupuy, Chantaneice Kitt ’13, Dorisol Inoa ’13, Evan Okun ’13, and Jalen Alexander ’14. Vice President for Institutional Partnerships and Chief Diversity Officer Sonia Mañjon moderated the forum.
The objective of the forum was to discuss the current racial climate at the University. Several recent racist Anonymous Confession Board (ACB) posts, the descriptions of suspects in Public Safety alerts, and incidents involving racial profiling led to the organizing of this forum.
“The forum allowed for people to relate their perspectives and this is a positive first step,” McAlister wrote in an email to The Argus. “I think the students who participated have created a moment [in which] change is possible.”
Many students were pleased that this forum occurred and were impressed with the turn-up at the forum.
Sydney Lowe ’13, a transfer student, wrote an email to The Argus about her experience at her previous school.
“Whenever a racial problem did eventually occur—and trust me, I have my horror stories—most times the administration did not handle it well, if they handled it at all,” wrote Sydney Lowe ’13 in an email to The Argus. “The students that cared the most/were the most active were the students of color. If meetings occurred, the faces in the audience were normally only students of color. I was pleased to see at the meeting at Wesleyan the other night that it wasn’t only students of color that were there. I believe this was said at the meeting, but it’s not just our problem, it should be everyone’s problem and concern.”
The forum opened up with comments from each of the panelists. During these introductions, several panelists emphasized that students have taken a major role in attempts to improve Wesleyan’s racial climate. Previous attempts included involved students organizing other forums and participating in meetings with administrators.
“We [need to] put more responsibility on the administration on an institutional level,” Inoa said. “It’s not fair that students have to take on [this much] responsibility.”
The opening of the forum was relatively calm, but when the panel opened up the floor to attendees, things started to get heated. There were several moments during the meeting in which audience members made loud exclamations.
Students brought up specific incidents in which they felt as if they had been mistreated by PSafe officers. Geneva Jonathon ’15 mentioned an incident in which she was threatened by two men and reported the incident to PSafe and the Middletown Police Department. There were no emails sent to the public after her reports were made, despite the fact that the incident was little different from similar threatening encounters for which emails were sent out.
Another student mentioned an instance in which a PSafe officer thought his friend was a suspect from the string of all-campus alerts that were emailed to the community during Homecoming Weekend. When the student went to the PSafe Office to discuss this with Meyer, he was told that he himself looked like the suspect.
After several comments directed toward Meyer, one student directly challenged the PSafe head to address these concerns. Following the meeting, several students indicated that they were unsatisfied with Meyer’s response to this request.
“[Meyer and Roth were] confronted by these stories and experiences in front of the student body on a panel discussion that was being recorded live and transmitted, essentially across the globe (I know a few Wesleyan students who were watching it during the semester abroad),” Lowe wrote. “I think [Dave] Meyer and President Roth both realized that they had dropped the ball on this one.”
Mañjon felt that Roth approached the meeting in a positive and beneficial manner.
“I think President Roth took the forum extremely seriously and heard the students,” Mañjon said. “He stayed for the entire three hours, and I think that shows his willingness to learn. I think his statement was very heartfelt. He will look into issues brought up in the forum and as a cabinet we will address them.”
Roth sent out an all-student email the day after the forum detailing his response to the impassioned discussion the night before.
“[The forum] was an intense, disturbing and enlightening experience for me, as I imagine it was for many others,” his email read. “I want to thank everyone who attended, and I especially want to thank the student organizers, the panel participants, and all those students who showed the courage to share their stories about their Wesleyan experiences. The emotional honesty and thoughtfulness I witnessed gives me hope that together we can create a more inclusive, supportive and inspiring campus culture.”
His email went on to outline the steps the administration would take to address the concerns students raised. Roth wrote that administrators would create a list of issues on which they should be working, and then another student forum will be held after spring break to discuss what progress has been made.
Some students were hesitant to trust Roth’s commitment to making significant changes in response to these issues.
“I think we are moving in a hopeful direction but I caution people’s praise of Roth,” Kitt wrote in an email to The Argus. “Although he did apologize at the forum and his email hinted towards greater understanding, he had years of pure ignorance to make up for. He needs to put his money where his mouth is and institutionalize social justice here at Wes. He needs to set the tone for the rest of this school, that is what he was hired to do.”
Students at the forum questioned whether the University still lives up to its reputation as “Diversity University.” According to Inoa, the University does fit the name in theory, but in practice the University has a long way to go before fully embodying that term.
“It might be how we promote ourselves,” said Christian Hosam ’15. “And are we trying to promote ourselves as this perfected place, and if we are, is that something we should potentially try to remedy and look into? If so many people came here and feel like they were sold something fake, that is something we should look into.”
During the forum, a few suggestions were made to help educate the University’s community to support a better racial climate. Some ideas included creating a team, which would consist of representatives from various identity student groups and administrators, to help resolve controversial issues on campus. At the moment, there are a few Student of Color Interns who have previously worked to rectify issues of racism at the University.
Students in attendance stressed that the forum should serve as an impetus for change on campus.
“To acknowledge structural flaws is not to change them,” Okun wrote in an email to The Argus. “It is important that the student body not be satiated by that forum, but rather use it as a catalyst for legitimate change.”
Mañjon agreed that certain changes needed to be made to the University.
“I felt the students were speaking their truths at the forum, and it doesn’t matter whether the office is expanded or not; it should be a school-wide [initiative],” Manjon said. “Our [University] should be conducive to social justice and equity for all students.”
The effect of this meeting on the diversity of the campus has yet to be determined. Yet for many of the people who attended the meeting, this forum served as a reminder that things remain extremely tense.
“The Forum revealed that there is a gap between different peoples’ experiences at Wesleyan,” McAlister wrote. “The gap is racialized, gendered, and also generational. I don’t think most faculty had realized the extent to which some of our students from underrepresented groups and some women feel vulnerable, invisible, and at risk, here at Wesleyan. Our students are precious—they have worked hard to get here. They came to learn, not to be offended. They came to develop themselves, not to be brutalized. They came to make friends, not to feel vulnerable and misunderstood.”