Students work behind the scenes to make SMU more inclusive and diverse

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Photo Credit: Bridget Graf
Photo Credit: Bridget Graf

 

Awkward, tense and uncomfortable. That is how D’Marquis Allen, president of SMU’s Association of Black Students, describes the initial meetings earlier this semester between the administration and student activists of the #BlackatSMU movement.

#BlackatSMU had delivered a 10-point list of demands to the administration after racial tensions boiled over on campus last fall. A racist post on GreekRank.com referring to black women as “aesthetically unpleasing”, and an invite to a “thug”-themed fraternity party had sparked outrage on campus.

Now it was time for student leaders of the #BlackatSMU movement to meet with President R. Gerald Turner, Dean of Student Life Joanne Vogel, and other high-ranking university officials.

“We had no idea where the conversation was going to go,” Allen said. “They received this document. Where do they stand?”

Among #BlackatSMU’s demands: black student enrollment must increase to at least 10 percent of the student population; mandatory racial sensitivity training must be implemented for all faculty and staff; and the university must hold student organizations accountable for racially insensitive conduct.

“The ultimate goal is to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and welcomed on campus,” said Jessica Mitchell, co-chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Inclusion and Diversity created by SMU’s Student Senate in November.

However, some students worry that nothing tangible has happened yet to improve conditions for minority students at SMU. Others worry that not everyone on campus is on board with the goals of #BlackatSMU and other minority students.

Allen senses apathy among some students. There is not a sense of urgency that things should change, or that the issues facing minority students are always valid and valued.

“The most impactful thing for me is the response we’ve gotten from those who support us and the lack of response we’ve gotten and the apathy that comes from some students,” Allen said. “Is there remorse? Is there any sympathy? To this point I can’t say that I’ve heard that.”

Allen sees the demands drafted by #BlackatSMU as an attempt to bridge the gap between white and minority students. While he recognizes the group may be unable to change the minds of every student, he is thankful the administration has been responsive.

“The school, the administration and the Board of Trustees have been nothing but proactive and not retroactive with this issue,” Student Body President Carlton Adams said. “Just the fact that these conversations are being held by those who previously didn’t take part or even realize it was an issue. That’s what’s been so exciting to me.”

Dialogues with SMU’s administration regarding the demands are only the beginning of what #BlackatSMU hopes will someday be a massive culture change on The Hilltop. While talks between university and student leaders have not yet yielded many tangible results, Senate’s Ad Hoc Committee on Inclusion and Diversity is meeting with Turner every three weeks.

“President Turner has a long track record throughout his career, even before SMU, of promoting diversity in his student bodies as well as his faculty,” Mitchell said. “He’s been absolutely amazing at trying to find tangible solutions that we can implement as soon as possible.”

Allen believes that a major part of closing the racial divide at SMU is getting more students of minority backgrounds to The Hilltop. Less than 30 percent of undergraduates in 2012 were minority students. Less than 10 percent of those identified as black. Allen believes that all of the demands drafted by #BlackatSMU are achievable, but the speed at which they get done may be slow.

Mitchell believes that a slower pace may play to the advantage of student leaders who want to see lasting change.

“It’s better to be deliberate in the planning of something to make sure that it’s effective, rather than being like ‘oh just make a Kumbaya circle and everyone will stop being racist,’” she said.

Promoting Diversity

Mitchell says the administration has begun fundraising efforts to create more scholarships for students of color. Turner reaffirmed the university’s commitment to creating a diverse population in a memo emailed to faculty on March 14.

“This spring provides an opportunity to assist the Office of Enrollment Management to enhance the yield of minority students who have been admitted to SMU,” Turner wrote. “The Provost and Office of Access and Equity are already working very closely with department chairs and deans to encourage the efforts of academic units to increase their diversity.”

Sensitivity Training

#BlackatSMU also demanded that the university require sensitivity training for all faculty, staff and tenured professors. It also insisted that any student considering initiation into a Greek organization go through some form of cultural intelligence training before being eligible.

Faculty at the Simmons School of Education and Human Development are evaluating the curriculum of SMU’s Personal Responsibility & Wellness courses. The evaluation includes investigating the plausibility of cultural intelligence training for First Year students.

Turner indicated in his March 14 memo that he and the Faculty Senate support the development of faculty training designed to create a welcoming classroom environment for students of all backgrounds. Turner and the administration will be taking suggestions from faculty members regarding sensitivity training and hope to solidify a plan later this month.

Greek Life

The Student Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Inclusion and Diversity is also working to address instances of racism and intolerance pertaining to Greek life. The committee is working with the Office of Student Conduct & Community Standards to improve how the Student Code of Conduct handles themed parties that contain microaggressions and racial intolerance. The committee hopes to prevent racially insensitive events by adding parties to the social event registration process. Turner’s stance on instances of racism among the Greek community was made clear in a public apology regarding last fall’s AEPi/Pike “Ice Age” party:

“The key point is that SMU students should know better than to engage in such irresponsible and insensitive conduct,” Turner said in a statement published on the university’s website on October 29. “It is simply unacceptable for any campus group or individual to employ images and language that promote negative stereotypes and are demeaning to the dignity of any member of our campus community.

Are the Demands Plausible?

While administrators believe the #BlackatSMU demands are valid, the resources may not be there to pursue all of them. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in fall of 2013, only 6 percent of full-time faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions were black. In 2007, Emory University in Atlanta led the nation in black faculty at 6.8 percent. How would SMU attract a faculty of 10 percent black professors when other prominent universities struggle to do so? Without funding and useable land to work with, how would SMU construct a dedicated center for minority students? How would the university budget for and select an officer dedicated strictly to issues of diversity and inclusion?

These are the questions the university needs to answer, say student leaders and activists.

Until then, senior student leaders like Allen will continue to try to improve the climate for minorities at SMU.

In a recent guest column in The Daily Campus commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s visit to The Hilltop, Allen encouraged university and student leaders to think about how issues of race and inclusion should be approached in the second century.

“Acknowledging the existence of these flaws and circumstances is where the university must begin in order to truly pursue the ‘world changing’ status it so desperately desires,” Allen wrote. “Only after this, will we be fully committed to changing the cultural climate of this campus.”

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