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The second of two discussions addressing the University of Colorado’s social climate took place on Friday in the University Memorial Center, with nearly 50 people, including faculty, staff and students, in attendance. The event discussed how faculty should handle offensive comments made by students, and also addressed what students should do when a professor is the perpetrator of discrimination.
Dr. Mark Meaney, the executive director of CU’s Center for Education on Social Responsibility, moderated the discussion. He began with his wish to sustain a strong, ethical campus culture, which he said “starts with conversations like this.”
He shared a story that virtually everyone in the room seemed to have experienced to one degree or another: A student made an “egregious and discriminatory statement,” and Meaney was too shocked to react. The five panelists, Dr. Nicole Barger, Kristi Ryujin, Steve Vanderheiden, Richard Bateman and Melinda Markin, all faced similar situations, whether it came to disagreements over evolution leading to religious controversies, denials of climate change or students unintentionally offending a group of people with an ignorant statement.
Barger, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, explained how she tries to “release [the student] from their viewpoint” by forcing them to think about how someone else would react to their words.
Markin, a graduate student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, shared a similar tactic.
“I try to change students’ perspectives by challenging them,” Markin said.
The issue professors grapple with is how to find a functional balance between allowing students their freedom of speech while also fostering an environment wherein everyone feels valued and comfortable enough to contribute.
The recently released results of the 2014 campus climate survey indicate that finding this balance often proves to be difficult. According to the results, white students comprise about 70 percent of the school, while African-American students represent less than 2 percent, Hispanic students about 10 percent and Native American students a mere 0.3 percent.
Minority students are vastly outnumbered, which, as Meaney pointed out, results in their being “spotlighted” and pressured to give their opinion as a representative of their entire race. He went on to say that this assigns an unjust weight on a single person and assumes that one person can speak for an entire group.
Vanessa Roberts, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology, brought up a new topic: What if the professor is the perpetrator? She shared a personal story from when she was a teacher’s assistant when a Muslim student confided in her. The student told her that a professor had jokingly said, “After 9/11, all Muslims are terrorists.”
The people in the room murmured with disapproval, expressing general agreement that this kind of thing happens time and time again because this behavior remains unchecked. The discussion acknowledged that there are resources and offices students can go to for support, but that often causes more hardship and can result in a tedious and taxing situation for the student to endure. More inclusive and causal resources lie among the students themselves, who can provide community-oriented support as well as education. The Black Student Alliance, CU International and Asian Unity are a few examples from the pool of student involvement programs designed to advocate for diversity.
The conversation kept returning to the idea that college is designed to be a place where students are exposed to ideas, places and people they have never encountered before. An ethnic studies academic adviser spoke from the audience, pointing out that we have classes in place already to expand people’s world view.
“How meaningful would it be for every student to take an ethnic studies class?” she said.
Another woman in the audience confidently asserted that the problems being discussed are systematic, so the solution should be systematic as well. She explained that there’s a culture of silence surrounding these issues, and faculty should have appropriate training, and departments should go through the hard work it takes to diversify. The discussion also focused on the idea that there needs to be an understanding of the discomfort of addressing these topics so they can be met head-on; tense and controversial conversation must happen.
Ryujin, director of Diversity Affairs, plainly stated, “Anyone who expects this to be easy, or peaceful, even, is lying to themselves.” Meaney acknowledged that there is a real cultural break existing not only on campus, but all over the U.S., and that it’s going to take years to evolve out of, but progress happens with dialogue and the exchange of ideas.
Russell Moore, executive vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, closed the discussion by saying that there were too many familiar faces present in the room, which is why everyone must be a catalyst for these discussions elsewhere. A committee in CU’s administration is in the process of forming ideas for solutions. After the talk was over, participants were asked if they would sign up to be members of a group that would continue this dialogue of addressing diversity within, and outside of, the classroom environment on campus.