AU President announces long-term plan to create a more inclusive campus community
Neil Kerwin identifies five points to accomplish his goals
University President Neil Kerwin released his long term plan for diversity and inclusion on Feb. 29, outlining the immediate steps he plans to take to build a more welcoming and supportive university.
The proposal includes five different areas that outline actions necessary to achieve this goal. They include creating a council to oversee and track the implementation of the proposal in its entirety, introducing a new mandatory diversity and inclusion course for all first year and transfer students, improving the University’s complaint system to report discrimination by AU staff and faculty, recruiting five new faculty members of diverse backgrounds to the University and implementing faculty training to create more inclusive classroom environments.
“I see this as probably the most successful policy issue that we’ve [American University] really ever conducted because it got so much input from every single constituency on campus, and you can really see how that reflected in this document,” Student Government President Sasha Gilthorpe said. “I’m really excited about it.”
Kerwin incorporated two of the three proposals enumerated in SG’s report on Diversity and Inclusion, which Gilthorpe submitted to him earlier this month. Kerwin’s planned Presidential Council and increased “channels for complaint” mirrors Gilthorpe’s recommendation of an Equity Board and enhanced grievance policy, according to Kerwin. Students, faculty and staff from different departments on campus would serve on Githorpe’s proposed and permanent Equity Board to continually improve inclusion on campus.
To create his plan, Kerwin met with faculty, student, alumni and staff groups during the the fall and spring semesters of this academic year. He also attended a roundtable with local university presidents and students from George Washington University and Howard University in December to collaboratively brainstorm ideas to improve campus-wide inclusion. His cabinet members consulted with other academic institutions, specifically Dr. Shaun Harper, director of the Center of Race and Equity at the University of Pennsylvania, to gather further advice.
“Going back to the statement of common purpose and the mission of the institution, this is a university that has always expressed a deep and abiding faith in the value of diversity,” Kerwin said. “It’s part of our DNA, it’s something that I believe we value and cherish and the evidence accumulated over the last year or so, we were not performing at a level that we were satisfied."
Kerwin’s first planned course of action will establish a Presidential Council to oversee the implementation of all of his proposals. The council would also serve as a working group to continually readjust University policy to better serve students of diverse backgrounds as needed. The chair of the council will be a senior faculty member of color and serve on the University Budget Committee to ensure he or she has the opportunity to receive funding for the council’s actions.
“What we want is an expert group that can continue to assist in the development of the University that is as welcoming and as effective in its education for all students, is a welcoming and effective workplace for all faculty and staff, is as welcoming and high performing that our alumni can be proud of,” Kerwin said. “So the council that I’m proposing would be not only in place to oversee how well the policies are being implemented, but in fact to develop new ones as well as time goes on. As the institution evolves, the council will make appropriate recommendations.”
Based on the feedback he receives on this plan from the University community, Kerwin will appoint other members of the council. He invites students to submit comments to him via email by March 30 before he finalizes his plan of action for immediate implementation.
General Education Changes
The second point in the proposal incorporates working with the faculty senate to implement new General Education courses surrounding topics of diversity and inclusion. These courses will be piloted this coming fall and fully implemented during the 2017-2018 school year. They will be required for all first year and transfer students.
Larry Engel, chair of the Faculty Senate, said the general education committee and task force is currently working on these proposed changes, which he expects to come to a vote on the senate floor by April or May. If approved by the senate, the changes would then go on to the provost, the president, and the board of trustees for approval due to their potential for significant impact on students.
Engel has also worked with the senate executive committee to form a working group on diversity and inclusion, allying with the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning (CTRL), the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, Student Government and multiple students to implement a series of more internal and intimate pilot programs for faculty exclusively.
The goal of these programs, according to Engel, is to facilitate a dialogue between current faculty and the student body, as opposed to bringing in people from outside trainings to host these sessions.
“We want to see if we can get a strong engagement from faculty by working with other faculty,” Engel said. “We’ll pilot those [programs], and we’ll try to create a way to see if there’s anything that’s measurable in terms of impact and in terms of change.”
Although resources are already in place for students to report instances of discrimination and insensitivity, Kerwin said he found many students didn’t know of these possible avenues for support and further action.
“We discovered during the course of this listening tour that the students were often unaware of both policies and procedures that they could pursue and have access to if they felt as if they were victims of discrimination and bias,” Kerwin said. “So we felt it very important to make those policies more readily available and more understandable.”
This course of action coincides with others proposed by SG members to try and extend the current grievance policy to a wider range of issues involving diversity and inclusion. While students are now able to file complaints about residence hall regulations, discrimination and other types prohibited conduct, SG members voiced their desire to make this policy more applicable to a classroom setting.
“The policy we are advocating for allows complaints to be suggested for any incident that occurs. This way, the university is able to track patterns and act when necessary in order to preventively in addressing incidents before they become more serious offenses,” Devontae Torriente, Senator for the Class of 2018, said via Facebook message. “The suggestion also empowers the university and staff members, both student and professional, to educate the students about the grievance process, because a large issue concerning it is that students are not aware of it.”
Diversity in Faculty
Regarding the recruitment of five or more new tenure or tenure-track faculty members, Dean of Academic Affairs Mary Clark said the University will look for superior faculty and teachers who come from underrepresented minority groups.
According to Clark, these actions represent an ongoing effort by the University over the past few years to increase the representation of diverse faculty members in the overall faculty racial composition. Within the last year specifically, Clark said 29 percent of new faculty hires were underrepresented minorities, bringing the overall percentage of minority faculty members to 21 percent.
“Our goal is always to recruit diverse candidates,” Clark said. “What the president has announced is really an effort to double down in these five searches to recruit proactively diverse candidates through having a very active process of consultation and conversation with faculty who are in the job market.”
A new entry program lead in conjunction by the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning and the office of the Dean of Academic Affairs for these newly appointed faculty will focus on uncovering unconscious biases and facilitating open discussions on potentially uncomfortable subjects, according to Clark. This program will be based off of similar initiatives taken at other universities around the country that have proven to be successful.
Tatiana Laing, one of the founders of the Darkening, believes that this component of Kerwin’s plan lacks specific details on how AU will train current professors to implement more inclusive classrooms. During the university’s town hall in November, Laing brought forward this particular concern.
“It’s not good enough in our opinion just to implement changes, they have to be changes that are effective and meet the students who need to be reached,” Laing said.
Lang attributes Kerwin’s plan as a whole to her organization’s consistent activism. The Darkening released a statement in support of the plan as a whole when the plan was released.