Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Faculty members frustrated over lack of action concerning racial discrimination

Many professors believe the University’s faculty diversity and inclusion training is insufficient

Faculty members frustrated over lack of action concerning racial discrimination

Students, faculty and administrators gathered in the Katzen Arts Center on Sept. 20 to discuss issues of racism on campus.

As the University continues to address racial discrimination on campus, several faculty members have expressed frustration with the diversity and inclusion sessions the administration has encouraged them to attend.

Diversity and inclusion sessions that faculty members are strongly encouraged to attend are simply not doing enough to tackle the issues at hand, said professor of philosophy Richard Sha. These latest frustrations come in the wake of the racially fueled incidents on campus, which have caused widespread protest and dissatisfaction among the AU population.

“On the one hand I think [the session] was well intentioned,” Sha said. “On the other hand it’s not clear to me whether you can, through training, eradicate the problem. Unconscious bias is probably something deeply submerged and the idea that in a 90 minute training session you would correct this problem…that seems to me absurd.”

The training, which takes place during the academic year, comes as part of a package of courses offered by the Human Resources Department titled WLD Diversity and Inclusion courses. Faculty are strongly encouraged to attend the one of the five classes, which range from ‘Exploring Intercultural Communication’ to ‘Unconscious Bias’ training.

The Unconscious Bias training addresses how underlying assumptions influence our everyday decision-making, and the way in which they affect our thoughts, actions, interactions and decisions. Sessions are approximately 90 minutes long, with around 20 to 30 faculty members in attendance, according to Sha.

Sha described the training as interactive, with one exercise involving faculty members being given a number of identity categories on paper and being asked to give one up in each round until there was only one left. They then were asked why they had chosen to keep this element of their identity.

“I think the most glaring thing for me was that we never named the problem,” Theresa Runstedtler, an associate professor of history said after attending the training. “We came into the Unconscious Bias sessions, and we were talking about all the different ways in which we identify ourselves, and identity and the way in which that can blind us to certain types of privileges, but we never actually sat down and said hey, this is what’s going on on campus, let’s name it. Let’s call it racism, let’s call it sexism. Let’s call it what it is and then let’s go from there.”

A lack of addressing the issue was not the only problem brought to light, as some faculty showed little interest in the training, according to journalism professor Angie Chuang.

“I have witnessed faculty going to the Unconscious Bias training and not taking it seriously,” Chuang said. “There were people grading papers at the back of the room, I mean everything that we tell our students not to do.”

Chuang said there have also been reports of racial insensitivity among faculty members, raising questions concerning the underlying structural tensions within the faculty.

“Subtle bias or assumptions that maybe the faculty aren’t aware of occur all the time,” said Chuang. “I know faculty who have left AU or chosen not to take a job at AU because the perception was that the environment wasn’t welcoming to faculty or staff of color, and you know, it breaks my heart when that happens.”

The need for a deeper understanding of the serious topics at hand for both faculty and students, and acknowledgement that there is still progress to be made in these areas is a recurring concern among some of the faculty, Chuang said.

“I think all faculty, just like the students, have really different experiences with race, at very different levels and we’re all at different places with this issue.” she said. “I think we need to acknowledge that to start with.”

Beth Muha, assistant vice president of Human Resources, helped to coordinate the training for faculty members.

“I think they do a really nice job of creating a space where people can talk about bias not from a defensive perspective, but more of a discovery perspective,” she said.

She also said that she had never witnessed any inappropriate behaviour from staff during the sessions.

“It’s a great course and we get wonderful evaluations,” Muha said. “I’ve never seen anybody mock any part of it when I’ve participated.”

Last week some of the faculty took the issue into their own hands, with faculty members in the Critical Race, Gender, and Cultural Studies Collaborative (CRGC) and the Humanities Lab working group, Races, Empires & Diasporas (RED) publishing an open letter in The Eagle containing 110 staff signatures, condemning recent racist incidents on campus. The letter pledged its “support for students of color in this time of tension and stress” and said it was “committed to working with students on strategies for achieving many of the points of action that have been enumerated at public events.”

Signatories wrote that they are planning to help the Black Student Alliance achieve the seven actions they demanded in a statement following the recent racist activities on campus.

“At first we started writing recommendations,” Chuang said, who was one of the faculty members to draft the letter. “But we stopped and said wait a minute. The students have spoken and what they have are seven recommendations and we should really support them because this is their struggle.”

Other members of faculty have also voiced their concerns, including adjunct leader in the Department of Literature Michael Moreno, who published an article on the online media platform ‘Medium’ where he made reference to the racism on campus, as well as recounting an “attempt to normalise or echo racist rhetoric” by a teacher at an Unconscious Bias workshop.

Runstedtler, who is also chair of the Critical Race, Gender and Cultural Studies Collaborative, was a leading voice in initiating and writing the faculty letter.

“I think that we wanted to come together as a group, not as agents for the University but as a collective group of concerned faculty, to say we are behind you in your outrage and support the efforts you are making to raise this as a real issue and a systemic issue on campus,” she said.

news@theeagleonline.com


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