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Students express diversity policy concerns at Nollen House

By Stephen Gruber-Miller

President Raynard Kington was scheduled to have lunch with seven students on Monday to discuss diversity policy. More than 20 others showed up, uninvited, to express their dissatisfaction with what they called the College’s poor handling of diversity issues. Their main concerns were turnover at the Department of Intercultural Leadership and Engagement, the office’s move into the Department of Academics Affairs, perceptions of a lack of communication with campus and inadequate support for students.

This action is the latest in a number of protests and expressions of student dissatisfaction with the administration’s diversity policies. Previously, a group of students put up posters protesting the understaffing of the Department of Intercultural Engagement and Leadership, formerly the Department of Diversity and Inclusion, as well as a lack of transparency in decision-making, such as moving the office under Academic Affairs with inadequate explanation.

The students’ most immediate proposal was the organization of a town hall meeting that would allow all students and faculty to establish a dialogue with Kington.

“I really do think that there needs to be a back-and-forth kind of dialogue between the students and the administration,” said Gregory Hinton ’14, Chair of Concerned Black Students (CBS). Hinton was present at the lunch with a number of students from CBS and other groups.

The listening session was intended to include a variety of students from groups such as CBS, Asian and Asian American Association, Stonewall Resource Center, anti-Oppression Peer Education Network, Chalutzim and Student Organization of Latinas/os.

Kington said that he found the meeting beneficial.

Students spoke with President Raynard Kington in Nollen House on Monday. Photograph by Avery Rowlison.

“I thought it was a productive meeting. I learned a lot,” he said. “I thought there were interesting comments. Some not surprising, but they helped me think about things in slightly different ways.”

The Council on Diversity and Inclusion recommended that Kington hold smaller listening sessions as a means to more easily hear student opinions.

“While town hall meetings can play a role … not everyone has a chance to talk,” Kington said. “[This] is a better form for conveying information than having conversations, especially about sensitive, difficult topics.”

Many students disagreed and felt that the uninvited walk-in sparked a conversation that was open to more students and that would not have happened otherwise.

Student Concerns

Students were consistent in identifying three issues that the College has in regards to diversity: communication, transparency and stability.

“Communication is heavily flawed,” said Deborah Tillman ’14, one student who walked in on the listening session uninvited.

Christian Snow ’13, who was selected for the listening session, agreed with Tillman.

“Decisions get made that directly affect students,” she said. “You can go and see exactly what was affected and students aren’t consulted in any way or even really told. We have to figure it out on our own.”

Multiple students who were invited to attend the listening session did not know how they were selected or why they were chosen as representatives of their fellow students. Kington said that they were chosen by the Council on Diversity and Inclusion, but many students were unaware of what the council does in general, much less the fact that they were selected by it for the meeting.

While students were appreciative of the administration’s attempt to reach out, they were frustrated that Kington did not choose a town hall format as they had wished.

Turnover at the Department of Intercultural Leadership and Engagement is the central issue for students in the area of transparency and stability. The office, formerly the Department of Diversity and Inclusion, lost Intercultural Affairs Associate Daria “Dotty” Slick in Spring 2011 and Vice President for Diversity and Achievement Elena Bernal ’94 in Spring 2012. Director of Intercultural Engagement and Leadership Michael Benitez will be leaving at the end of the semester after taking the position at the beginning of this school year.

Some students see the departures as indicators of a systemic lack of stability and support that has characterized the department in recent years.

“You have the Mike Benitez situation, so that’s another issue of lack of stability in the sense of, he was here for one year,” Hinton said.

A statement by Kington at the listening session about the necessity of hiring a Chief Diversity Officer before changes could be made also sparked frustration from students, who saw it as an excuse.

“Why wasn’t Michael Benitez moved to that position in the first place when he is highly qualified? How is it that you let a gem like him slip away and get hired to be a dean somewhere else when he’s done so much work here?” Snow said.

Hinton and other students mentioned that with departures and the movement of employees such as Intercultural Affairs Associate Marlene Jacks to different offices, they do not know who to go to with their problems.

Additionally, some students feel a lack of respect from the administration and a lack of engagement from the student body as a whole.

“We didn’t get the same type of attention that the financial aid situation got,” Snow said. “Because when things don’t affect people, they don’t care.”

President Kington’s Response

Kington agreed with students that there had been mistakes in communication.

“We didn’t do a great job of communicating broadly about the direction that certainly I was looking toward in terms of promoting and strengthening our diversity, but changing how we do diversity,” he said.

However, he noted that students could have raised the issue with him previously.

“It’s a two-way street, though,” he said. “I have open office hours. Students come to me all the time for all sorts of things and that was the first meaningful conversation I’ve had.”

He added that he is looking to move forward.

“There were ineffective steps on all sides here, but we’re over that now, I think, and we’ve begun the meaningful conversation,” he said.

Kington mentioned that the need-blind admissions discussion absorbed much of his time, preventing him from communicating about diversity. He noted that need-blind admissions affect diversity by enabling the College to achieve a diverse population without examining student need in the admissions process.

He extolled the high amounts of aid Grinnell gives to students compared to peer institutions.

“I have no doubt that we spend far more than many institutions on aid to domestic kids in general, but particularly high-need students, and domestic kids of color are more likely to be high-need,” he said.

Kington mentioned that he thought the biggest challenge for minority and first-generation students was the difficulty of their transition to college.

“For many, it’s a different world in lots of ways,” he said. “It’s a different world for lots of students, but I think a credible argument could be made that for many domestic kids of color in particular, but also I think first-generation kids from every race and ethnicity—that’s part of the diversity issue here as well—aren’t as comfortable in the transition to a place like Grinnell as some other students… That’s probably the biggest issue, but there are probably other issues as well,” he said.

Another point Kington brought up was a campus climate report released in October 2011. It laid out an extensive list of what the College was doing with diversity initiatives and what it had to do. The report mentioned that minority students did not feel as comfortable in classrooms as other students, Kington said.

It also addressed issues of faculty retention.

“I’ve been struggling with the issue of diversity in faculty, personally, for decades,” Kington said.

In terms of stability in the diversity office, Kington had the office moved under Academic Affairs to bring it to the core of the College’s educational mission.

“We know that there’s more to our college than what happens in the classroom, but what it does is say, when we do all those other things to build a more supportive social environment, that they’re all towards this core mission,” he said, adding that non-academic issues wouldn’t be marginalized by the move. “So I don’t think it precludes doing any of those things that we know are important. Students live here. They have to have comfortable lives. All students have to have comfortable lives here; we know that. But this connects those efforts to our core mission.”

The departures of multiple staff members from the office were due to their personal choices rather than the College’s actions, Kington said.

“Elena Bernal had an opportunity to go elsewhere. I can’t control that,” he said. “Michael Benitez was brought in, and to be honest it was probably unfair to him that he was brought in and was no longer working with the person who had hired him. He got a great opportunity. Mazel tov.”

Kington recognized that so many departures in the same department was cause for concern, calling it a “legitimate criticism” and he said that hiring the Chief Diversity Officer was the priority.

“We’re taking seriously the concern of staffing,” he said. “The only way to solve the stability problem is to fill the positions.”

Assistant Director of Analytic Support and Institutional Research Narren Brown has been chosen to serve as Interim Director of Intercultural Engagement and Leadership, taking over from Michael Benitez until at least this December.

Some concerns have also been raised by students on campus about the retention of the Posse Program, despite the College’s verbal commitment to renew their contract. Kington said the College will sign the contract once they finalize details about providing Grinnell with more of a role in the selection process, including the ability to select more or less than the ten students that are traditionally chosen, and the option to examine another location depending on the College’s need.

“We made the commitment,” he said.

Employee Perspectives

Faculty and staff recognize that the College has had issues with supporting diversity and in communicating policy to students. For most employees, the most important idea was that there needs to be institutional support for diversity and the campus needs to come together to help make that happen.

When asked by the S&B about what kind of support the diversity office has received, Benitez said that he is aware of student concerns and has reached out to the College multiple times to try to obtain additional support and resources for the Department of Intercultural Engagement and Leadership, but that the administration gave little to no response.

He said that the understaffing of the department resulted in him trying to juggle his own job working with students in addition to assuming some duties that should have been the responsibility of the Chief Diversity Officer. He also cited low budgets for many diversity-oriented organizations such as the Multicultural Leadership Council and the Black Cultural Center.

Furthermore, when asked, Benitez said that many students come to Grinnell for the financial aid they receive, but do not necessarily feel accepted or supported once they arrive due to a lack of resources.

One employee, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed frustration with finger-pointing and said that Grinnell has to work on fixing the problem.

“It’s not about being critical. We need to find tangible solutions,” the employee said.

One suggestion of the employee was for the College to do a better job making decisions in concert with people who are qualified to give advice.

“I think sometimes the very people who are the experts in the areas of diversity and inclusion from the faculty side and the staff side are not even asked to be a part of the solution,” the employee said.

The employee asserted that the move of the diversity department to Academic Affairs could be a good thing with the right support.

Associate Dean Heather Lobban-Viravong, English, and Henry Rietz, Religious Studies, who serve as co-chairs of the Council on Diversity and Inclusion, and Brown, the Interim Director, believe that the department’s placement in Academic Affairs suggests that it is important to everyone.

“I think having that office under Academic Affairs really anchors diversity issues even more solidly in the mission of the institution,” Lobban-Viravong said.

Dean of Religious Life Deanna Shorb said she wants to make sure diversity is still being respected as a core value of the College beyond simply being tied to academics.

“We have three core values and one of them is diversity,” she said. “It concerns me that diversity and inclusion might be regarded as purely an academic affairs or curricular concern where we only study race and culture in the classroom. It is my hope that the new Associate Dean will work with the diversity and inclusion staff to rebuild what was once a vibrant co-curricular program.”

She did acknowledge the importance of an academic angle.

“We do need to study race and culture but we also need to recognize the wonderful diversity on our campus and with it that there are unique cultural and racial needs for expression,” she said.

Faculty members see communication as key to bringing all parts of campus together to address the problem.

“For me, what’s most important is opening up lines of communication,” Rietz said. “So it’s not just sending out an email or press release or putting things out there, but opening up spaces and relationships where we can have conversations.”

The employees agreed that the diversity department needs an institutional commitment from the administration, saying it is a priority. This process will begin with the hiring of the Chief Diversity Officer, who Kington says will hopefully be chosen within the next month.

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    AJMay 1, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Miller – I believe that you are taking this student’s quote completely out of context (although the student in question should correct me if I am wrong). When the student says “Because when things don’t affect people, they don’t care” I believe they are highlighting the effects of white privilege. Why are white people like myself “not affected” by this issue? Probably because we are white, and when you are white you never have to think about the fact that you have a racial identity and that you benefit from this identity (especially in institutional spaces). One such benefit of being white is that colleges are going to be structured to fit your particular needs and that, as a result, this structure is not necessarily going to fit the needs of people of color. If students of color claim they are being under-served by the college, this claim should be accepted as true to their experience (which only they can have), and not be immediately questioned so as to silence them.
    I think that the Grinnell community should hear what this student is telling us: why is a complaint by certain members of the community not being understood as something that negatively effects the community as a whole?

  • M

    MillerApr 27, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.

    Sorry, but I don’t really see a problem that’s tangibly identified here. Let’s be honest: what on earth does a lack of transparency actually mean? Anyone care to articulate? Scare tactics: using important-sounding words to mask the situation.

    “Because when things don’t affect people, they don’t care” – that’s a quote from this very article. Maybe it’s true, and if it is, then it just supports the whole idea that we’re digging for worms just for the sake of creating a stir.

    As for communication? Again, no specifics. What, precisely, isn’t being communicated to students? Mum on that point. Or maybe we should set up a task force like they did in East Germany — remember the Stasi, anyone? — to inform everyone of everything that’s going on?