Town hall talks new working groups

by Annie Ma | 2/22/16 8:34pm

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About 60 students gathered for the Palaeopitus town hall on diversity working groups.
by Paula Mendoza / The Dartmouth

Yesterday evening Palaeopitus senior society hosted a panel event and town hall on diversity and inclusion at the College.

The panel, which brought 60 students, staff and faculty members to the Fahey-McLane Hall ground floor lounge, featured the chairs of all of the administrative working groups announced earlier this month.

Dean of the College Rebecca Biron, Provost Carolyn Dever, vice provost for academic initiatives Denise Anthony, and chief human resources officer Scott Bemis, who filled in for director of talent acquisition Ahmed Mohammed while he was out of town, each spoke about the diversity working groups.

The three working groups, focusing on staff, students and faculty, will report their findings to an executive committee including College President Phil Hanlon, Dever, executive vice president Rick Mills and vice president of institutional diversity and equity Evelynn Ellis.

Biron said that the working groups will compile information about current efforts to foster diversity and inclusivity at the College, compare best practices at the College with those of other institutions, identify metrics for improvement across groups, propose new long and short-term actions and ultimately build mechanisms for accountability and transparency regarding these efforts across campus. She added that the goal of this initiative is to solicit as much community input as possible.

After the panel, the town hall transitioned into three smaller question and answer sessions based on the three working groups.

In the faculty working group session, Anthony stressed the need to focus on retaining and not just recruiting diverse faculty. Once a professor comes to Dartmouth, it is necessary that they find a supportive environment here, she said.

Anecdotal evidence may suggest otherwise, Anthony said. The College currently does not conduct routine exit interviews for faculty members who leave, which Anthony said means that the “decision makers” — provosts, deans and senior administration — do not have information on why people depart.

Students in the discussion group raised a number of questions about the tenure process, with some calling into question the transparency of how candidates are evaluated. When professors are considered for tenure, departments will often ask students who have enrolled in the professors courses for recommendation letters. Members of the discussion group said that though they had been asked for letters, they were not told of the outcome of their professor’s tenure process.

Students also questioned how the tenure process, which Anthony said heavily emphasizes a professor’s research, could affect faculty who may make a higher “service commitment” to students. Anthony acknowledged that while not limited to faculty of color, this affects minority faculty more acutely as students seek out their guidance.

Because there are so few faculty of color at the College, Anthony said that the burden is much higher for the ones who are here. She said that one of the group’s goals is to increase the number of minority faculty.

“The fact that the faculty doesn’t look like the student body is a problem,” she said.

In the student working group discussion, Ameer, Biron and Ellis repeatedly stressed that student input was crucial to the success of the working groups.

Biron said that there are no plans to alter any student organization to accommodate the new housing system. Instead, she said the goal was to allow communities to develop organically, rather than to have “change for the sake of change.”

During the discussion, Jon Diakanwa ‘16 asked why no course on diversity was required to graduate. Diakanwa is a member of the faculty working group and president of Dartmouth’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Biron responded by outlining a co-curricular program within house communities that would be “optional, but normed and fun” so that students would feel a commitment to their communities. The house communities are intended to create a feeling of belonging, but Biron added that they would also foster a sense of responsibility and ownership in students over their communities.

Diakanwa compared a diversity education program or curriculum requirement to the College’s alcohol education program prior to matriculation, adding that even students who do not drink are required to complete the course.

“Why is education on high-risk behavior mandatory, but this is optional?” Diakanwa asked.

Biron said that the student working group does not have the power to create requirements for graduation — that power resides with the faculty. Ameer qualified that statement by adding that the working group can make a recommendation to the dean of the faculty based on student input.

Chinedum Nwaigwe ’19 said that there was a need for greater transparency when speaking of inclusivity and diversity. During the panel, she questioned the administrations use of “blanket terms” to describe these issues.

“If you don’t actually use the term race in an email about race relations, then you can’t even spark a conversation on the issue because no one knows what the issue is,” Nwaigwe said.

Nwaigwe pointed to the announcement of “Moving Dartmouth Forward,” which clearly identified high-risk drinking as a problem at the College and launched two surveys to analyze the campus climate on the issue. She said that the College should do the same with issues like race, homophobia and transphobia and should publish those results.

In the fall of 2015, the College launched the Dartmouth Community Study survey, which focused on living, learning and working at Dartmouth and addressed issues such as minority groups, inclusivity and identity.

After the panel, about 20 students stayed in Fahey to continue conversations around points that had come up during the discussion.

Zonía Moore ’16 said that she thought the panel was productive. She compared it to past actions from the College, particularly in April of 2013, when the College cancelled classes to foster discussion following the Dimensions protest her freshman spring.

“The reaction to [the Dimensions protest] compared to this panel was so different,” Moore said. “Nothing practical came out of that day [of cancelled classes]. This panel is the realest thing I’ve seen the College do.”

John Brady ’19 said that while the panel was a productive discussion, conversations around diversity and inclusivity with the administration often feel limited, noting the relatively short length of the town hall.

“It’s indicative that you can get a dialogue going, as long as it fits their schedule,” Brady said.

Hui Cheng ’16 , a member of Palaeopitus, said that the event showed the importance of administrators and community members coming together to ask questions before the diversity working groups begin their work.

Cheng added that she found her discussion group helpful in raising issues that administrators could keep in mind as they start work on the working groups.

“Hopefully this isn’t a one-off conversation about why diversity and inclusivity are important at Dartmouth, but rather the beginning of a series of conversations,” she said.

Priya Ramaiah and Sonia Qin contributed reporting.

Moore is a former member of The Dartmouth staff.

Correction appended (Feb. 23, 2016):

The original version of this article stated that the Dimensions protest took place in April of 2014. The protest, in fact, took place in April of 2013.