Diversity conversation spotlights strained race relations in classroom

Media Credit: Olivia Anderson | Photo Editor

At a town hall meeting on campus race relations last week, many minority students focused on difficult experiences in the classroom.

A sorority member’s racist social media incident has focused attention on issues students of color face in all aspects of campus life – including their relationships with faculty.

Last week, top administrators conceded that the University needs to take stronger action to ensure students of color – who have said they often feel uncomfortable speaking up in class or seeking help from professors – are supported in the classroom. Officials say they are reviewing general policies around discrimination and faculty diversity training amid an ongoing conversation about the black student experience at GW.

At a town hall meeting on campus race relations last week, many minority students focused on difficult experiences in the classroom including insensitive remarks from faculty and a lack of understanding about the unique issues students of color face on campus. Black student leaders wrote in a statement following the Snapchat incident that they have heard countless testimonies of “racially insensitive conduct not just from students, but from professors.”

University President Thomas LeBlanc, in his monthly report to the Faculty Senate Friday, urged professors to take a “gulp of empathy” in their daily student interactions. He said students of color who need an assignment extension or help to approach their professors are afraid judgements that they “can’t get anything in on time” will be loaded onto their entire race.

“They are afraid that it will be perceived as a whole statement about their race,” he said. “One woman said, ‘maybe my hair isn’t right to go see a faculty member, maybe I’m not dressing right.’ The level of concern about what the faculty think of them is very significant and I think it creates an unfortunate barrier between our faculty and their learning.”

Focus in on classroom incidents
LeBlanc said he has heard in town halls and private meetings with students that some professors are “comfortable” using the N-word in class.

“Students of color in the class cannot figure out for the life of them why that word was used,” he said. “Whether it was an ill-advised attempt at bonding, at getting down with young people, whatever it is – that exists on our campus.”

He added that departments and programs need to focus on hiring more diverse faculty – an effort that has plateaued in recent years – and change the pervasive feeling that GW “is not a welcoming place for people of color.”

“That has got to change because, frankly, in a decade, two decades students of color are going to be the majority,” he said.

Provost Forrest Maltzman said the University cannot use academic freedom in the classroom as a shield for unnerving students of color in classes.

“The president is going to be reviewing policies and we need to keep on doing that and work with the deans,” he said in an interview. “We need to look at the training programs that we offer and whether or not policies regarding discrimination need to be redrafted.”

Maltzman said officials are working to establish a bias incident reporting system to address discriminatory behavior in classrooms and on campus – one of nine steps officials have already announced to address campus racism. He said the reporting system would be crucial for officials to know who to reach out to for information about classroom incidents.

Olivia Anderson | Photo Editor

University President Thomas LeBlanc, in his monthly report to the Faculty Senate Friday, urged professors to take a “gulp of empathy” in their daily student interactions.

Maltzman said when an incident is reported, officials will contact a faculty member and may require training or other disciplinary actions. He said administrators need to assess whether current faculty diversity training – which he said often focuses on unconscious biases – is effective.

Caroline Laguerre-Brown, the vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, said schools have also been working on school-specific plans that officials pledged to create last academic year. The provost’s office asked schools to draw up the plans last March, but as of last fall no plans had been formally submitted, officials said.

Last year, a campus climate survey of undergraduate students found 73 percent of white students were satisfied with racial and ethnic diversity, compared to 63 percent of Latino students and 43 percent of black students.

Laguerre-Brown said schools have launched various hiring initiatives, diversity councils and training programs and many have appointed chief diversity officers in recent years.

“The experimentation that is occurring across schools will give us an opportunity to test drive different approaches and develop paths for future improvements,” she said in an email.

Administrators declined to give a time frame for policy changes to be enacted.

Racial tension in classes
In an emotional town hall Tuesday, in which students confronted administrators about their response to campus racism, many focused on issues that impact the classroom setting.

Minority students said they often feel judged by their appearance and are hesitant to speak out when they are the only black student in the classroom.

Freshman Amiya Jones said she’s unsure whether administrators understand how constant discrimination is on campus and in classrooms and that it leaves students of color feeling like “a target.”

“It’s like I have to walk around and feel like I’m a target and that I’m only being identified as a black person, but I’m not being identified as Amiya Jones,” she said. “Until I see improvement, I’m still going to be upset about it.”

Faculty hesitant to support new policy
Some Faculty Senate members said that while discrimination issues should be addressed, enacting new classroom policies might not be the most effective way to create change.

Sylvia Marotta-Walters, the chair of the Faculty Senate executive committee, said racial issues are always on the table in discussions about University policy and need to be continuously updated, but she did not elaborate on what policies she would favor to address these concerns.

“I think policies need to be reviewed on a regular basis, not only for racist behavior, but for everything that affects the appropriate mission of a University and its people,” she said in an email.

Henry Nau, a member of Faculty Senate and a professor of political science and international affairs, said that while recent events on campus were “heartbreaking,” implementing new policy would not be an efficient solution because it creates more division between professors and minority students.

“Legal responses do nothing to bring us together. And politically correct responses, such as mandatory diversity training and alienation of offenders, create an atmosphere of intimidation and may impinge on free speech,” he said.

Nau said informal steps, like arranging discussions of harassment and discrimination, would be more helpful in improving the campus environment and would avoid imposing on academic freedom.

“I don’t have the answers but we need to search for them together,” he said. “Arranging such conversations would not be easy, but it could be more productive than alternatives.”

Michael Bukrinsky, a member of Faculty Senate and a professor of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine, said GW should focus on enforcing existing policy rather than adding new guidelines.

The GW faculty code, which governs faculty behavior and governance at GW, states that all University employees and faculty must consistently “comply with non-discrimination policies adopted by the University.”

“I believe GW policy already prohibits racist behavior​, so no additional changes seem necessary,” Bukrinsky said.

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