Just more than two months after a high-profile racist incident stunned campus, officials have settled on a long-term strategy to improve race relations and prevent another racial flashpoint.
The University released a 12-page report Thursday mapping out how a series of new diversity measures – including a three-part freshman diversity training, and hiring a diversity and inclusion training director – will be introduced next academic year. Administrators recruited more than 85 students and staff to contribute to the new report – an effort student leaders said ensured their input was considered in decisions that were far-reaching and personal to many students.
The plan was originally announced in February, less than a week after a racist Snapchat post went viral, and received nationwide attention. Students expressed a widespread sentiment that the incident wasn’t the first time students of color felt excluded at GW. In the days following the incident, the Student Association Senate and GW’s chapter of the NAACP demanded systemic changes to address inclusion and diversity issues on campus.
The new plan was released exactly 45 business days after University President Thomas LeBlanc first announced officials would take sweeping measures to address outrage from minority students.
“I can definitely see this being a very long-term thing – not just within the 45 days – but for as long as possible, for as long as there is to maintain healthy conversations on campus,” freshman Hannah Blandon, a member of a committee developing freshman diversity training and an Multicultural Student Services Center employee, said.
Improving campus relationships
Officials said the report lays out a concrete plan that the University will enact to provide a better experience for students of color on campus.
A three-pronged approach for freshman diversity training will be added, including diversity skits during freshman orientation, online inclusion training and group discussions focused on diversity. The training next academic year will be a pilot program, and administrators will re-evaluate the program’s success to identify how to improve the setup, according to the report.
“Once we learn more about what is most effective and resonating in the GW community, we will be able to build upon those elements for an even stronger program,” University spokeswoman Lindsay Hamilton said in an email.
Hamilton said the pilot program was shaped through committee meetings and outreach efforts to students with the goal of creating a “continuing conversation” about diversity for new students. She said specific details about the online diversity training and small group sessions are still being hashed out.
The University plans to hire a diversity and inclusion training director in the coming months, who will host workshops – like a cultural competency and anti-racism training – according to the report. Hamilton said the director will work alongside Michael Tapscott, the director of the MSSC, to continue offering and developing routine trainings at the MSSC.
Caroline LaGuerre-Brown, the vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, said the plan addresses “serious concerns” about diversity and inclusion that arose from the Snapchat incident in February.
“This plan is the start of our journey toward a more inclusive GW,” she said in an email. “I am incredibly grateful that so many people came together with a sense of purpose and urgency to help develop the action plan.”
Mixed student reaction to the report
Students who participated in the action committees had mixed reactions to the steps announced in the report. Some said seeing their input in the report was gratifying, but others said they were shortchanged and dismissed by officials.
Abiola Agoro, the president of GW’s NAACP chapter, who participated in the incoming student diversity training committee, said the initiatives listed in the report are “feel-good” tasks that wouldn’t produce any noticeable change on campus.
While serving on the committee, Agoro said student input had no significant influence over the report’s outcome. She said she told administrators on the team that the training for incoming freshmen should be in-person because online interactions don’t provide the personal connections needed to influence real change.
“It feels like they didn’t really do much,” she said. “When I emailed them about what was going on, none of them responded to my emails. When I found them at events, they didn’t really want to talk – they didn’t have time. I’m just totally disappointed.”
Ashley Le, the SA president-elect who participated in the same committee, said the new initiatives help to prevent a racist incident from occurring again because students are introduced to diversity before arriving on campus. Diversity training for incoming students was listed on Le’s platform for SA president.
“Making sure they have that mentality was very important to me, knowing this is something that will create long-term changes rather than a response to what had happened in the past,” she said.
Diversity training will also be held for faculty and student leaders, according to the report.
“For the students who were present, I think our voices and our opinions became a lot more important because diversity training was designed for students and not staff,” Le said.
Preparing for the long term
Diversity experts said the University’s main obstacle in improving the campus racial climate will be to sustain each major project past its first year of implementation. They said lofty initiatives often fall by the wayside after the first year because there isn’t a driving force to continue the effort.
Sandra Messick, the communications director for the University of California, Berkeley’s division of equity and inclusion, said taking steps to create a more diverse campus should be a widespread effort integrated into all aspects of campus life, including student organizations and classes.
“We applaud every college and university that steps to do this work,” Messick said in an email.
Several of GW’s peer institutions, like Wake Forest and Northeastern universities, mandate that faculty, staff and students take diversity workshops – trainings based on recommendations from officials at their respective schools.
Ray Plaza, the director of diversity and inclusion at Santa Clara University, said the changes will raise the visibility of diversity goals on campus but will likely have to be gradually implemented because officials need to allot time to roll out each measure.
“The goal is that you don’t come back years from now and we’re addressing these same issues,” he said. “This is a learning opportunity for the institution – what can we do to make these changes institutionalized and make them part of the fabric for a more long-term commitment?”
Johnny Morreale and Parth Kotak contributed reporting.