SMPA students to propose diversity initiatives after administrative task force sees quiet end

Media Credit: Alexander Welling | Photographer

Freshman Garret Hoff, a co-chair of the council, said the group developed five initiatives to focus on including diversity and inclusion.

Updated: April 19, 2019 at 12:16 p.m.

Students are heading a push to enact new diversity measures in the School of Media and Public Affairs after they say officials have not taken action to make the school more inclusive.

Officials have repeatedly declined to answer questions about the SMPA Diversity Task Force, which launched in fall 2016 and issued recommendations at the end of that academic year to improve representation in SMPA’s student body. While officials have not said what the recommendations were or what steps were taken to implement them, students are planning to present a handful of their own suggestions to improve diversity efforts to administrators this week.

Freshman Garret Hoff – a co-chair of SMPA’s recently launched Director’s Advisory Council, a 20-member group that gives students an opportunity to voice concerns about the school – said the council created a subgroup earlier this semester focusing on improving representation in the student body. The racial breakdown of SMPA has historically been two-thirds to three-quarters white, according to institutional data.

“We’re in a time right now where we need schools, especially a journalism school, to step up and say, ‘We’re going to take the lead on these issues,’ even if nobody else is going to that,” Hoff said.

He said members of the council developed four recommendations to present to SMPA Director Frank Sesno at a meeting Thursday. The recommendations include a mandatory faculty diversity training and an increase in the number of minority speakers at SMPA events, according to a copy of the proposals obtained by The Hatchet.

In the long term, the group aims to establish a dedicated SMPA admissions representative who can “review” the diversity of SMPA’s Class of 2023, according to the document. The group also wants to introduce more minority outreach to the SMPA Ambassador Program, an initiative that pairs undergraduate students with applicants to help them understand the school.

“Even if, out of all of these recommendations, one or two things actually end up happening, that’s still a huge victory in my book,” Hoff said. “It means that the council is being listened to at some level – it means we are making stuff happen.”

The recommendations come after few public initiatives were implemented as a result of the SMPA Diversity Task Force, which was active during the 2016-17 academic year but officials have repeatedly declined to answer questions about. The Hatchet has inquired about the task force and its activities each semester for the past three semesters and, each time, received a similar response from University spokesman Jason Shevrin affirming SMPA’s commitment to diversity and to implementing the task force’s recommendations.

Each time, Shevrin has said the ambassador program was created based on the task force’s suggestions, but he has declined to elaborate on the task force’s other recommendations and how SMPA has instituted them.

He also declined to say how SMPA is gathering feedback from community members about diversity initiatives and how that feedback has been put into action.

Shevrin said the SMPA task force originally consisted of faculty, students, officials from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, alumni and “outside representatives.” He said officials would continue “finding opportunities for faculty to be involved with recruiting activities.”

But more than 10 professors in SMPA declined to comment on the task force, citing a lack of knowledge or deferring to SMPA administrators. Seven SMPA professors did not return multiple requests for comment.

Cheryl W. Thompson, the former chair of the task force and an associate professor of journalism who is currently on leave, declined to comment, deferring questions to Sesno. While The Hatchet has directed inquiries about the task force to Sesno, Shevrin has returned a response each time.

Hoff, the co-chair of the new advisory council, said he heard that the task force conducted some research, but he said Sesno and other SMPA officials did not follow the group’s findings with action.

“To my understanding, it was more about saying they did something than actually doing something,” Hoff said. “My goal with this – and I think the goal hopefully that Frank has with this – is that this is about doing things and not talking about doing things.”

Hannah Thacker, the chair of the council’s diversity subgroup and an opinions writer for The Hatchet, said those involved in drafting the proposals aimed to present feasible goals that would make SMPA a more diverse school and could be instituted almost immediately. She said some students of color do not feel wanted in SMPA because of the lack of diversity in the student body – which erodes the school’s mission of teaching “fair journalism, ethics and having different perspectives.”

“It’s really hard for administrators to know what a student perspective is like, and for a bunch of students, mostly students of color, to get together and say, ‘We don’t feel welcome here, and we don’t feel represented here’ – I think it’s really important for them to be able to hear us and for them to be willing to listen to us,” Thacker said.

The other co-chair of the council, one member of the council and two contributing members of the diversity initiative are members of The Hatchet’s staff.

Student Association Sen. André Gonzales, CCAS-U and an SMPA student, said SMPA has taken steps to create an inclusive community for minorities in SMPA, like hosting an annual awards night for all students and creating the Director’s Advisory Council.

“Although a task force helps to ensure we are bringing in students of all backgrounds into the SMPA family, we need to have an environment where those students feel supported and empowered throughout their time at GW,” he said in an email.

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