Forum focuses on eight recommendations from Joint Task Force on Racism

Kathleen Brennan, chair of the Joint Task Force on Racism, speaks to the forum audience at the A.K. Hinds University Center theater.

Western Carolina University students, faculty and staff had an opportunity to hear about eight recommendations for improving the climate for diversity and inclusion on campus during an open forum held Monday, April 17.

The recommendations reflect the findings of the Joint Task Force on Racism, a group created by the Faculty Senate in partnership with the Staff Senate and Student Government Association. The task force met twice each month through fall semester 2016 and early in the current semester before dividing into subcommittees to complete its work.

The task force’s final recommendation report was expected to be approved by the Faculty Senate during its meeting Thursday, April 20, and then forwarded on to Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar. A draft recommendation report received a very positive reception when it was shared with Faculty Senate in March, said Kathleen Brennan, chair of the task force and head of WCU’s Department of Anthropology and Sociology.

WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher opened the April 17 forum in the theater of A.K. Hinds University Center by saying that the university is not alone “when confronting the difficult challenges posed by racism and our efforts to embrace differences.”

“The last few years have made it clear to me that our nation and our communities still have a lot of work to do,” Belcher said. “That certainly applies to WCU inasmuch as we have experienced our own racially charged activities and incidents over the past year.”

Along with every other U.S. college and university, WCU struggles “to ensure that we remain true to and appropriately balance our core values – one being our strong commitment to diversity and inclusion, and another being an equally strong commitment to our campus as a place for free and open interchange of ideas, even when those ideas are ones with which we disagree and can cause distress to others,” Belcher said.

“I want everyone to hear this clearly – the members of my senior team and I are committed to WCU as a vibrant, inclusive and diverse institution,” he said. “We value strongly the notion that diversity in all its forms makes for a strong university and a strong nation.”

Belcher said he and members of his senior executive team were in attendance at the forum to listen and learn from the comments of others, but do not yet have answers to questions about how they plan to respond to the task force recommendations. “The recommendations will require thoughtful consideration in a budgetary and/or policy context, which will take some time to explore,” he said.

WCU students, faculty and staff should look beyond the idea that the recommendations are something that only the administration should or could be doing, Belcher said. “Creating a vibrant and diverse campus community cannot be mandated or imposed from the top down,” he said. “WCU is a community with a strong history of shared governance. But shared governance is only half of the equation; shared responsibility is required as a complement to shared governance in a mature campus culture of leadership. Each person, department and division on this campus can make a difference in making WCU a welcoming place for all people.”

The forum continued with Brennan providing a synopsis of the eight recommendations. She told forum attendees that members of the task force, which included student, faculty and staff representation, were very mindful of the need to complete their recommendations before the end of the spring semester to give WCU’s administration an opportunity to process them before the beginning of fall semester. “We have asked that these recommendations be addressed by the chancellor during the 2017-18 Opening Assembly and routinely addressed going forward,” Brennan said.

Two general themes arose consistently as the task force conducted its work – the need to prioritize diversity and inclusion on campus, and the desire for educational and training opportunities related to diversity and inclusion, she said.

The eight recommendations are listed along with Brennan’s accompanying comments:

  1. Clarify the university stance on diversity and inclusion and strengthen the integration of this stance into campus culture. “Several other campuses in the UNC system provide excellent examples of diversity statements in public-facing institutional materials. WCU would benefit from a clear administrative directive stating that we, as a community, promote an environment of inclusion, respect and affirmation.”
  2. Jointly create a campus doctrine/social contract of respect for all campus members. “We propose a campuswide ‘respect compact’ to serve as the core of our shared and documented beliefs within the institution and signal that the WCU community does not tolerate bigotry or discrimination. The compact should be signed by the chancellor and all other members of Executive Council, the SGA president, the Faculty and Staff Senate chairs, the Alumni Association chair and the Board of Trustees chair to demonstrate a unified commitment to these values and principles. It should also be made available for all incoming students to sign and agree to as they begin their education at WCU. It should be noted and highlighted during the yearly opening Convocation, and it should be provided as a portion of the new faculty and staff orientations.”
  3. Improve communication about how campus concerns related to diversity and inclusion are being addressed. “When campus experiences a race-based incident, the administration needs to address it in a timely manner with a substantive response that is broadly disseminated.”
  4. Compile campus diversity-related information. “WCU should establish and maintain a high-profile, collaborative and well-organized universitywide communication network related to diversity and inclusion that includes a calendar highlighting diversity-related events around campus, the previously mentioned respect compact, current news and research regarding inclusion and diversity issues, an online diversity resource guide providing information/material about diverse populations, and a directory of speakers/contacts who may provide diversity-related services. In addition, the website should contain information related to the protocol for safe reporting of bias and discrimination incidents. While this type of reporting is currently available to both student and employee populations, the process by which one reports these events is not widely known nor easily located on WCU’s website.”
  5. Regularly conduct formal assessments of campus race/ethnicity equity. “It would be helpful to have documented information pertaining to racial and ethnic equity in hiring, promotion and tenure openly available. It is not transparent whether this has been examined at WCU, so we recommend that WCU engage in an equity study of things such as the diversity of applicant pools and employment outcomes; the number, proportion and positions of minority employees; the length of minority employment compared with nonminority populations; and discrepancies in promotion rates. Additionally, we strongly recommend that the chief diversity officer coordinate the periodic deployment of the race/ethnicity campus climate survey to examine changes in perceptions and reported experiences by both minority and nonminority populations, longitudinally.”
  6. Create a standing university-level committee to address campus issues related to race/ethnicity. “The establishment of a high-profile standing committee is essential to creating an atmosphere that illustrates WCU’s commitment to the breadth and depth of issues related to race and ethnicity, and it also helps to ensure consistent attention to these issues and progress towards goals in a proactive manner. We recommend that the committee be directed by the chief diversity officer; consist of administrators, faculty, staff and student members; and also employ a strategy of rolling membership so that a historical perspective may be maintained and efforts may be built upon year by year.”
  7. Provide adequate support for the chief diversity officer. “Part of demonstrating the campus commitment to equity, access and inclusion for all includes adequately resourcing the chief diversity officer and raising the position profile on campus.”
  8. Increase resources for diversity training and education opportunities. “The provision of educational and training opportunities aligns with the university mission, and we strongly recommend that university resources be earmarked to increase these opportunities and establish an ongoing, long-term culture of training and education at WCU. Resource allocation includes making better use of already-existing education and training opportunities and expanding opportunities for campus community member professional development. We stress the importance of the voluntary and professionally oriented nature of these education and training opportunities and we recommend that the university incentivize participation – but not penalize nonparticipation – through already-existing mechanisms for campus personnel. Other specific opportunities related to this recommendation – currently existing and new – include the new strategic plan, the Summer Institute of Teaching and Learning, WCU Works, student orientation modules, DegreePlus, International Programs and Services, a campus speaker series, and creation of an academic certificate program and interdisciplinary minor.”

The task force’s full report is available online and can be accessed with the standard university username and password.

As the forum audience was invited to comment on the recommendations, several WCU faculty members remarked about the importance of integrating diversity and inclusion into specific classes, and also about the need for training in how to do that.

Pam DeGraffenreid, a task force member and supervisor of the WCU Bookstore, related to those attending that she has been on the WCU campus for 30 years as an African-American woman. DeGraffenreid said sometimes individuals who speak out about racist acts are labeled as combative and left to deal with “alienation and avoidance.” “I think that needs to change on this campus, and I hope it does,” she said.

Brittany Cotton, a task force member and graduate student in the Higher Education Student Affairs Program, said she wanted to make sure there was student representation on the task force and that she is glad the report emphasizes the importance of university administration responding to incidents in a timely way. “Students just want you to be transparent and honest with them,” Cotton said.

Tacquice Davis, associate director of WCU’s Department of Intercultural Affairs, questioned why the department was not mentioned in the task force report. Brennan apologized for the oversight and said the task force did not realize the omission until the report was finalized.

Brennan said task force members appreciate the support they received from WCU’s administration during their deliberations. “I do have good faith that we’re going to move forward,” she said.

In a related matter, Brennan said the results from a recent “Campus Climate Survey on Race and Ethnicity,” conducted by the divisions of Student Affairs and Academic Affairs, were not ready in time to be included in the task force’s discussions or to be made public at the forum. The survey is expected to provide data that will be used to guide future activities related to race and ethnicity education, recruitment and programming.