Students raise concerns at heated diversity discussion

    Sunday night’s diversity discussion with Northwestern’s top administration may have aimed to encourage civil dialogue, but tension in McCormick Auditorium swelled with each question and student-raised concern. At the front of the crowded forum, President Morton Schapiro, Dean of Students Burgwell Howard, Provost Daniel Linzer and Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin struggled to assure the attendees that their voices were being heard.

    The event, organized by member groups of the Coalition of Colors including Alianza and For Members Only (FMO), was a follow-up to the Jan. 19 Caucus Against Racial Prejudice and meant to be an open discussion about diversity, or a severe lack thereof, at Northwestern.

    After a brief introduction by African American and Latino Studies Professor John Marquez, a moderator of the event, Schapiro addressed the issue head-on to jump out in front of criticism.

    “We all know there’s some differential inclusion happening at Northwestern…in academia we're better at selling diversity than we are at embracing it — at the same time, we’ve made significant changes and have a more diverse faculty and students as a result,” Schapiro said. “Am I complacent about where we are now? No, we’ve got a lot of work to do. But I do think we’ve made some progress.”

    Weinberg junior Jeziel Jones, not satisfied with that answer, immediately raised his hand to interject.

    “We feel like we’ve reached a plateau, like we’re stalled and we’re not really moving forward,” Jones said. “We didn’t come here just to be enlightened, or learn about what the school is already trying to do. We want to know what else we can possibly to do make real action happen.”

    Students didn’t relent, taking the administrators to task for their handling of incidents of racial insensitivity and prejudice.

    “Multiple years we’ve seen people dressing in blackface at Halloween parties, and every May we get people running up and down with fake moustaches and sombreros,” said Medill senior Dallas Wright. “And we’re not seeing any consequences for that. People are getting written up for noise violations, but they’re seeing no consequences for behavior like that.”

    Howard said that he hadn’t heard incidents of people dressing offensively on Cinco de Mayo, but that he took measures to prevent such behavior on Halloween.

    “Every year you hear from me before Halloween, reminding people that their choices have consequences, and to think before they act, but I can’t be out there at 2 a.m. on a Friday night to stop them,” he said. “We can have this vision of an ivory tower where everything’s perfect, but we also have to stay grounded in the reality of the society we live in, where these things do happen.”

    Marquez instantly turned to Howard and shot back: “Isn’t it our duty to change that?” The room erupted with applause. “We can say ‘think before you act,’ but isn’t it our job to change the way people think in the first place?”

    From that point on the discussion ranged from uncomfortable to contentious, with all four panelists fighting to defend themselves on every point of criticism and sympathize with students voicing distress and outrage.

    One of the most awkward moments of the night came when Linzer discussed the newly-formed University Diversity Council, a body stemming out of the Faculty Diversity Committee consisting of five task forces aimed at creating a more diverse faculty and student body while offering a wider array of culturally-focused academic programs. When he said that an open dialogue with students would be essential to maintaining the task forces, Weinberg senior Kellyn Lewis seized on the Provost’s rhetoric.

    “If there’s an open dialogue here, why don’t we have access to the diversity reports that go into creating the Strategic Plan?” said Lewis, a member of FMO and co-chair of the Living Wage Campaign. “Why haven’t we seen a report published since 2008?”

    Linzer assured Lewis that he was wrong, that the Office of the Provost had released its explicit reports on diversity every year since 2000. Within seconds, the page displaying all the reports was projected onto the giant white screen at the front of the room. The most recent report had been from the 2008-09 school year.
    “Well then, I’ll have to look into that,” Linzer said, taking note.

    Moments like these, Coalition of Colors Chair Jazzy Johnson said after the event, are the building blocks of a constructive discussion.

    “There were a couple of times that everyone got really uncomfortable, and when you’re discussing issues of race and diversity you need to get uncomfortable to make progress,” said Johnson, a Communication junior. “That’s how you can tell we’re going to have real improvement as a result of this.

    Lewis, on the other hand, was less confident that the administrators would take the students seriously and produce real progress.

    “We’re all just very frustrated — all they did was confirm our emotions without addressing any real answers,” Lewis said. “There was only one good idea they brought up tonight, and it came from Burgie [Howard]. The rest of it was trash.”

    Lewis was referring to Howard’s proposal to create a bias report hotline, whereby students would have a more direct line to tell administrators about racially offensive conduct.

    “Tonight I heard about a lot of these incidents that everyone seemed to know about, but no one told us about it, so no action was taken,” Howard said. “I’ve heard from a lot of students who said that they don’t know where to report those kinds of things. So if we have a hotline or something to that effect, we can investigate them.”

    For FMO President Tyris Jones, though, that wasn’t the first time he’d seen the administration promise such action. In 2010 the Coalition of Colors appealed to the administration to create the Police Advising Board, a committee that investigated incidents of racial profiling. Within a year the board stopped holding meetings, “disintegrating overnight.” During Sunday’s discussion, which Jones called “a nice foot in the door” for diversity discussion, he reminded the panel of the unfulfilled initiative.

    “More people in this room have been profiled or know people who have been profiled than know about things that have been done to try and stop it, like the Police Advising Board,” Jones said. “What motivation can we still have to work with the administration when the only initiative we made with them failed, when the only group we created with them stopped meeting?”

    Linzer wiped his brow, cleared his throat and leaned into his microphone.

     “This is the first I’ve heard about that group not meeting anymore,” he said. “We’ll have to look into that.”


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