Reflections on “Diversity University” Forum, Round Two

Image c/o Shannon Welch ’14 and the Wesleyan Argus.

On Wednesday night, students, faculty, and staff gathered in Tischler Hall of the Exley Science Center for the second Diversity University forum of the year. This program, entitled “Diversity University: In the Classroom and Beyond,” was a follow-up to last semester’s forum, “In Theory and In Practice.”

From the very start, it was clear that the atmosphere of this forum was very different from the first one. Not only were there fewer people in attendance, the emotional level, though high, was distinctly more subdued. Clearly this time of year is particularly busy for Wesleyan students, and I can only imagine that that was a major factor in keeping the numbers down. But there was also not the same feeling of urgency, the immediate need for such a gathering—which, all in all, is probably a good thing.

Last fall’s forum was organized in the wake of a series of upsetting incidents of attacks on students, and subsequent issues of racism, targeting, and exclusion that arose from conversations, Public Safety reports, and WesACB threads. In Wednesday’s forum, while there was an expression of similar concerns and issues of diversity, but there was not the same shocking outpouring of powerful emotion.

This is, of course, not to say that this forum was not important, which it definitely was. It was more than just a check-in on the progress since the fall; it was an important tool for continuing the campus-wide discussion on these issues of diversity within our community. Hopefully, these conversations will continue to happen in a way that engages the student body, faculty, and staff throughout the university.

There were many issues brought up in this forum that addressed critical weaknesses within our academic institution and highlighted the ongoing problems with regards to diversity within our community. A few key points stood out:

  • The lack of regional diversity in many curriculums and the failures within those courses to provide a global analysis and perspective;
  • The discouragement toward women in certain fields of study, especially film and the sciences;
  • The enormous difficulty of dealing with specific accommodations with ResLife, and the bureaucracy and demands and stresses of that process;
  • The failure of the University to reach out to public high school students from low-income areas;
  • The importance of addressing issues of diversity, and of sexual violence, not only in our daily conversations, but in our classroom discussions;

A particularly amazing moment in this forum was when Professor Sarah Mahurin, from the African-American Studies Department, stood up to speak about the decision to remove race as a descriptor from Public Safety emails, which was prompted in part by the events surrounding last fall’s Diversity University forum. In response to the ongoing debates over this decision, Professor Mahurin, who also serves on the Public Safety Review Committee, gave an extremely articulate argument for why these descriptions were removed.

She was direct, personal, and downright inspiring in her logistical and sociological rationale for this decision. (When the video from this event is posted online, be sure to watch her speech.) If anyone came in to this forum having doubts about the motivations and effectiveness of this decision, they certainly can’t have left with the same uncertainties.

Finally, a note on the space. While Beckham Hall, with its tightly packed chairs all on one horizontal plane, made for a welcoming space for intimate and democratic dialogue, Tischler Hall felt particularly non-conducive to such conversation. Perhaps I paid more attention to the architecture and its consequences than I should have, but the amphitheater-style seating, varied heights, inability to stand and move to speak, and distance between the forum panel and the attendees all made for an environment in which dialogue felt very disrupted and discontinuous. Maybe this was more a result of the feeling and tone of those speaking, but I cannot help but think that this forum may have had a significantly different quality to it if it had also been in Beckham Hall.