During the first days of June, as the death of George Floyd and subsequent protesting continues all over the nation, the College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences (CLASS) shared with its faculty, staff and students a manifesto committing the college to action and accountability in tackling issues of structural inequity.
The text, titled “An Equity and Inclusion Manifesto,” was first approved on May 14 and later distributed by Dean Iris Levine through email on June 3 and June 8 respectively. It is the culminating document of the initial actions taken by the college’s Inclusive Excellence Committee—a group of CLASS faculty and administration that began meeting during the spring semester to discuss the issues.
The preamble of the document, which serves to lay out the college’s intentions and introduces the manifesto’s 27 articles, acknowledges “inequity as a core condition of contemporary life” and “commits to change the structural conditions that produce chronically under-served communities in out College and on our campus.”
In the two emails sent by Levine, the backdrop of Floyd’s death and the demonstrations this spurred were evident. “In the wake of recent activities, our college stands together in support of the Black community and those who protest the prevalence of racial injustice throughout our country,” Levine’s emails read.
According to Levine, while the intention of the college and the committee was always to share the manifesto widely, specifically at the university’s annual Fall Conference, the aforementioned events made the document’s distribution more pressing.
Levine stated, “Given the situation that’s happened and how all of this has come to light and really brought forth, I wanted to make sure that people knew that we had already done something, that we had already recognized that this was important, that we were committed to this, and that it wasn’t just an afterthought, because of the situation with the George Floyd murder.”
“We already had thoughts (about systemic inequities) and knew that we cared deeply about this message,” Levine added, referring to the work that the committee had done during the spring semester.
Levine recounted the college-level Inclusive Excellence committee’s origins resulting out of the dean’s discussions with CLASS department chairs and with Nicole Butts, the Presidential Associate for Inclusive Excellence and Diversity.
In her regular meetings with department chairs, Levine said that inequitable interactions between students, faculty, and staff were often brought up and discussed.
“We were seeing that these (interactions), as I’m sure the entire community was seeing, were sort of coming to a head on the campus,” Levine said. “And so we knew that there were a lot of incidents and that our college was not devoid of this, we certainly had our own play in all of this as well.”
At the same time, Butts and Levine had discussed the forthcoming university Inclusive Excellence Council which prompted Levine to pitch the formation of a college-level committee to the department chairs who, according to the dean, were immediately receptive to the idea.
With the college’s committee in the process of formation, chairs of the college’s 11 departments were encouraged by the dean to have at least one faculty member from each department volunteer to participate in the committee. In the end, the committee consisted of 13 faculty members, with the music department being the only department without at least one representative, as well as three CLASS administrators including Levine.
Early discussions within the committee centered on whether to have students participate in the committee as well. Ultimately, the decision was made to limit the committee membership solely to faculty with Levine explaining that, “Since students relate most closely to their own departments, rather than the college, we thought it would be best for student engagement to happen at the department level.”
Within the department level, Levine suggested student participation in events such as department town halls or even student membership if departments were to create their own inclusive excellence committees.
Still, student participation in committees such as this has been a focal point for student leaders. As previously reported by The Poly Post, the Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) passed a resolution last semester, encouraging the university-level Inclusive Excellence Council to increase its proportion of student membership.
Henry Ly, a second-year transfer music industries student and ASI CLASS senator, described being “pleased” with the college’s manifesto and believed that it demonstrated that, “CLASS is not neutral on racism and are on the side to support the Black community.”
However, Ly did express concern over the committee’s membership.
“The committee shouldn’t be limited to faculty,” Ly stated. “Anything that involves governing students needs to allow representation from students themselves.”
Addressing the perspective of student participation at the department level, Ly added, “If the committee continues to be limited to faculty, then having department-level committees with student membership may be the best way to speak inclusion for ourselves and to the Inclusive Excellence committee. I hope that Dean Levine can see the importance of having student voices in the committee and can make a change to this.”
Despite the lack of student membership, the committee met every other week throughout the spring semester in meetings characterized by discussions concerning inequity and campus climate issues.
Claudia Garcia-Des Lauriers, an associate professor in the geography & anthropology department explained her motivation for volunteering to be a committee member.
“As soon as I learned about it, I thought it would be a great place to have these conversations about equity and what we can do at different levels to make it a better place for everybody,” Garcia-Des Lauriers said.
In addition to the discussion-based general meetings, the committee was also divvied up into two subcommittees. One was tasked with faculty assistance and the other with drafting the manifesto itself.
Garcia-Des Lauriers who served on the manifesto drafting subcommittee, along with English professor Aaron DeRosa and communication professor Jason Turcotte, explained the rationale for the creation of the manifesto, noting that it was DeRosa who had first pitched the idea.
“(The subcommittee was assigned) to take what we’ve been pulling from the conversations, different aspects, and try to distill it down, not to a single blurb, but to a real proclamation of ideals and recognition of a systemic approach to this equity work that we are in this committee to try to address.”
In recognition of aiming the document to guide concrete action, Garcia Des-Lauriers also said, “In my view, I think this is just part of—this is just what we accomplished this first semester. We intend to do more and come up with, for example, action suggestions that go with the manifesto.”
The manifesto itself is written to address inequity on multiple fronts. A commitment to guarantee students the necessary resources they need to meet their academic goals, a focus on equitable academic practices in and out of the classroom, and a reevaluation of faculty hiring practices are just some of the goals situated within the 27-article document.
When asked to exemplify some of these goals, both Levine and Garcia-Des Lauriers acknowledged that while there may be existing and forthcoming solutions, the broader goals will take time to be fully realized.
On the topic of a shift toward guaranteeing students necessary resources, Levine began by stating, “That’s gonna take a long time. I just want to let you know,” and explained the already established university program to help students borrow or finance laptops as the virtual instruction continues to be the norm.
On the topic of academic practices, Levine argues that to make these practices more equitable, it begins with accessibility to class materials such as textbook prices. Assigned readings and textbooks, as Levine noted, are within the purview of each faculty member and the college does not have the “wherewithal” to mandate specific classroom materials. However, she did hope that with the college putting forth these priorities, department chairs will now point to the manifesto when discussing textbook accessibility with faculty members.
When it comes to classroom content itself, Garcia-Des Lauriers and Levine both expressed the importance of representation.
“Another thing is what has been called decolonizing your syllabus,” Garcia-Des Lauriers said. “In other words, don’t just assume that the best writers and the best contributors in every discipline are white males. Actively seek out contributions and the work of faculty of color, researchers of color and have those conversations as well.”
Levine confirmed that the committee plans to continue meeting in the upcoming fall semester, and also encourages CLASS department chairs to continue promoting committee membership to any other faculty member who wishes to join. The current faculty members that are a part of the committee are expected to remain fall semester with the exception of one member who is retiring, and with one faculty member from the music department expected to join the ranks next semester.
The manifesto can ba accessed on CLASS’ YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/bFgOv-6wrrI
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