Given the angry images and actions out of Ferguson and south St. Louis in recent weeks, you might not think that being too nice would be a problem in dealing with diversity.
Yet in recent discussions about Washington University’s new Center for Diversity and Inclusion – why it is needed, what it hopes to accomplish – the four-letter word that came up repeatedly was “nice.”
“This is a very, very nice culture,” says LaTanya Buck, who arrived on the Washington U. campus July 1 to become executive director of the new center. “There are a lot of nice, kind people here at the institution. I get the sense from students that there is this not wanting to offend, not wanting to say the wrong thing or step on anyone’s toes or hurt anyone’s feelings.
“When it’s that nice, sometimes it can be nice to a fault, to where we can’t really get to maybe real, authentic and genuine conversations…. I am not being critical of nice and niceness. But sometimes you have to move beyond that to engage in some very difficult conversations.”
Those kinds of conversations are a big goal of the center and of Buck, who formerly headed the Cross Cultural Center at Saint Louis University. Its offices were set up at Olin Library, in the center of campus, to give everyone at Washington U. the sense that diversity and inclusion are central issues and there is one place they can come with problems or concerns.
Such problems are no strangers to the campus. They include two high-profile incidents at Washington U. in recent years: the fraternity that was suspended after members taunted African-American students with rap lyrics, and the photo that went viral last Halloween of three students holding toy guns to the head of a student dressed as a Muslim, with a fifth student holding an American flag in the background.
In both cases, campus officials responded, albeit belatedly. But Lori Patton Davis, a consultant in campus diversity affairs who visited Washington U. last year, said students displayed a reluctance to discuss the situations in an unvarnished manner.
“When I was there, people would tell me things, but they didn’t actually say what they felt,” said Patton Davis, an associate professor at Indiana University. “In a lot of my conversations, there were references to a thing called ‘the incident.’ I finally had to ask, which incident?
“I think it was just the climate or culture of niceness that says, we’ll talk about this, but we won’t talk about this. I’m not aware of any instance where the status quo was changed or disrupted through a strategy of niceness. I believe WashU will be in a much better position when there are open, critical conversations where issues are named, and that there aren’t pretty titles that get in the way of communication about difficult things…. I really believe change comes when people are uncomfortable.”
Buck, who was not at Washington U. when the incidents took place, put the needs this way:
“A lot of healing had to take place over the past year and a half, and I still think there are some remnants there. There are things that are still there in the air that we can continue to talk about.”
And, she added, there will no doubt be other things to talk about in the future.
“In the way that I see it,” Buck said, “it's not if something happens, it's when something happens, because the reality is, these things happen on college campuses throughout the country. So it's not a surprise to me, not at all. I hate that it's not a surprise, but it's not a surprise.”
A centralized approach
The Center for Diversity and Inclusion grew out of an earlier interim effort called the Mosaic Project. It gathered information about the diversity climate at Washington U. and set up a Bias Report and Support System, which gave students a place to take concerns about alleged incidents of unfair treatment around race, gender, age, sexual orientation and other possible flashpoints.
Rob Wild, associate vice chancellor for students, said Mosaic was designed to assess where the campus stood in terms of diversity and the climate for a variety of students, then determine what needed to be done to respond.
The answer, he said, was a strong sense that while Washington U. had a lot of different places and programs that dealt with diversity, the students lacked one centralized location where they could turn if they had a problem.
He said undercurrents on campus had been known for some time, but the solution was difficult to devise.
“The other thing is that if you look naturally at centers, they are very focused on a certain set of groups. So you need to have a black student center, an LGBT campus center. I think our tent with this was to create a space that served virtually all groups. So that was a little trickier.”
He added that with incidents like the one involving the black students or the Halloween photo, the reaction often can be to throw up a defensive wall.
“When something happens and somebody feels that they have been marginalized,” Wild said, “very rarely is it overt. Very rarely is the intention of someone to do some harm to an individual or group. Where the harm comes is when that harm happens, that person is confronted with their behavior, and they say you are the one who is overreacting, I didn’t do anything wrong.
“That’s where we have the communication breakdown, and that’s where people like LaTanya and others on this campus who are doing work around diversity are really trying to make an impact and say we encourage our students to sit with one another and listen to one another. In both of those incidents, unfortunately, the communication was not good. Students, when confronted with how their actions impacted others, some of those students unfortunately were not able to hear what others were saying to them.”
Now, the university has a whole section on its website devoted to diversity, with links going to various programs on campus, statements from the chancellor and the provost, even a glossary defining a range of terms from ableism to xenophobia.
Whether those new resources will help overcome past problems is yet to be seen. Davis, the consultant who visited campus last year, said she got the feeling from her conversations with those at Washington U. that the school “was dragging their feet rather than making forward-thinking, pro-active steps to address the concerns on campus.”
Wild said the new center should help remedy that problem.
“To talk about diversity means talking about your own identity, how you were raised to view the world around you and how you were raised to view others and to have hard conversations about diversity involves conflict,” he said.
“It involves risk, it involves some level of emotional discomfort. That's what we're trying to facilitate for our students. I will say every since I've been at the university people have been willing to have conversations that aren't just nice. But I think we have a culture here of niceness that sometimes gets in the way of what we're doing.”
Ferguson and beyond
If nothing else had brought the issues of diversity and inclusion to the front of the Washington U. consciousness, the demonstrations following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson would have made it happen. The campus was one of several where students and others marched in protest back in August, and as demonstrations were staged across the St. Louis area on Monday, students held a “dead-in” at lunchtime where they fell to the floor while the names of people of color shot by police were read. Other discussions have made sure the issues surrounding Brown’s death don’t fade away.
“No one would wish what has happened in Ferguson to happen anywhere,” Wild said. “But for the work we’re trying to do through the center, it certainly is an interesting time for us to be talking about diversity. All of the things you’re seeing around the discussion here in the St. Louis region about power, privilege, economic and socioeconomic disparities relate to disparities here on our own campus.
“Ferguson has given us yet another highly visible platform to discuss these really hard issues that we’re going to need to figure out. The tricky thing for Washington University is that most of our students aren’t from here. So trying to help them, educate them about St. Louis and how St. Louis came to be how St. Louis is today, is part of that. Then they can take that knowledge and engage in dialogue and hopefully important conversations about solutions to these tough problems.”
Buck wants her new center to help bridge the gap between the campus and the city around it.
“I don’t see WashU as this separate part of St. Louis, separate from the Ferguson community,” she said. “This is our community as well, so if that’s something I can continue to communicate to students, I’d love to do so.
“This is home for us. We can’t ignore that. We can’t pretend we don’t see it, and we can’t pretend we don’t see all of the other issues that are connected to the death of Michael Brown and to Ferguson. What do we do to continue to engage in those conversations and for some action to take place beyond their time at WashU?”
Buck said that students from Washington U. haven’t limited their concerns to the campus.
“Over the past few weeks,” Buck said, “our students have actually been meeting with other young people from the St. Louis community, and from the Ferguson community, here on campus, in this space. They’re talking through strategies and plans and how to get more engaged in conversations and talking about what can they do as youth to enact some social and positive change. For me, it’s been a very beautiful experience to witness.”
She also wants to talk about white privilege and “whiteness” in general, which could be an interesting conversation at a university where tuition tops $44,000 a year and the campus has come in for criticism for its efforts in recruiting students from low-income families.
“White privilege is still privilege,” Buck said, “whether you’re at WashU or one of the community colleges in the metropolitan area. But I would definitely love to engage our students in some of those conversations.
“In my experience, what I’ve noticed is that when we talk about diversity and inclusion, white students have felt that they have not had a space in the conversations…. Whiteness is also a culture. It’s something to be talked about and to be addressed as well. I would love to engage in those conversations.”
For Wild, the key is to take advantage of the expertise and skills of the people who are already at Washington U.
“It's one thing to bring all these great, talented, smart, interesting people together,” he said. “It's another thing to get them to have a meaningful community experience together and feel that they are learning from that diversity. I think that we continue to work on that.”
Should an effort toward diversity and inclusion go so far as to help recruit students from low-income families, to help create a steady influx to establish a diverse student body? Davis is not so sure that strategy is an answer to the overall problem.
“An institution can recruit until they’re blue in the face and bring many students of color on campus,” she said. “But if the climate isn’t there to help them, there’s a greater likelihood that the students won’t be retained, that they’ll leave and find some other institution, or perhaps not even pursue a post-secondary degree.
“It has to be a more concerted and planned effort that deals with the recruitment and gets the students acclimated to the campus with summer programs, then some sort of orientation, some sort of check-in during the first year – opportunities for students to be engaged throughout their academic career. I don’t doubt that WashU has these things. Whether or not it works in the form of a pipeline, I’m not absolutely sure.”