Saint Louis University disputes concerns over timeline for diversity goals | St. Louis Public Radio

Saint Louis University disputes concerns over timeline for diversity goals

Nov 18, 2015

Saint Louis University is getting pushback over how long it is taking to meet diversity goals agreed to by President Fred Pestello and student protesters last year. 

Third year student Jonathan Pulphus has been working on the so-called "Clock Tower Accords" as a member of signatory student protest group Tribe X. He said despite "well-meant intentions" of university President Fred Pestello, not enough has been done to improve opportunities for students and faculty of color. 

"I think Pestello was trying to set a different precedent and he gets a lot of love from the community for that, but there's still a lot more work to do," Pulphus said. "In a sense black students aren’t really thriving at this institution."

The university recently said it has fulfilled two of the 13 accords in the last year: boosting the budget of the African American Studies Program and naming Jonathan Smith as the new special assistant to the president for Diversity and Community Engagement.

Smith said the school has established working groups to fulfill the rest of "a pretty ambitious plate." But Pulphus, who calls Smith a "great choice" to lead diversity efforts, said "if you want to slow something down, you make a committee out of it."

Few of the working groups have concrete deadlines, which Pulphus said protesters should have pushed for in the accords.

Urgency of now

Smith said he understands the “fierce urgency of now,” a reference to Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech during the March on Washington. But Smith also said in that same speech, King speaks of dreaming about the progress that will happen “one day.”

“Our leadership understands it: there are changes that should have happened yesterday, but we also understand that systemic change, the kinds of change that will actually make a difference cannot happen in two months, or two weeks, or not even within a year,” he said.

Pulphus said work could have been started over the last year on such accord items as increasing enrollment and retaining black students. According to the university's 2014-2015 Fact Book, 1,000 African American students were enrolled in 2011 (or 7.1 percent of the campus population), versus 909 last year or 6.8 percent.

Jonathan Pulphus is a member of the student protest group Tribe X, which was heavily involved in demonstrations on-campus as well as across St. Louis following unrest in Ferguson.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

"We can’t afford to continue to have A-plus math students going to our competitor institutions because they don’t have enough money to stay here," Pulphus said. "That’s ridiculous."

But Smith said the school has made progress in diversifying, noting that decline in black student enrollment could be due to more individuals self-identifying as multi-racial. In that same time period, the number of multi-racial students enrolled rose by 115.

“I hope that a year from now, you will be able to look at Saint Louis University, that we have made every effort and progress to be a model on how to be an academic institution that is a good community partner, how to be an academic institution that knows not only how to navigate its way through crisis, but knows how to do the work necessary to prevent those crises from erupting,” he said.

Trustee support

Pulphus said he believes there is another reason the process is taking so long: a lack of support from the university's board of trustees. Pulphus said he believes there is still division among trustees over Pestello signing the accords, which were controversial.

"I think that Pestello has his heart set on actualizing these accords, but no matter that looks like and what that feels like coming from him, what words he puts towards it, it will continue to be empty rhetoric, if you will, if the trustees who pretty much set the tempo and tone for the university don’t back him more on it," Pulphus said.

But Smith said he has gotten the support he needs from trustees.

"Even there I will say yes," he said. "A part of what I’ve been doing is to sit down and talk with all of our stakeholders, board of trustees included, I talked with alumni who have been unhappy with the Clock Tower Accords and those conversations have been fruitful conversations in helping all of our stakeholders to see that we should all be committed to this process."

SLU board trustee Patrick Sly said he is drawing on his experience as a member of the Ferguson Commission to help the university achieve its diversity goals.
Credit stlpositivechange.org

Similarly, SLU trustee and Emerson executive vice president Pat Sly said he "wholeheartedly" disagrees with Pulphus' assertion that trustees are divided on the accords. As the representative of the board working on the accords, Sly said he has even brought his experience as a member of the Ferguson Commission to work toward inclusion and diversity.

"I would say that we have full support for the accords," he said. "You know, there’s thirteen of them. There was some confusion initially on what some of the accords actually meant, or represented, but I think that’s been cleared up and we have a strong consensus to move forward."

Because none of the goals are "low-hanging fruit," Sly said they will take a while to fulfill.

"They're going to take some changes in processes and organization in order to completely implement," he said. "They are going to take some time to dedicate the proper resources and attention to making them happen and I'm confident the process is in place to accomplish that, but not everybody is happy with the timing."

Resource concerns

But whether those resources are in fact available remains to be seen, Pulphus said.

"What we’re asking for isn’t going to be free; it’s going to cost money," he said. "It should seem a worthwhile investment...But I think there are key trustees with networks to donors and whatnot who need to share that vision with us for us to really be able to build."

In addition to the added funding toward the African American Studies program and hiring Smith, Sly said the trustees have discussed giving extra resources toward scholarships for minority students.

"So I think we pretty much are putting our money where our mouths are," he said.

Still, he acknowledged that the university's resources are "strained" at this time. He also added the board has seen few details on some of the accords' larger capital projects, such as a community center. 

"We’re putting two new dormitories on campus to increase housing for university residents, and we’ve made some tremendous commitments there," Sly said. "These types of investments like a community center are things we’re certainly going to consider, but we don’t have anything well-defined at this stage."