Saint Louis University fulfills 2 of 13 diversity agreements in past year | St. Louis Public Radio

Saint Louis University fulfills 2 of 13 diversity agreements in past year

Nov 17, 2015

Two of 13 initiatives from a controversial agreement between Saint Louis University and student protesters in the aftermath of Ferguson unrest aimed at improving opportunities for black students on campus have been "substantially completed" in the last year, according to a school administrator tasked with overseeing the progress.

Dr. Jonathan Smith, the special assistant to the President for Diversity and Community Engagement, said working groups have been established to achieve the rest of the goals.

“It was my aim that we did something that was comprehensive that really addressed not just simply the letter of the accords, but tried to get at the core issue behind each of those accords,” he said.

"If we’re going to make real change, that’s lasting change for our children, that will take time. I think it never seems fast enough."

The so-called Clock Tower Accords were signed last October by University President Fred Pestello and student demonstrators to end protesters’ six-day teach-in calling for better efforts to retain and attract students and faculty of color and improve conversations about race on campus, among other goals.

The accords at SLU in some ways set the stage for the series of demands protesters at the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus recently issued to administrators following a series of racial incidents on campus.

“Some of the points in the accord mirror what the Mizzou demands are, which is an increased African American student population and faculty, retention and that sort of thing,” said Stefan Bradley, associate professor of African American Studies at SLU.

Jonathan Pulphus, a third year SLU student who was active in the campus protest group that signed the accords, said the protests at Mizzou will have a "reciprocal" effect on progress at the university.

"Definitely the conversation has been reignited with what's happened at Mizzou and it will continue to go on, but we want more than conversation. We want action," Pulphus said.

But Smith said the Mizzou events haven’t added any additional time pressure to achieving the goals.

“We are approaching it with a sense of urgency that is not dependent upon crises that erupt elsewhere,” he said. “Our aim is to stay far enough ahead of the game so that we are not working from a crisis management standpoint.”

The appointment of Smith, an assistant professor in the African American Studies Program, to his new role in the president's office in July itself fulfilled one of the accords. Another was achieved when the university boosted the budget for its African American Studies Program - “by a little bit,” according to Bradley.

But to address the rest of the goals, Smith said he first had to get "broad buy-in" for the agreement that had drawn criticism from those who felt Pestello capitulated to protesters. 

"What we've done since then is work to get a process in place that ensures broad participation from students, staff, faculty, administration, neighborhood and community stakeholders and the Board of Trustees...all the important stakeholders who are going to make that these accords come into reality," he said. 

Dr. Jonathan Smith said his former role as an assistant professor in the African American Studies Program and his proximity to students helped inform his new role as special assistant to the President for Diversity and Community Engagement.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio

Last month Smith established four working groups to tackle the remaining agreements, each of which will include student, faculty, staff, community member, and, in some cases, trustee representation.

  • A race, poverty and inequality team is planning a national conference on racial equality, as agreed to in accord number 10, funded in part by a grant from the local Jesuit provincial. That team will also develop a steering committee on poverty, race, and inequality (accord 9) and establish a diversity speaker series (12).
  • A recruitment, admissions and retention working group will focus on “what we need to do to make sure our education is affordable and accessible, in particular to students who come from the neighborhoods and communities around us,” Smith said. That includes addressing admission practices, financial aid strategies and retention efforts (accords 2 and 3) for students of color “to make sure that once we give students access to our education to make sure that they persist through graduation and have good outcomes after graduation,” Smith said. It will also work on establishing a K-12 bridge program and college prep workshops in local communities, per accords 4 and 5.
  • A community and economic development working group will oversee the development of a community center (6) that will be integrated with an academic Center for Community and Economic Development for SLU (8).
  • The public art and aesthetics working group will oversee the process of developing a "mutually agreed upon commissioned artwork" (accord 7) to the university. Smith said it will also "take a good close look at us developing a policy and an approach to public art on campus that he hopes will serve as a model for other universities.

The artwork accord was by far the most controversial of the 13, Smith said. Several alumni threatened to stop donating to the university over the artwork plan, as debate ensued over what the piece would depict. University spokesman Clayton Berry said the fiscal year following the controversy was still the “second most successful fundraising year in SLU history.”

Smith said given the broad scope of some of the working groups’ goals, their timelines vary and only a few have been established. Smith said the national conference on race will likely be held in August of next year, and a diversity speakers series will be held throughout the coming year. Likewise, he said the academic and community centers will take longer to establish, but will have a specific deadline.

“With our enrollment and retention management division they are already engaged in some bridge programs,” he said. “We’re already looking at financial aid and retention. We’ve already made strides in terms of diversifying our student population.”

Smith said this is a new process for the university, but its work on the accords shows its dedication.

“We’ve become an institution that is perhaps even more attractive to African American students, to multiracial students than we were three, four, five years ago," he said. "I’m certain our efforts to be a place that is inclusive and diverse and open and welcoming is clear and we are working very hard to make sure that’s a clear message cross the institution."