Friday, April 29, 2016

An administrative listening session

I managed to catch about 45 minutes of  Thursday's "listening session" with Provost Susan Ford and the deans of campus colleges. This seems to have been a largely different group of administrators from that at an earlier such session. I think it's fair to say that the part of the session I saw was not a great success.

For me the most telling moment was when the assembled administrators were asked if they could define "diversity" or "inclusivity". The questioner noted SIUC's various mission statements fail to do so. Susan Ford responded with generalities about how many people worked on those mission statements, and how hard they are to write. That did not help. Nor did any of the deans and others on the stage made any effort to answer the question directly. That's pretty outrageous, come to think of it. Here was a moment to make a statement--which every one of them should have prepared for this meeting--about why diversity and inclusion matter, and what diversity means for them. At other moments during the event some of the deans showed some awareness of this, but none seized this moment, or indeed seized any moment.

This reminded me vividly of the meeting of the Faculty Senate four years ago at which it was revealed that no one in the room could define the term "Inclusive Excellence", a key item in the lousy strategic plan we were discussing. The people who were hawking the plan were only slightly embarrassed by this; and the senators' reactions (including mine) were more cynical than outraged. This is precisely the sort of lazy complacency that culminates in a meeting at which a dozen administrators from dean on up can't answer the most basic question about a crisis riling the campus. If you can't answer this basic question, if you can't show that you get it, that you understand that "diversity" and "inclusivity" aren't just buzz words, or nice ways of talking about increasing enrollment of minority students (= tuition $$$), you don't belong on that stage.

Now it would not be fair to say, after I'd attended only half of a single meeting, that none of these high administrators get it. But they certainly weren't showing much evidence of this during the 45 minutes I was there. Of course when questioned directly about a policy, or presented with a demand to take quick actions, the administrators had to respond to these questions. But I would think that the first goal of their remarks ought to have been to show that they hear the students, that they understand where they are coming from. They didn't meet this goal, or make much of an effort to meet it--not at least during the time I was there.

The deans fared rather better than the provost over all, perhaps because they could pick when to speak. Jason Greene, dean of the College of Business, perhaps had the best case to make, as he started a college-wide review of their diversity policy last year. John Warwick of Business and Laurie Achenbach of Science were helpfully frank about the difficulty in attracting black students and faculty in their fields, though it was probably not helpful for Achenbach to say that we're often outbid or out-hustled for black faculty--as this just raises the question of why we don't try harder. Meera Kommarraju of Liberal Arts, a native of India, noted poignantly that she'd faced discrimination, and made efforts to ensure all voices are heard in meetings she runs; this was helpful, but she didn't go into specifics about her case or connect it to those voiced by the largely African-American crowd. Dafna Lamesh of MCMA, a native of Israel, noted that there are many kinds of diversity, and made the important point that while her college has a good proportion of minority students and faculty, mere numbers don't mean discrimination doesn't occur--this could have been an important part of the missing definition of inclusivity. Yueh-Ting Lee, dean of the Graduate School, noted the origin of his discipline, ethnic studies, in student protests at Berkeley in the 1960's, but didn't really succeed in showing the relevance of this to the current crisis. He and several other deans thanked the students for speaking up (as the provost may well have done before I arrived), but their thanks were somewhat formulaic.

The administrators had a tough job to do before a tough crowd. Most of the students who spoke were frustrated, resented what they regarded as past administrative slights, and wanted quick action.  They spoke of specific decisions that they believed disproportionately affected students of color, all of which came in a difficult budgetary situation, and all of which involved factors other than race. But the administrators didn't do themselves any favors. Surely our administrators could have learned something from the experiences of peers on other campuses, many of whom have already gone through this sort of crisis. The provost was articulate but did not seem terribly interested in, well, listening. She was there to defend the university's actions rather than to learn from students and think about how to improve how the university acts. I can well understand why administrators get defensive in this sort of setting, a somewhat hostile crowd of students raising issues not only of policy but of morality. And I'm far from certain that I could have done any better than they did in real time.

But what was needed was more in the way of empathy and humanity, showing a genuine effort at understanding why students of color are increasingly bitter on this campus, as on so many others. That sort of understanding isn't enough--it must lead to real efforts to improve things. But it is a necessary starting point. And I'm not sure this listening session even got things started.

1 comment:

  1. What do you expect when a passive Senate and Graduate Council has allowed administrators to get away with murder in the past and a Faculty Union that supports them by passivity?


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