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Westminster faculty, staff address racial issues within academics in wake of BLM protests

Protesters hold up a Black Lives Matter banner at the Pride for Black Lives Matter rally in Salt Lake June 14. While Westminster College does well with addressing issues of racial inequity, there is still a lot of work to be done, according to faculty and staff. (Marina McTee)

Many of Westminster College’s faculty are working to address racial issues within academics and promote conversations about racism in the classroom in wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests. 

Although issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are already a focus at Westminster, the protests made many faculty members realize more needs to be done.

Provost Debbie Tahmassebi said while Westminster does a good job of addressing racial issues within its curricula, there is always room to do better.

“The Diversity Emphasis in WCore requires every student to take a class that addresses intersectional issues of power, privilege, and oppression,” Tahmassebi said in an email. “We have some very talented and committed faculty who are experts and others who are early in their engagement with this content but are very committed to improvement.”

The protests have prompted more conversations among faculty members, with several participating in the YWCA’s 21 Day Racial Equity and Social Justice Challenge this year, according to Tahmassebi. The challenge is a 21-day program that helps people learn about racial equity and social justice.

Many academic programs are also holding regular meetings to discuss these issues within their own curricula.

“There are many faculty thinking about how their courses might be modified and some programs are adapting Fall classes to address issues raised by the new civil rights movement,” Tahmassebi said. “One example is that the Theatre program will be running a new course in Anti-Racist Theatre.”

There are also many scholarships and programs to increase diversity and equity within STEM fields — including the science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes, according to Tahmassebi. This includes a new initiative to integrate cultural competency into all computer science classes.

The provost’s office has already implemented a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training for all involved in the hiring of new faculty. Each academic unit has also developed a DEI plan that will guide the plan for the entire campus.

The provost’s office also collaborates with the Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Tamara Stevenson to ensure there are opportunities for faculty to address these issues. 

“In short, [Westminster has] a renewed shared commitment among students, faculty and staff and identifiable, deliberate actions to create a safer, more equitable campus and world,” Tahmassebi said.

Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the chief diversity officer facilitate opportunities for conversation around DEI and support students and faculty who want to develop ways to address DEI issues, according to Stevenson.

The office is also making efforts to help faculty and staff discuss these issues and educate themselves — including encouraging faculty to engage in the YWCA challenge, according to Stevenson.

“I am working on scheduling a series of sessions primarily for faculty and staff in relation to current events with an equity-conscious perspective,” said Stevenson in an email. “Also, I am working with faculty leadership to explore opportunities to cultivate conversations to encourage faculty to think about how race and racism impacts curriculum and pedagogy.”

Stevenson also said the DEI Office is planning on conducting the college’s first comprehensive climate survey. The survey was supposed to be conducted this Spring semester but had to be postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Conducting the survey during this time would not have been an accurate reflection because of everyone’s heightened stress.

“[The survey] will be important and necessary to provide a baseline of how campus community members perceive and experience the campus environment with regard to bias, prejudice, harassment, etc.,” Stevenson said. “This data will also guide where and how to direct policy review and analysis, programming, and professional development, and so on across campus.”

A protester holds a sign in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement during the Pride for Black Lives Matter rally in Salt Lake City June 14. In wake of the protests, many of Westminster’s faculty are working to promote and create more inclusive curricula. (Marina McTee)

It is important to give everyone strategies to be able to engage in conversations surrounding these issues in their own lives, according to Stevenson. She said this must include the lived experience and voices of students, faculty and staff.

“In other words, this work doesn’t occur from one space, e.g., the DEI Office,” Stevenson said.  “Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a COLLECTIVE responsibility.”

Stevenson said she looks forward to working with student and faculty groups to engage in these conversations. 

Diversity Council

In addition to the various diversity offices of Westminster, there is also a faculty Diversity Council which “works to instill diversity, inclusion, and equity among faculty and staff through policies, practices, and programs,” according to councilmember and English professor Ranjan Adiga.

The council does many things, including reviewing the faculty hiring, retention and promotion processes; reviewing and approving the WCore diversity emphasis course curricula; and working with the DEI Office on college climate, professional development and more.

The recent Black Lives Matter protests have also influenced the Diversity Council.

“The recent protests on racial injustice have increased the urgency for discussions and action around equity issues at Westminster,” Adiga said in an email. “The Westminster community has a responsibility to advocate for policies that instill a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion, being mindful of students, faculty, and staff from structurally marginalized groups who may be particularly vulnerable.”

Adiga said there have been many efforts to promote conversation among faculty including workshops, but one thing the Diversity Council is especially involved in is working with WCore. The council makes sure that the diversity emphasis courses within WCore make students engage and examine how race, privilege and power intersect, according to Adiga.

“We need to have more conversations in our classrooms about the structures of power that create various types of privilege and oppression in this country,” Adiga said.

These issues are a collective responsibility that needs to be addressed by everyone, Adiga said. They are also not something that can be fixed overnight, according to Adiga.

“Many of us have biases toward other groups that have been inbred into our consciousness from years of just living,” Adiga said. “It will therefore take a consistent and collaborative effort to educate ourselves and in turn educate our students about diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Academics

While the majority of academic programs at Westminster are working toward promoting these discussions in their classrooms, it looks different depending on the major. Different programs intersect with DEI issues in various ways depending on their field. 

The majority of academic programs are working to promote conversations and address issues of inequity in their curricula such as the English, outdoor education and leadership, nursing and neuroscience programs to name a few.

English

According to Ranjan Adiga, an English professor, the department is acutely aware of the need for these discussions.

“We examine how social issues are represented in narratives, images, media through various historical and cultural contexts,” Adiga said.

The English department hosts events throughout the semester to promote diversity, such as the Ann Newman Poetry Series. The series invites poets from diverse backgrounds to the college for a reading and question session with students.

The English department’s approach to these conversations will always be reviewed and updated as the current world climate changes, according to Adiga.

“We need to constantly learn, critique, and adapt,” Adiga said.

Outdoor Education and Leadership

The outdoor education and leadership program recognizes the culture of outdoor recreation has historically not been inclusive and is working to change that, according to OEL Professor Kellie Gerbers.

“These inequities absolutely show up in outdoor education and leadership, all the way down to the values that are often connected to our field,” said Gerbers in an email. “Values such as ‘adventure,’ ‘individualism,’ ‘leisure’, ‘materialism,’ ‘challenge,’ ‘solitude,’ were built upon assumptions that the outdoors is safe for everyone and that people have the resources, time, and ability(ies) available to engage in recreational activities outdoors.”

The OEL program has worked to recognize these assumptions and the structures that perpetuate exclusion in their curriculum. 

“We recognize that outdoor spaces and outdoor curricula has previously and continues to cater to values, experiences, and perspectives that prioritize and elevate the experiences of white, middle/upper-class, able-bodied, cisgender men,” Gerbers said.

To correct these systems and structures, the program has diverse content, tries to recruit diverse instructors and student leaders, and is critical of what values they attach to outdoor leadership and the biases they carry, according to Gerbers.

OEL is also incorporating outside recommendations to address these issues, according to Gerbers. They are looking for other programs and experts in the industry to help identify bias and create a curriculum that is more inclusive.

“We will continue to have conversations with students, faculty, and members of the outdoor community to learn more about how we consciously or subconsciously perpetuate systems of oppression in the outdoors and what tangible action steps we can take to dismantling those systems,” Gerbers said.

Nursing and Health Sciences

When it comes to the nursing and health sciences programs, diversity, equity and inclusion is a part of everything they do, according to Sheryl Steadman, the dean of nursing and health sciences. 

There are many schools under the nursing and health sciences program including nursing and public health. In nursing, they do “case scenarios” where they simulate different healthcare situations. In these simulations, they often emulate how different health issues affect diverse populations, Steadman said.

A major part of these case scenarios and the discussion of DEI issues involves healthcare disparities in different populations, according to Steadman.

“We focus on health disparities and then try to use the case scenarios representing different areas of diversity, equity and inclusion to really figure out how we can do a better job providing healthcare,” Steadman said. “Because the students that are graduating in nursing on all levels, the students that are graduating in public health on all levels are the future for healthcare in this country.”

Steadman also said they try to pull examples from what is currently happening in the world. With the recent protests this past summer, she said she thinks case scenarios are going to change to reflect what’s happening.

“We’re going to see some major changes in the use of case scenarios and in simulation where we simulate experiences,” Steadman said. “There’s going to be some really fun things to increase students’ knowledge basis to help them know how to cope with and how to help and how to be proactive with all of the different kinds of things that are going on.” 

However, it is difficult to add completely new content into the nursing programs because there is so much required material to get through, according to Steadman. The students must have a certain base of knowledge so they can pass their board exams which are regulated by the state.

It’s easier in the public health major, though, to discuss DEI issues because that’s part of what the discipline is, according to Steadman.

“Public health is diversity, equity and inclusion,” Steadman said. “Every assignment and every course that they have, they have major components of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Public health does the same as nursing, according to Steadman, pulling from what is actually happening in the real world as examples.

Outside of curricula specifically, a DEI group was started just within the nursing and health sciences a couple years ago by Steadman which includes faculty from all the schools under the program.

In this group, they discuss issues occurring in the schools. The group is also used for professional development where they pass around articles and books, among other things, for people to learn from.

Even with the incorporation of DEI in the curricula and schools, there is still work to be done by the faculty, according to Steadman.

“We’re not perfect. Heaven forbid, we are not perfect,” Steadman said. “And so do we miss things or not deal with things or do we screw up? Absolutely. […] What I see as a dean is that we can call ourselves out on it. We also get called out on it because it’s around us all the time, so that it becomes on the forefront of our thinking.”

Neuroscience/STEM

In the field of neuroscience, gender parity has improved to be one woman for every one man, according to neuroscience Professor Krista Todd, citing a study on the diversity of neuroscience graduates from around the country. At the same time, racial disparity has worsened.

While this disparity exists in the wider field, Todd and fellow neuroscience professor and department chair Lesa Ellis said they try to address this disparity in their classes. 

“​In both Social Neuroscience and Human Brain Development, issues of race and racism are discussed as part of course content,” Ellis said in an email. “In a class like Cell Neuro, however, it is not as explicitly addressed but rather the instructor will often point out the biases inherent in science as an institution.”

Although they are currently unsure of the percentage of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in the program compared to the overall percentage in the college, program leaders are trying to get this population more engaged in neuroscience.

“We are actively introducing the idea of neuroscience to racially diverse elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the Salt Lake valley through our Neuroscience Club’s outreach programs,” Todd said in an email.

In addition to this outreach program, the entire neuroscience faculty have been involved in the McNair scholars program which works to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups who go to graduate school.

Even with these efforts, Ellis thinks they can do more.

“​I would like to see us, as a program, more formally acknowledge within our courses that science is not somehow insulated from societal issues,” Ellis said. “One of the major advantages of a liberal arts education is that students develop tools to view an issue from multiple perspectives.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of that, according to Ellis. The pandemic is simultaneously a health issue, social issue, racial issue, political issue and personal issue. 

When it comes to STEM fields in general, Todd said it is important to acknowledge the BIPOC in these fields.

“People need role models,” Todd said. “BIPOC contributions should be noted and taught instead of the traditional parade of white-male German anatomists.”

In addition to that, Ellis said STEM fields need to address issues with deficit thinking, which is the concept that low-income and minority students fail in school because of deficiencies that make learning difficult like limited intelligence.

“Science is a system that was created by, and primarily benefits, a very homogenous group,” Ellis said. “Further, there is a hierarchy within STEM fields that can feel very unwelcoming and disrespectful. This hierarchy needs to be dismantled from within.”

Moving Forward

Recent protests have sparked a renewed commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion at Westminster, according to faculty and staff. Creating a more equitable campus, though, is going to take time and will require a lot of learning and conscious effort.

Lesa Ellis said she thinks programs should be able to step out of their regular content to discuss current issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and its racial disparity.

“I would also like us to take a ‘pause’ from content when there are important issues going on in society (such as occurred this summer) and read and talk about those issues in class, as we may have students who are suffering very real consequences and are under tremendous stress,” Ellis said. “People [are greater than] content.” 

It is also vital to not see these protests as a “one-off” moment, according to Ranjan Adiga. Instead, they must be seen as part of the larger civil rights movement.

“We have to act soon, but sustainable change doesn’t happen with one action or protest,” Adiga said. “It builds on the past to move into the future. Westminster faculty, especially, but not limited to, white faculty, have a lot of self-reflection to do in terms of how we are working toward or working against a system of inclusion and equity.”

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Marina McTee
Marina McTee is a senior communication major at Westminster College. She is specializing in journalism and content creation. She hopes to combine her passion for journalism with her passion for all things media and work for a media outlet such as SLUG Mag or Vice someday. She is dedicated to reporting news and creating media specialized for the internet world so it is accessible to all.

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