Town Hall Meeting Addresses Racial Diversity Concerns

Photo by Rebecca King

The Ramapo administration held a Town Hall meeting on race and inclusion yesterday in Friends Hall to address school-wide concerns about diversity in the wake of racial tensions at colleges across the country. The hall was packed with about 100 students, faculty, staff and administration seated in a formation of concentric circles, with the event’s hosts seated in the central circle and the dozens of other community members seated or standing around them, facing inward. The hosts were College President Peter Mercer, Provost Beth Barnett, Director of Affirmative Action and Workplace Compliance Kat McGee, Assistant Director for Equity and Diversity Programs Tamika Quick, Diversity Action Committee Co-Chair Sandra Suárez, former DAC Co-Chair Leah Warner, Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs Chris Romano and Vice President for Institutional Advancement Cathy Davey.

The meeting had an open question format where attendees were welcome to ask questions, express concerns, make comments and offer suggestions on the topic to the administration and the rest of the Ramapo community. Due to the short 50-minute time period allotted for the event, index cards were passed out for those who didn’t get the chance to speak, or who wanted to respond anonymously.

Administration worked with students to plan this public meeting as a follow-up to a smaller discussion, which took place in the Women’s Center on Nov. 13, shortly after students at the University of Missouri staged highly publicized protests in response to the lack of administrative action against racist incidents on campus.

Despite its short length, the meeting covered a broad range of topics, from the recruitment and retention of students and staff of color, to the microaggressions faced by minority students at Ramapo, to the school’s struggle to fulfill Goal Four of the school’s 2014-2018 strategic plan, which is to “Cultivate and Support Inclusiveness and Diversity.”

Mercer described the issue of minority faculty and student recruitment as a “chicken and egg proposition” in which prospective students of color are discouraged by a lack of faculty who “look like them” and faculty of color are discouraged by a lack of diversity in the student body. However, Mercer and several other hosting staff members pointed out Ramapo’s many efforts to bring in more diverse community members, including visits to “every single high school in New Jersey,” as explained by Romano, upcoming extensive DAC-sponsored visits to schools in “underrepresented communities,” as described by Quick, and Upward Bound, a government-funded educational program for low-income students that has been at Ramapo for 20 years, according to Suárez, who is also the director of the program.

Another student spoke about his experience as a student of color at Ramapo, saying, “I have experienced microaggressions based on stereotypes of my race, and I just want to know what can be done in regards to having faculty understand that when I am the only one of my race I cannot speak for my race alone, and not to apply stereotypes to the type of student I can be.”

The student’s question tied into the school’s strategic plan, which was an underlying theme throughout the discussion, specifically Goal Four of the plan. Printouts of the goal’s details were passed out to the attendees along with information on the progress of each of the goal’s objectives.

“One of the achievement targets that is stated within the strategic plan, Goal Four, is that 100 percent of faculty, staff and administrators will receive training related to diversity and inclusion,” McGee pointed out. The diversity workshops held for staff members were mentioned a few times, at different points in the meeting, with the hosts describing the difficulty of achieving their attendance goals for these workshops.

According to McGee, the training currently being looked at in relation to the strategic plan is Title IX training, which pertains to sex and gender discrimination, and this training currently has a completion rate of 78 percent. McGee describes this training as just a “slice” of the diversity training that faculty should receive, and Quick emphasized that she and Erick Castellanos, a professor and DAC member, have already held one and plan to hold more faculty workshops related to broader diversity topics, including race.

Coincidentally, Goal Four of the strategic plan appeared in the spotlight earlier this week in the form of anonymously-posted fliers taped up in several places around campus. The fliers included printouts of Goal Four, along with both typed and handwritten criticisms of the administration’s performance in supporting diversity initiatives and fulfilling the goal.

Handwritten comments on the strategic plan included questions like “Where is our chief diversity officer?” and “Where’s our multicultural center? And I don’t mean the Women’s Center or the BSU [Black Student Union].” One printout had the objective about faculty participation in diversity workshops highlighted, with a question mark written beside it.

The student who posted the fliers, who wishes to remain anonymous, said, in an email that their goal was to “call attention to what's happening on campus.”

“[The strategic plan] was written in Spring 2013 and many of the things addressed in the goal haven't been improved. I wanted to keep to hold our administration accountable for what I see as their negligence,” the student explained.

The student feels as though the administration is not doing their part in addressing diversity and racism issues.

“I think there is a serious lack of commitment to supporting marginalized groups at Ramapo,” the student explained. “Too much responsibility is put on students, faculty and staff of color to improve the campus climate. The only official entity responsible for advocating for marginalized groups on campus is the Diversity Action Committee, and that's a volunteer faculty and staff committee. We can't expect to get that much done if there isn't even a true institutional commitment to diversity.”

Another student with concerns about the school’s progress in achieving the goals of the strategic plan is senior Marissa Hatten, the former president of the student branch of DAC, who, during her freshman year, led the campaign to keep Goal Four in the strategic plan when the administration was planning on removing it altogether.

“I saw students of color were not supported in the way other students were, because we’re a predominantly white institution. I had interactions myself where I felt marginalized,” Hatten said about her experience as a freshman. “So when I found out that they were taking diversity out of the strategic plan, I thought that was awful because there are still issues on our campus and they definitely need to be focused on, like problems of diversity.”

Hatten started a petition, which was signed by 10 percent of the student body and then presented it to the administration. Hatten and fellow student leaders of color met and negotiated with several administrators, including the president and provost, until it was agreed that Goal Four’s inclusion in the 2014-2018 plan would be reinstated.

Despite this triumph, Hatten says she has not seen satisfactory change throughout her years as a student.

“There hasn’t been enough change for it to be felt by the students of color on campus. Those same issues that I felt freshman year are still here, as a senior in college,” Hatten said. However, she believes things can improve “if there are more candid conversations about issues of diversity.”

The town hall meeting, being a conversation about diversity, received both praise and criticism from students in attendance.

“I think it went well. It gave everybody a chance to listen to everyone else’s point of view, and questions that needed to be asked were asked and they answered them well,” said Brittany Jordan, the spokesperson of BSU. “I think that there should be more of a communication between the administration and the students because this is our school too, so we have to give our opinions, and we also have to listen to [the administration], as well.”

“I can’t say that I was completely satisfied with all of [the administration’s] responses. However, first of all, I must commend them on being willing to participate in this initiative, allowing students a platform to express their point of views,” expressed Noel Gordon, a junior. “I hope to see more representation of minorities in faculty and a less tolerance for institutionalized racism and just a more supportive and safe campus environment where students are empowered instead of suppressed.”

Staff members also reflected on the outcome of the meeting and look forward to future action dedicated to focusing on the issues of race and inclusiveness.

“I know that for many of our students the racial climate is inadequate. And it’s our job as administrators, from the top down to support our students – particularly our most marginalized populations of students,” said McGee, also mentioning that there will be several forums next semester to give the College community “status updates” about the school’s progress on Goal Four.

 “I could tell some people were frustrated because they didn’t get a chance to ask their questions. I think we’re going to have several more of these meetings because there are not issues that are going to go away,” Mercer said about the meeting.

When asked if he had a message for people of color at Ramapo, Mercer simply replied, “Don’t give up on us, and work with us.”