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University leaders address discrimination

Kristen Durbin | Tuesday, April 3, 2012

In the wake of last month’s incidents of racial discrimination against two student groups and the March 5 town hall meeting held in response, Notre Dame student leaders, faculty, staff and administrators are formulating a “Plan of Action” for addressing discrimination on campus.

Senior Brittany Suggs, chair of the Black Student Association (BSA), said the decision to create the Plan of Action arose from the student body’s response to the town hall meeting. She said students called for “more direct involvement in changes on campus” with regard to racial incidents and discrimination.

“[The Plan of Action] also came from the belief of students that we have meetings and forums and discussions of these issues, but people leave feeling like, ‘I said all this, but what happens next? What will be done? How will the words we share be transferred to actual change?'” she said.

Suggs sent a campus-wide email last week alerting the Notre Dame community to the creation of the Plan of Action.

Town hall attendees submitted personal responses addressing the changes they wanted to see with regard to discrimination in specific areas of campus life, Suggs said. These responses will be used to formulate a formal proposal to be presented to the University administration in early May.

“The committee goal is to have … something in place for transitioning officers [of student organizations] coming into their positions and to have something for seniors who have been involved to see something formally put in place to carry on in the future,” Suggs said.

The Plan of Action committee unites Student Government, BSA, the African Student Association (ASA), Alliance of Black Leaders, Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS), the Notre Dame Coalition for Human Dignity, the Progressive Student Association, MECHa, the Diversity Council of Notre Dame, the Center for Social Concerns and other interested individuals in compiling campus responses into a comprehensive proposal on how to address and combat discrimination, Suggs said.

“We would love for the whole campus to be involved in the process, but it’s not feasible with the size of the student body,” she said. “We’re taking the main student leaders of campus majority and minority groups and faculty leaders, bringing them together from different backgrounds and points of view on the issue, meeting with them to first highlight the main problem and creating a goal of sorts to keep us focused on the task at hand.”

MSPS Director Iris Outlaw said some recurring themes appeared during the categorization of personal responses from town hall attendees, including a lack of cultural competency in interactions with residence hall staff, Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) and faculty members; racial profiling by NDSP; inappropriately themed residence hall activities; the “isolating” nature of First Year Orientation, especially for students of color; and a lack of University support for departments like Africana Studies and the Institute for Latino Studies.

“[The responses showed that] the campus climate overall is isolating, and majority students are often unaware of how international and minority students feel about it,” Outlaw said. “Even though we address diversity in the Contemporary Topics course, it only plants the seeds.”

Outlaw said many responders expressed interest in a semester-long course in cultural competency that would educate students about real world diversity issues that specifically affect the Notre Dame community.

“In cultural competency classes, students might study countries like Spain, Italy and Ireland,” Outlaw said. “But we need to talk about what’s going on in our backyard too.”

Some town hall attendees also called for mandatory diversity training for faculty and staff members to further improve cultural competency on campus, Outlaw said.

“Things are written in handbooks, but most people never look at them unless they have an issue or need it for something else,” she said.

In the weeks prior to the February incidents involving the BSA and ASA, Student Senate passed a resolution advocating for increased reporting of discriminatory incidents, student body president Brett Rocheleau said.

“We worked with Diversity Council and found that there are a lot of unreported instances of discrimination, so we want to advocate for students to feel free and safe to report instances of discrimination,” Rocheleau said.

Outlaw said these unreported cases of discrimination prompted administrators to assess the availability and accessibility of resources for reporting and dealing with discrimination on campus.

“That [assessment] has been key because some resources haven’t been easy to find, especially when important information has been lost in web page changes,” she said. “We’ve been introspective, so it’s great that we’re now trying to be proactive to make the University the place we know it should be.”

This proactive mindset distinguishes the current movement from similar initiatives in the past, Outlaw said.

“The call for accountability has been twofold across the institution,” she said. “We’re holding students accountable for incidents they experience or witness, and the administration is helping students navigate the system, speaking out against discrimination and doing an internal assessment.”

Suggs said Notre Dame is fortunate to have a supportive campus environment.

“Other campuses may have much more deep-rooted issues from living in a post-civil rights era, so thankfully campus is behind us and has the awareness that something needs to be done,” she said. “But we can’t let it die as it has many times before, and we can’t leave it in the hands of a few individuals.”

All members of the Notre Dame community can act individually on that accountability, she said.

“Everybody can take up their call with little things like reporting discrimination, encouraging teachers to facilitate discussion in class, doing your part when others are victimized and not turning your head in the other direction and pushing a zero-tolerance mission for discrimination,” she said.

Former student body president Pat McCormick said the work of student groups and responses to the town hall demonstrate solidarity among the University community.

“The initiatives that have developed in the call to action and the work of Student Senate, student government and members of the coalition indicate that the student body is standing in solidarity on these issues,” he said. “My hope is that it’s one of the things we’ve taken away from this … and that it’s not the end but rather the beginning of facing these challenges together.”

McCormick and Suggs said the administration and faculty members have been receptive and active in addressing the responses to these incidents, especially the Offices of the Provost, the President and Student Affairs.

“The Office of the Provost and [vice president and associate provost for undergraduate studies] Dr. Don Pope-Davis have been extremely generous with their time and are looking for ways to confront challenges systemically from the perspective of the academy,” McCormick said.

Most importantly, the campus community must understand the importance of uniting in the fight against discrimination, Suggs said.

“It’s not just my issue or a BSA, ASA and minority issue,” she said. “Whether you have a past, present or future at Notre Dame, it’s all our issue to solve this.”

Suggs said Notre Dame should be held to its reputation and the high standards it has in “everything you could possibly name,” and discrimination is no exception.  

“This is a crucial part of the Notre Dame and Holy Cross mission that has been overlooked,” she said. “We need the Notre Dame community to further that mission and see it through … with the same vigor as we see everything else through.”