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Jenkins explains Diversity Committee’s role

Marisa Iati | Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The new President’s Oversight Committee on Diversity and Inclusion aims to ensure campus leaders are striving to create a welcoming atmosphere for students, faculty and staff, University President Fr. John Jenkins told The Observer last month.

“It’s important to realize that there are many good things that have happened [in the realm of diversity and inclusion],” Jenkins said. “We can talk ourselves into being discouraged, and I think we have to avoid that, on one hand.

“On the other hand, I think there are things we need to work on at various parts of the University. I think in a lot of ways, I want to hold those things in balance. We made progress, but we have more to do.”

On Sept. 10, Jenkins sent the Notre Dame community a letter announcing the committee’s formation. The letter, sent via email, stated Jenkins will chair the group. The committee also includes eight other members of the University’s administration.

Members of the committee work in teams, each of which addresses the concerns of students, of faculty or of staff, Jenkins told The Observer. He said the committee considers diversity of race, ethnicity, nation of origin, socioeconomic class, gender and sexual orientation.

“I think that we have made progress. The creation of the GLBTQ group [Prism-ND] is a big step forward, and I hope that’s successful,” Jenkins said. “But there are other areas of the University where maybe we need to think about, for instance, how to incorporate international students. … They bring great gifts, but perhaps we need to make sure that they’re fully included. … Sometimes individuals from underrepresented minorities … feel that Notre Dame could be more welcoming.”

Jenkins said diversity accords with a sense of fairness – that everyone should have access to a Notre Dame education, regardless of his or her background. He said the University’s Catholic mission and its intention to create a positive atmosphere on campus also inform its commitment to promoting diversity.

“A more diverse and inclusive campus is a better educational environment,” Jenkins said. “I think we learn, students and faculty and everyone on campus learns, not only in formal classes from teachers, but from one another. And insofar as we can have a broader array of perspectives on matters, I think it’s a better education.”

Jenkins said he charged committee members with identifying areas in which the University could be more diverse or inclusive.

“I’ve asked them to just look at the landscape, analyze where we are, what’s going on, what can we improve on and then to formulate various plans,” he said. “How can we get better? What can we do to continue to make progress, to address the issues that need to be addressed?”

During the group’s first meeting in October, members shared the initiatives each team is working on and the challenges they face, Jenkins said.

“Then on a second meeting, we sort of got into a level of somewhat greater detail,” he said.

The committee is meant to hold administrators accountable for working on issues of diversity and inclusion, Jenkins said.

“One of the challenges of this is that everyone has so much on their plate. … But diversity and inclusion goes across all areas,” Jenkins said. “People can fail to keep focus on that. … If you have to go to a meeting, and the president’s there, you’ve got to be able to say something [about your progress in these areas].

“I think my role, our role in this committee, one of its roles, is to just make sure that we’re not losing focus, that we’re keeping our eye on the ball.”

The teams will work together to address issues that bridge students, faculty and staff, Jenkins said. He said at one of the committee’s previous meetings, Matt Storin, senior project specialist for Student Affairs, mentioned students told him some classmates make comments that are unintentionally hurtful or marginalizing.

“That was very helpful, for Matt to say that, because the people who work with the faculty can begin to think about, How can we make the classroom environment less marginalizing, more inclusive for people?” Jenkins said.

The committee will meet at least quarterly, Ann Firth, the group’s vice chair and chief of staff in the Office of the President, said. She said the next meeting is scheduled for January.

Jenkins said the group does not meet more frequently because the committee “sees that things are done, rather than does them.”

“That’s the point of oversight,” he said. “What we have to do is meet and say, ‘Okay, here’s our plan, here’s our challenges.’ And then everybody goes and works on them and then comes back and says, ‘Here’s the progress we’ve made.'”

The oversight group plans to communicate its progress in various ways, including town hall meetings with staff, similar meetings with students and the president’s annual address to the faculty, Jenkins said.

Jenkins said the committee seeks to implement concrete changes on campus, but noticeable progress will not occur overnight.

“If we don’t change anything, we wasted our time. But … it’s probably hard, steady work,” Jenkins said. “I think there’s sometimes a feeling that if you can do one thing, one dramatic thing, you can fix the problem. I don’t expect that to happen. I think it’s a hundred, maybe a thousand, small things that we just have to keep doing. And if one thing doesn’t work, we try another thing, and that’s how we’ll make progress.

“We will not solve all the problems in the next few weeks, but it needs to be a campuswide effort to make the whole campus community more diverse and inclusive.”

Associate News Editor Tori Roeck contributed to this report.

Contact Marisa Iati at [email protected]