Saint Mary’s appoints interim director of diversity and inclusion
Gina Twardosz | Monday, September 10, 2018
Saint Mary’s professor Leslie Wang was appointed interim director of diversity and inclusion in August by College President Jan Cervelli. Wang’s appointment is a temporary installment that involves creating and assisting a task force in its search for a full-time director of diversity and inclusion.
President Cervelli said in an email that instituting an interim director of diversity and inclusion and then a full-time director is an “intentional” effort on behalf of the College.
“Diversity and inclusivity is a collective responsibility to which we are all accountable, and we want students, faculty and staff to understand our values and commitment coming in the door,” she said. “We cannot overstate the importance of a diverse community, the need to increase it, support it and respect it. We know we have work to do, for example in increasing diversity of our student body and faculty. Engaging Dr. Wang as Saint Mary’s interim director of diversity and inclusion moves us closer towards that goal.”
An interim director of diversity and inclusion “is just the beginning” for Saint Mary’s, Cervelli said in the email.
“We are not stopping here, and we continue to talk about what we can do to improve,” she said. “We are always looking at what we do in our programming and if there is anything that needs to be changed, we change it. I think that openness and willingness to work together and explore new ideas really has brought us here.”
Wang has a Ph.D. in educational sociology with a focus on class, race and gender, and equities in education. He has spent 13 years at Saint Mary’s and, previously, 15 years at the University of Toledo. As interim director, he said his duty is to create a task force to help identify the roles of the full-time director of diversity and inclusion.
“Since President Cervelli’s arrival on campus, she and I have had a few formal and informal discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion on campus,” he said. “What she has charged me of doing for this semester, and probably academic year, is to create a task force and chair the task force to define the roles and responsibilities of the director.”
Cervelli’s mission for Saint Mary’s has always revolved around the inclusion of diversity, and Wang said his new position is in conjunction with that philosophy.
“The reason that this is really important on our campus is because diversity and inclusion is about everyone — every staff member, every faculty member, every student and administrator,” Wang said. “It is also something that all of us can benefit learning more about, especially people who are different from us, people who might not share our life experiences and perspectives.”
The goal of the proposed task force, Wang said, is to not only welcome more diversity to campus but to actively foster a diverse environment on campus.
“During the academic year, the task force will define much more what the position and office actually does,” he said. “The recruitment of students, faculty, staff and administrators from various backgrounds is important, but just as important is the retention. Retention is often tied to satisfaction, how happy they are and also what is important is professional development so that we can learn much more about groups that are different from us.”
This retention is aided through creating an environment that addresses issues of diversity and facilitates an open dialogue about certain institutional and systemic issues, Wang said.
“I think, like many campuses across the country, and like our society, there are many aspects of institutional racism, institutional sexism and even institutional elitism,” he said. “And when I talk about institutional racism, institutional sexism, and institutional elitism, some of it is very intentional, very direct, but I also think that a large amount of the racism, sexism and elitism is not necessarily so direct. It’s part of our system, our culture and our belief system. It’s part of our institutional structure that has been built over the decades and centuries, and that’s the harder part to understand.”
The ideal director would look to address issues that concern the oppression of all minority groups, Wang said.
“I’d look at the future director or office and want this person or persons to assist in terms of addressing issues that devalue groups,” he said. “In terms of students, we often think of diversity as mainly relating to race and ethnicity, but in reality we have first-generation college students, we have graduate students, we have non-traditional age students, LGBT community, etc., so when we talk about historically underrepresented groups, we’re including all those in terms of welcoming them to our campus. Everyone has a right to an education.”
Wang said those in the majority should try and “recognize one’s privilege, not in terms of just the individual but also societal and cultural privileges.”
“As a male, as someone who is relatively educated in the middle class, as a heterosexual, I realize that, despite the fact that I am a person of color, I have certain privileges,” he said. “There are certain privileges that are granted to me by society, not because I’ve necessarily achieved every single one of them, some of them may be achieved such as my education, but also there are certain advantages based on my ascribed status by being born a male, or the fact that I was born from parents who are middle-class.”
Wang said once people recognize their privileges, they can utilize them for good and help make change.
“Recognizing one’s privilege means that one is also in a position to slowly and gradually help change society so that groups that do not have the same advantages historically can ‘share in a piece of the pie’ in terms of the benefits,” he said. “It’s like using one’s privilege to work for groups that are oppressed because when members who have privileges voice their opinions or when they speak, their perspectives are viewed as legitimate. People take their perspectives, or ‘what they have to say’ seriously. People are less likely to criticize the life experiences and perspectives of groups that are oppressed when they are supported by the groups that are in power historically.”
But recognizing one’s privilege is not always easy, Wang said, so he understands that a student may not overcome their inherent biases right away.
“Part of higher education is to learn about perspectives and viewpoints that we may disagree with,” he said. “In terms of taking a class, I don’t expect that students who have taken a class on something relating to diversity will immediately change their views, but I would hope that the student would take different types of classes and learn about perspectives that are different than their own. I wouldn’t say that one’s perspectives are necessarily wrong, but they’re not the only perspectives that are out there and different groups have different experiences or may have lenses that are very different from one’s own.”
The goal of the director, Wang said, should be to allow discussion of different perspectives and experiences.
“One of the goals [of the director of diversity and inclusion] is to allow for these different experiences and perspectives to be valued as long as the perspectives are not offensive to any groups,” he said.
Giving space for minority groups on campus to voice their opinions is only half the battle, Wang said, as those part of the tri-campus community may be seen as having inherent privileges that hinder the inclusion of those outside the tri-campus community.
“The campuses of Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame and Holy Cross are probably seen by many who live in South Bend and Mishawaka as gated communities in many ways — we are private, Catholic, liberal arts and probably seen as elitist from the community perspective,” he said. “I also think that colleges and universities should have an interest in supporting the community in which it is located. This also means ‘breaking down the barriers’ as there has to be a lot of learning, growing and working together between the campuses and the community.”
Wang said learning to co-exist with those who are different and engaging in open dialogue in a multicultural environment is a necessary part of becoming a well-rounded, global citizen.
“The reason that learning about various life experiences and perspectives different from our own is really important, for everyone, because we need this knowledge and the skills in order to interact and work in a multicultural society, in a global society,” he said.
And, Cervelli said, living in a multicultural society requires a great deal of empathy that can be achieved through listening to and learning from others.
“It’s really hard to tell someone you don’t believe in racism when you have a student, faculty or staff member of color sitting in front of you telling you how it has impacted their entire life,” she said.
Addressing diversity opens the door to fairness and equality, Wang said.
“I always think that, without diverse life experiences and perspectives, we really cannot talk about equity — fairness really doesn’t exist without diversity,” he said.