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SMC Interim President addresses issues of diversity, inclusion

| Wednesday, October 10, 2018

On Tuesday night, Saint Mary’s Student Diversity Board hosted a discussion and Q&A during which students were invited to ask Interim Saint Mary’s President Nancy Nekvasil questions on issues surrounding diversity and inclusion on campus.

Chair of the Board of Trustees Mary Burke, vice president of student affairs Karen Johnson, director of multicultural services Gloria Jenkins and vice president for mission Judy Fean also attended the event.

Junior Jazmin Herrera, vice president of Student Diversity Board (SDB), said the Q&A was held in order to address concerns regarding the resignation of Jan Cervelli and the continuation of the College’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

“We are all supporters of creating an inclusive community here at Saint Mary’s,” she said. “SDB along with other students are concerned as to where the College is now heading, with the goal of achieving a welcoming environment for all students. We ask this because [former] President [Jan] Cervelli was not only committed to achieving this goal but was also open to working with SDB to make this happen.”

Nekvasil said that, going forward, the College will continue to focus on diversity, inclusion and equity.

“I think that [diversity and inclusion] start with at least discussing things openly,” she said. “I will tell you that faculty, at least for several years even before President Cervelli came, were required to go to community events that dealt with diversity, inclusion and equity. We now have an interim director of diversity and inclusion, Leslie Wang, whose job this year is to help us define what this looks like so that we can actually begin to make a few more strides.”

The College will continue to develop as a community that fosters diversity and inclusion as well as a community that focuses on retention as much as recruitment, Nekvasil said.

“We can’t just do the recruiting part, both for students, faculty and staff, we have to form a community that welcomes people and that accepts people for who they are, where they are,” she said. “Unfortunately, you can’t change human behavior, but what we can do is try and get more and more people who believe in treating other people with respect and dignity.”

Regarding diversity and inclusion, vice president of student affairs Karen Johnson said the administration has created the position of director of First Year experience and retention. The director, Shay Jolly, will report to both Academic Affairs and Student Affairs and track student experience from their first consideration of the College to the first semester of their sophomore year.

Johnson said the Office of Student Affairs investigates every complaint of bias and harassment brought to it, although there are many cases not reported to Johnson and her team.

“Every complaint that comes through our office is investigated and handled through our code of student conduct process, which is a confidential process,” she said. “The big problem for me, though, is that very few complaints make it to my office. Students tell faculty, staff or each other about something that’s happened on campus and they never go online and file out a bias report. We can’t investigate things we don’t know about.”

As the campus grows more diverse, the issues surrounding diversity and inclusion become more complex. Gender identity and transgender identities are at the forefront of this conversation, and Johnson said the College has a practice set in place for accepting transgender students.

“Saint Mary’s doesn’t have a policy we have a practice,” she said. “To admit students, they must legally be women, either born as a woman or transgendered into a woman legally, but we do graduate students. So, if a student is here, comes in as a woman, starts the transition process, lives as a man, starts becoming a man, they are going to be able to finish their classes and graduate from here. The only time we would say no to a student is if they identified, legally, as a male.”

Nekvasil said, especially with issues of diversity and inclusion, she will try to make things as transparent as possible for students, faculty and staff.

“The vice president and I have met three or four times since this has happened, so we are really serious about making some headway, making things work, making decisions and moving ahead,” she said. “We hope that very soon there will be real action that you will see. I also want to be really transparent, so I want to meet with groups periodically, so that you know what we’re doing.”

At the Q&A, several students brought issues of socioeconomic and racial disparity at the College to Nekvasil’s attention, including the disparity present in the room, as the number of those in attendance at the SDB diversity and inclusion Q&A were significantly less than those at the student assembly beforehand.

Nekvasil said she will always give the same message no matter the crowd.

“The message that I would give to you, I would give to that full crowd that was here before, and that’s not going to change,” she said. ”It’s not going to be a different message.”

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About Gina Twardosz

Gina Twardosz is a junior English Writing and Communication Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. She writes for SMC News and is a tried and true Midwesterner.

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