ver the last month, an unusual amount of bias incidents were reported to the Dean of Students. The incidents have prompted questions as to the administration’s response method and spurred campus-wide dialogue regarding cultural divisions within the Gustavus community.
According to the Dean of Students Office, four bias incidents were reported within a few week’s time. Due to federal law that guarantees the privacy of student educational records, The Gustavian Weekly can only confirm the specificity of two of the incidents. Both incidents involved racial stereotyping of Islam and were posted to social media sites.
One of the incidents involved a student who posted an image of herself at a sorority-sponsored event to which she wore a turban and a sign that read “terrorist.” The other incident involved two individuals in the Lund pool area, who posed for a picture wearing towel turbans and miming guns with their hands. The photo was posted with the caption, “‘Poolitcally’ correct, clever we know.”
While these two higher profile incidents received isolated conversation in the weeks before the wider community was informed, the majority of students learned of the series of incidents on March 13, when an email was issued to students from Dean of Students JoNes VanHecke. The email detailed her concern regarding the recent influx of incidents reported.
“Several recent incidents, which have come to my attention, demonstrate to me that our community is struggling with racial understanding and cultural sensitivity,” VanHecke said in the opening of the email.
Exchange amongst administration, students and faculty shapes preliminary discourse
In response to the incidents, the Dean of Students Office, as well as several students and faculty members, have engaged in discussions geared toward dealing with both the immediate and longer-range concerns regarding campus culture.
The first of these larger conversations between administration and students took place on Friday, March 17, which was organized by members of the Pan-Afrikan Student Organization (PASO).
VanHecke felt the initial conversation between the students and the administration was left unfinished and set up another dialogue for the following Friday to explain the adjudication process, discuss her office’s plans moving forward, and allow students to present feedback and concerns.
Invitations to the second meeting were informally issued. Over 30 students attended, the majority of whom were from PASO, the Diversity Leadership Cohort (DLC), and other students affiliated with DLC organizations.
Administration members in attendance were Associate Dean of Students Stephen Bennett, Director of Residential Life Charlie Potts, Director of Alumni and Parent Engagement Glen Lloyd, Interim Assistant Director of Multicultural Programs in Diversity Development and Multi-Cultural Office Xavier Karjohn, Professor of Religion and GWS Deborah Goodwin, and Professor of Theatre and Dance and GWS Amy Seham.
The first topic addressed at the March 21 meeting was student frustration regarding the lack of what VanHecke referred to as “hard-facts” surrounding the incidents.
She explained how the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law that protects student education and conduct records, prevents the college administration from releasing any information about the specifics of any given violation of college policy.
VanHecke acknowledged student frustrations about what she thinks is seen as a lack of transparency about the adjudication process.
“I think what people are struggling with is that they don’t know, or perhaps don’t trust that these incidents are being adjudicated—I think some may think that nothing is happening because it’s not public record,” VanHecke said.
“What people should understand is that I can’t talk about the specifics of these incidents because what is at issue in these cases are individual’s conduct records, which are protected by the federal law,” she said.
Despite the prohibitions posed by FERPA, VanHecke wished to reiterate the administration’s stance on handling incidents such as the ones recently reported.
“What I can tell you is that when we believe that there is a violation of college policy, we will adjudicate. We will adjudicate whether or not we think a student will be in violation or not. We will always utilize [the judicial] processes because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
After addressing the concerns regarding the adjudication process, VanHecke walked students through her office’s plan for responding to the incidents, which were divided into short, mid, and long-term goals. (For a full list of the goals outlined at the meeting, see the web version of this article.)
Changing policy and changing minds
Many student concerns overlapped with the proposed administrative goals. Many reiterated the need for concrete aims like changing the college’s harassment policy to more effectively serve aggrieved parties.
Several cited the reactionary model of the current policy and their desire to see more proactive measures taken in dealing with harassment and intolerance.
“What I see when I look at the student handbook is a lot of reaction. I’m looking for pro-action,” Senior Kelly Dumais said.
To illustrate the point of pro-action, Senior Valentina Muraleedharan spoke to the need to change even the terminology used in the handbook.
“We should have an anti-harassment policy, an anti-sexual assault policy in addition to the reactive policy measures that currently exist,” she said.
The majority of the conversation at the March 21 meeting, however, focused on the facilitation of intentional discussions not only between those individuals or groups associated with the bias incidents and those injured, but also amongst the wider community.
Several students reported that, as of late, the conversations on campus have been misdirected and polarized due to what is seen as “us” and “them” ways of thinking, which speak to deeper cultural misunderstandings on campus.
Two students at the meeting gave personal illustrations of misdirected conversations they see occurring on campus. According to these students, individuals associated with the bias incidents approached them individually and apologized to them.
The individual apologies, the students said, are an example of how the dialogue has shifted to a reactive rather than productive discourse on cultural education and growth.
Junior Naweed Ahmadzai, who grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan, said these personal apologies appear problematic to him because it speaks to the misconception that only those who “look diverse” are the aggrieved party in situations of cultural insensitivity.
“Singling me out and apologizing to me—or anyone who looks like me—directly almost reinforces the idea that only people who look like me—or are from where I’m from—are automatically associated with terrorism. It reinforces the idea that people from my part of the world are synonymous with terrorism,” Ahmadzai said.
“Terrorists can wear anything, they don’t have to be wearing a turban, they can be from anywhere. I want people to understand that cultural ignorance affects everyone, it’s a problem for our whole community, not just for those who look like the stereotype,” he said.
Junior Shaketta Reliford, who was also approached and apologized to directly, reiterated Ahmadzai’s point.
“To me, what you’re saying inadvertently is ‘only “your” group—only people of color—are affected by these issues.’ People need to know that not only groups of color are those affected by ignorance. This should be, this is, something that everyone should care about and feel compelled to change,” she said.
For Reliford, the misdirection of campus conversations speaks to the urgency of a facilitated dialogue.
“We need to bring people together now [to discuss these issues], because this problem obviously goes deeper than these individual incidents. The longer we wait, the further we move apart. It’s creating an ‘us versus them’ type of environment on campus. If we don’t talk about it, people will keep reacting to their anger or their hurt instead of dealing with it productively,” Reliford said.
VanHecke agrees with the need for larger conversations about the cultural climate on campus and will do whatever she can to facilitate the kind of discussions students like Ahmadzai and Reliford are looking for.
VanHecke explained it is harder to initiate a restorative justice style of conversation in this situation, because the parties involved are harder to identify. Individuals and not organizations perpetrated the incidents, so college-sanctioned dialogue could only apply to the individuals, limiting the farther-reaching dialogue that is needed. Also, those injured by the incidents are a much larger and harder to identify group, making the invitation to such a dialogue potentially exclusive.
Despite the difficulties of creating a facilitated dialogue, VanHecke assured students that she would see it done.
“I can’t force these groups to come to the table, but I will try my hardest,” VanHecke said.
In addition to the more immediate conversations that need to take place, both administrators and students have agreed an ongoing conversation is needed to address the cultural rifts that exist within the community.
“I’m thinking about what kind of dialogues and conversations we can facilitate and engage people with that help us get to a place where we’re not just talking about individual incidents, but we’re talking about bigger, cultural issues on campus,” VanHecke said.
Some of her longer-term goals would respond to the need for these more in-depth conversations.
“I hope that we can find a way within our curriculum to build some of this in with more intentionality. There are so many opportunities to be educated around multicultural competency and social justice issues on this campus and I think it’s really easy for students to choose not to participate in any of that,” VanHecke said.
“How can we get to a place where everyone has to attend, everyone has to participate, everyone has to think about some of these issues? I think that the way to do that is through the curriculum, through graduation requirements, or something along those lines. I’m thinking about how I can partner with faculty to make that happen,” VanHecke said.
In addition to the goals outlined by the Dean of Students Office, various student groups and faculty have begun mobilizing efforts to engage the community in restorative and educational dialogue. Readers should watch for articles on these ongoing efforts in the weeks following Spring Break.