Conversations about diversity and inclusiveness sparked

Ariana Ortiz, Assistant News Editor

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The annual Cultural Roundtable, held by the President’s Multicultural Advisory Committee (PMAC), took place last Thursday, Dec. 1 during common hour in the Sodano Coffeehouse.

According to the University’s official website, PMAC is “an advisory group to the President of the University that addresses both the broad issues of multiculturalism in higher education and the specific multicultural needs of our St. John’s University community. One of its functions is to provide recommendations that will help the University better serve its increasingly diverse population.”

All PMAC meetings are open to the University community, according to the University’s website.

The one and a half-hour discussion drew in about 27 participants and provided a platform for student leaders and members of the St. John’s community at large to discuss cultural concerns on campus. It also served to encourage communication and collaboration between different organizations.

Among those who attended were student leaders from organizations such as Haraya, Spectrum, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Student Government Inc., the Diversity Peer Education Program as well as those involved with PMAC itself.

PMAC was established in 1990 and is co-chaired by Dr. Kathryn Hutchinson, who also serves as vice president for Student Affairs, and Dr. André McKenzie, vice provost for Academic Support Services and Faculty Development. According to McKenzie, there are currently 36 members of PMAC including students, faculty and administrators.

“The primary purpose of [PMAC] is to serve in an advisory capacity to the University President on issues of diversity and multiculturalism,” McKenzie said in an email exchange with the Torch. “Such issues have included the demographic makeup and diversity of SJU’s students and its employees, multicultural content in course and curricular offerings, and monitoring campus climate to ensure a welcoming environment for all.”

According to McKenzie, the Roundtable discussions sponsored by PMAC are held once every semester on both the Queens and Staten Island campuses.

In his opening remarks, McKenzie stated that while SJU ranks as the second most diverse campus in the country, inclusivity is also a vital characteristic for the University to improve on.

“We don’t want to just be diverse, but inclusive,” McKenzie said.

In an effort to come up with ways to make the campus more inclusive, attendees were split into groups and asked to brainstorm. The Torch reporter present at the meeting was placed into one of these groups, and identified herself to everyone in her group.

Some of the questions were: “How can we create an atmosphere that ensures our University is an inclusive environment not just a diverse one?” and “As an institution of higher education, how do we work together to increase awareness regarding diversity and enhancing sensitivity to our multicultural student population?”

After conversing with each other, each group presented their suggestions to improve overall cultural fluency at the University.

Student leaders proposed alternative education methods to create a more welcoming environment for students of all backgrounds. Among these suggestions were making classes available for each major plan which would introduce students to the diverse identities they may encounter on campus.

Student leaders expressed the need for conversations about inclusivity to take place within the University’s administrative body. They noted that while student action is important, administrative support is equally vital for systemic change to occur.

“Students can’t solve the problem of inclusivity here all by themselves. The administration must play a role too. One of a few administrative issues discussed at PMAC was that the retention rate for professors and other administrators of color is low. When some administrators or professors of color come in to the St. John’s community, they don’t stay for long,” Claire Robinson, sophomore and Diversity Peer Educator, said about the meeting.

They also voiced concerns about the long wait list for an appointment at the campus counseling center and the need for increased communication between students and administration. Many also had questions about the retention rates of culturally fluent faculty members and faculty members of color, and said that these individuals should be welcomed into being a part of the administrative conversation about diversity.

“Students of color have begun to notice a pattern. When those professors leave, students know they’ve lost one of the few people here that can understand and respond to the social, economic, racial, and ethnic issues they face in this world.” Robinson said.

“What the higher administration can do to keep these qualified administrators and teachers is make them the leaders of regular discussion with other faculty and staff about the status of a changing and turbulent world that affect the diverse students that walk into SJU classrooms every day. When you appreciate someone, they stay. When you don’t, they leave. It’s up to the higher administration to keep professors that deeply understand minority students in the loop.” she continued.

In addition, they noted that the lack of functionality of the OrgSync website is an obstacle in communication between organizations, and proposed the creation of student leader retreats meant to facilitate cooperation.

One common idea among participants was mandatory diversity and sensitivity training for faculty. Student leaders added that to improve overall inclusivity on campus, a faculty that is culturally well-versed and sensitive to the needs and experiences of its students is vital.

McKenzie addressed the concept of compulsory sensitivity training in his closing statements, stating that this was not a realistic demand because of the collective bargaining agreement of the University’s faculty, which is unionized. While he acknowledged that it is frustrating as a chair of PMAC to hear concerns from students that are connected to faculty members, he urged students to have “realistic expectations” about what they were expressing, and said that in the University’s current system there are “other resources and supports” offered to train faculty members that wish to attend those sessions.

“I just believe that the university shouldn’t hire faculty unwilling to take a diversity training, because that says something about their character. Why would someone even refuse that?” Precious Watts, a student coordinator for Diversity Peer Educators, said in an interview with the Torch which took place after the roundtable. Watts, an attendee of the discussion, also vocalized her support for administration transparency and statistics detailing diversity on campus being readily available for students.

“There’s a lot of talk, but no action. Last spring we discussed a different version of the same question from the last PMAC meeting. A lot of the same suggestions were brought up to administration, but no follow through almost a year later.” Watts added. “I’m not sure if they think they are making a real difference by facilitating these meetings or if they hold these meetings to let students think that they are. I’m starting to think it’s the latter considering I’m about to graduate and have been advocating for an inclusive university since my sophomore year.”

In her closing remarks, Hutchinson referred to the event as a “robust discussion” and thanked the participants for their ideas.

“I also hear there’s some work for faculty [and administrators] to do, but also I hear some of you saying, ‘As students, we need to do this,’” Hutchinson said. “And I don’t want today to just be a nice conversation that we had, and you threw some ideas that Dr. McKenzie and I will go back and think about and see how we can further somehow. It’s also, how are we going to have all of you do it, too. Because I think as a community, the only way that it’s going to get done is if we do it together, and that we continue that conversation.”

“The primary purpose of [PMAC] is to serve in an advisory capacity to the University President on issues of diversity and multiculturalism,” McKenzie said in an email exchange with the Torch. “Such issues have included the demographic makeup and diversity of SJU’s students and its employees, multicultural content in course and curricular offerings, and monitoring campus climate to ensure a welcoming environment for all.”

According to McKenzie, the Roundtable discussions sponsored by PMAC are held once every semester on both the Queens and Staten Island campuses.

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