As a racial reckoning remains at the forefront of institutions’ plans across the nation in the aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and several others, Salisbury University stands among those reflecting and searching for a path forward.
Attempting to address the rapidly growing area of concern, the second of five target goals within the SU Strategic Plan for 2020-2025 is dedicated entirely to fostering a more inclusive and supportive campus culture.
Despite disruptions from the pandemic, the first objective of that goal is now well underway, as the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion has regained its independence — as well as a newly established chief diversity officer Joan Williams — and is actively setting initiatives that align with the campus’ hopes for inclusion.
Williams said the effects of coronavirus have forced the office to significantly shift its style of outreach and eliminated her plans to introduce herself as a new member of the university through luncheons and more comfortable social settings.
“The ability to get to know and connect with people face-to-face, the energy that comes from that is dampened [due to the pandemic],” Williams said. “Being able to break bread automatically breaks down any kinds of barriers people have to just talk ... and that was lost.”
The work for inclusion would overcome those obstacles, however, beginning with SU’s new online diversity training.
Meeting another target within the strategic plan calling for “expand[ed] professional development and training programs” for university members, training modules designed by a third-party vendor were sent to all SU employees in December and to students in January.
Each faculty and staff member were sent two mandatory training courses, while supervisors — including deans, vice presidents, directors and others — were sent an additional third module. Students received a mandatory training course unique to the courses taken by employees, as well as a survey to then rate the program.
Williams said she believes the courses will serve as “foundational training” to build upon for employees and that students will benefit from the modules because “employers are looking for candidates with diverse skill set in a global workplace.”
Williams added that her office is working toward a search for a newly created diversity educator position to design curriculum and create a new, more customized online diversity training for SU.
The office anticipates filling the position before August, giving the educator one year to prepare and unveil a new training to launch in Fall 2022. Students still enrolled at SU who took the previous training would not be required to take the new training, only incoming students, Williams said.
Soon after the training was launched, the SU Anti-Racism Summit was held Feb. 5 for over 400 virtual SU attendees.
Speakers at the event included the university’s President Charles Wight, Provost Karen Olmstead and CDO Williams, as well as professors and deans from SU, University of Louisville, Butler University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore and others.
Among the inaugural event’s presenters was Dr. James King, an associate professor of English at SU, who was invited to provide context of the historical and lasting effects of racism in the modern day.
King said that while he believes the event was successful, more priority in the university’s curriculum is necessary for students to truly gain the wealth of knowledge necessary for the modern world regarding inclusion.
“The campus needs to step up and own our responsibility for providing good institutional and curricular leadership in the area of race,” King said. “If we can incorporate that material thoughtfully and appropriately into the curriculum that all kids will engage with, then they are going to come out of this institution with a better understanding of how to be a human being in the 21st century.
“That’s our charge, that’s our responsibility.”
In accordance with another strategic plan objective, the summit’s purpose was to deepen campus conversations related to anti-racism, share strategies for becoming an anti-racist university and propose future actions for change.
“Being a non-racist institution is more of a neutral position, whereas being an anti-racist institution is taking an active role to dismantle and to interrupt [racist practices],” Williams said. “It does not sit in silence.”
Just three days later, an email from SU’s President’s Office was sent to the campus community about its inaugural 21-Day Anti-Racism Challenge to not “lose the momentum” gained by the summit’s success, Williams said.
More than 200 university members who signed up for the challenge went on to receive a 15-minute-or-less assignment — from TED Talks to podcasts to reflections — every weekday through the 21-day period.
The assignments covered topics such as intersections of power, visibility, bias, allyship and accountability, which are all available here for those who did not participate for use.
Williams said the challenge replicated an idea originally developed by Dr. Eddie Moore, who said it takes 21 consecutive days of performing a behavior to form a habit, which the CDO viewed as a pivotal first step toward inclusion.
“[Participants] were able to do it in the privacy of their own space and reflect on the topics, and I think that’s powerful [because] that then moves you into the next space to be able to talk about these things,” Williams said.
The office is now planning an open forum for the campus community in the coming weeks to discuss the experiences of the challenge and discuss how the university may proceed, though an official date has yet to be set.
An open forum would meet the requirements of a separate strategic plan objective, which calls to “[e]nhance communication in real time … on strategic issues through regular and multi-channel mechanisms that reach the entire campus.”
Other initiatives in the works include SU’s Multicultural Festival, Safe Spaces Workshop and 2021 President’s Diversity and Inclusion Awards, with nomination forms available here.
All SU’s academic schools and colleges also now have their own diversity committees for strategic planning toward the university’s diversity goals.
Williams believes there has been great engagement across university members during her brief tenure at SU and that “seeing the passion of grassroots efforts on this campus has been very encouraging.”
By JAKOB TODD
Featured image courtesy of Salisbury University Public Relations Office.