One thing is clear: the packed ASOC-sponsored forum in Choi Auditorium on Thursday, Feb 27, reiterated the need for an Office of Diversity and Equity led by a Vice President or Chief Diversity Officer. The discussion can be organized in terms of several themes: a lack of coordination; a lack of response to serious allegations; and a lack of expertise. Organizing the evidence from the meeting in this way reiterates that the problem at hand is not a question of individual goodwill across scattered offices. It is a question of effective structuring to ensure that a team of employees will devote all of their energy solely to ensuring that excellence and equity are sustained campus-wide.
The town hall consisted of students, faculty, and several panelists, including the Dean of Students/VP for Student Life, Dean of the College/VP for Academic Affairs , the VP for Admissions and Financial Aid, the Associate-VP for Scholarship Technology, and the Associate-VP for Strategic Initiatives. Although several administrators stated how frequently they consider diversity and they offered isolated instances of how they each try to address diversity, they showed no evidence of working in coordination to enact a shared vision.They showed no evidence of how they hold each other accountable to bring this shared vision to fruition. In this town hall meeting the VPs could have illustrated their progress on actualizing their Action Plan sent to the Oxy community on December 5, 2013. However, none of the VPs even mentioned their own plan. Whether this is based on the fact that these VPs lack the expertise to carry out such an agenda, or their counter to CODE’s plan was merely a stalling tactic, or any other reason, it would be problematic to assume that we must simply give the VPs plan more time when they are clearly not attempting to implement their own plan and perhaps forgot they even created one. The VPs must now explain why they set aside Code’s 29 Action Items for a counter-plan that they have abandoned less than 3 months after making it public. More importantly, the VPs must address CODE’s Action Items.
Most significantly, the panelists literally ignored several troubling claims from students about the administration’s lack of transparency, “culture of intimidation” and problematic concept of “risk,” which treats students of color, LGBTQ students, religious minorities, first-generation students, students from working class backgrounds, and survivors of sexual assault as liabilities. The examples that follow can be added to a long list of examples where lack of transparency amongst administrators directly and negatively impacts students’ living and learning experiences. For example, students of color found out at the forum that their applications to become residents in Pauley Hall were thwarted by hidden criteria. As a result of these hidden criteria, students who wanted to live in Pauley were not accepted into the dorm. Meanwhile, students uninterested in the dorm’s multi-cultural theme and did not even apply were allowed to move in. The administrators directly responsible for Residential Life who were in the room did not explain why they imposed additional criteria without notifying students. Many students who value the dorm’s long legacy concluded that, regardless of intentions, this undermines Pauley’s mission and worsens their living experience on campus.
In regards to a culture of intimidation and risk management, students noted how often campus security watches Pauley Hall despite the illegal activities occurring in other dorms not associated with students of color. Administrators did not deny this observation or offer an answer. Another student asked why student workers are threatened or fired from campus jobs for joining campus causes when Oxy claims to value social justice. The administration did not deny or address this claim either.
Students also asked the VPs how they will hold accountable students targeting and harassing first-generation students, LGBTQ students, and students of color. Although one administrator in the audience offered a mentorship program to LGBTQ students, other voices reiterated the original question: why are students who target their peers not being held accountable and when will accountability be put in place? The total lack of a response indicates, regardless of goodwill, there will be no accountability for students mistreating their peers based on racial, gender, sexual, class, or other differences.
Two points remain. The penultimate one concerns a lack of expertise among the administrators. It was quite telling that students’ comments and questions demonstrated deeper understanding of the structural and institutional bases for their experiences than the institutional leaders who attempted to respond. Attending conferences alone will not give the current VPs the proper training to handle these efforts around diversity. Yet none of the panelists said they’ve pursued extensive training to learn about and implement a model of inclusive excellence. They showed no evidence of consulting with peer institutions. Some of the panelists appeared to think goodwill alone overcomes this hurdle. Instead, this fostered confusion, with administrators answering questions outside their purview yet dodging questions within their purview. Some students wondered why an administrator who has already received a vote of no confidence is at the helm of this diversity initiative. It is time to state the obvious: goodwill, though welcomed, is not a substitute for expertise.
In conclusion, the selective way in which the word “civil” is used to manage campus debate is disturbing. Mistreated and even traumatized students are being asked to be civil, which basically means they should keep silent, as if they are threats to the campus. Historically, such calls for civility are most commonly deployed against groups speaking from structurally disempowered positions, to keep those groups from having more of a say in the institutions they inhabit. It is disturbing that members of the Oxy community would use such language to discipline students who are demanding genuine dedication to diversity and equity. But the call for civility rarely goes both ways. Considering that Oxy administrators rejected CODE’s Action Items that would yield immediate results; that administrators created their own counter-plan only to shelve and forget about it within three months; that administrators at the assembly ignored the students’ most pressing questions; that administrators have thwarted students’ searches for safe campus spaces; that the administrators did not deny nor address allegations of administrative surveillance, intimidation, and retaliation against students; and, lastly, that Oxy administrators offered no accountability plan for students who mistreat their peers—Considering all this, demanding civility from protesting students without holding other students accountable for victimizing their peers reveals a confusion of priorities and just how far the rhetoric of civility gets us: nowhere.
This is not about being “civil” or “uncivil.” This is about transforming Oxy’s rhetoric into reality. It is clear now that there is no alternative plan. All that is left to do is to implement CODE’s 29 Action Items because they are a first step to ensure the welfare of Oxy’s student body, faculty, and administrators.