Introduction: Among the feedback I received for my last piece, “A Case Against a Chief Diversity Officer,” I was asked to propose a better system for institutional inclusion and excellence. I now present my proposal in the form of a narrative fable. The following is hypothetical, and while some source material is used (and cited), the following is a work of fiction – all named parties did not say or do anything of what you will soon read…
“Call Sharon, we’re going to need her for this!” exclaimed Alice as she bid farewell to Bradley and the children. It was time – for Lehigh’s own “Gang of 8” to meet and discuss the future of the university, using Asa Packer’s top secret pensive to see into the future. The team – composed of President Alice Gast, Provost Pat Farrell, Development head Joe Kender, deans Meltzer, Brown and Wu (of the Arts & Sciences, Business & Economics and Engineering & Applied Science colleges, respectively), Vice Provost John Smeaton and Dean of Students Sharon Basso – met every other semester to discuss the future of Lehigh, aloof of the trustees, faculty and students.
Alice strode past the creepy painted woodshed in the grove on the hill by ATO, where a sculpture garden once stood – here was where the Gang of 8 met. Standing over the pensive, Alice ceremonially plunged her head into the cauldron. John Smeaton blew pixie dust into the air while the 7 circled Alice and the pensive, slowly chanting “Chronicle… Chronicle” in reference to their sacred text, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Sparks leapt gracelessly out of the pot – Smeaton stepped back, to avoid his robe catching spark. “Chronicle… Chronicle…” The chanting grew louder… stronger…. Suddenly, a blast of purple fog emitted from Smeaton’s mouth as he cocked his head back, shaking violently. Figures from Lehigh’s past, present and future flew out of the opening and around the grove in a frenzy – Joe Kender dove out of the way to avoid being struck by class of 2009 President Scott Wojciechowski. The infamous words of W. Deming Lewis’ 1974 Presidential Address echoed in tremolo. “…and I think we are an elite university…”
. . .“Ben, let’s go!” We were late – later than usual, in fact, for this week’s Patriot meeting. Among the agenda items, a summary review of the new diversity infrastructure implemented by the administration. Radical changes had taken place – the resource rooms disappeared, with their respective groups changing over to Senate-recognized, student-run organizations. Some resource room heads were re-used in the restructuring; others left or were asked to leave. These were considerable changes, and the Patriot had to comment. Ben jumped down the stairs, skipping every other one while avoiding the remnants of one of his “extracurricular meetings” from the night before.
“So what’s our angle?” I asked. “I really see this being one of the few things we can stand behind – the problem is, there’s so much misinformation out there. If I have to walk through one more protest… I swear…” Ben cut me off – “…I’m sick of it, too, but what else can they do? They think they’re crippled without their resource leads – they’re like a computer who lost its hard drive, they can just beep and stop functioning.” “i.e. protest and boycott class…” I followed. I held the door for Ben as we found our usual meeting space in Packard. Ben set up the projector, bringing up coverage from The Brown & White, while I found a chair. “Don’t forget to bring up the org chart!” I reminded him.
As the meeting began, Ben opened by reading one of President Gast’s legendary staged emails. “Lehigh has traditionally been a place for new beginnings,” the letter began. “I recognize that we have been in a state of limbo since the restructuring, so let me make myself perfectly clear. We are working to gain neither national attention nor recognition, though such has come upon us as an aside. We are working to create an individual environment – one school, many voices. Each of you may now stand for something, be it social change or self-liberation. We come to college to find ourselves, but we must now leave college having found one another. I believe that Lehigh has taken the necessary steps to start not one but many dialogues. Our new model of centralized diversity leadership, working groups and student leadership for special interests will allow Lehigh to lead the way for 21st century diversity excellence.”
“Strong stuff. Now – as Trevor asked me on the way over – what’s our angle, team?” said Ben. Managing Editor Brandon Sherman, ’10 was the first to speak – “I’d like to cover how students are doing, now that the resource leaders and dedicated spaces for The Women’s Center, LGBTQIA Services and the M-Room, to name just a few, are gone.” I broke in next, “I can follow Brandon’s piece with a discussion about how the ‘victim’s row’ hall on the second floor of the UC is being converted into an extension of The Dialogue Center. Also – does anyone know what they did with the old Rainbow Room?” Associate Editor Matt Keim, ’12 chimed in, “It’s VP for Equity Henry Odi’s office. He picked it because of its high visibility, and the fact that it’s location encourages students to pop in and start a conversation.”
“What about staff? Who’s still in? Who’s gone?” I asked. “Since Matt broached the topic of the VPEC position, let’s see an assessment of the renewed org chart.” Ben brought up the chart. “Looks like Ja’mel Hodges is still here – his position is ‘Deputy to the VPEC: Dialogue Captain.’ What’s that?” “I think they basically gave him a new title as a glorified conversation starter. He’s a good moderator and he breaks the ice really quickly – I’m sure as long as he doesn’t expand the speech codes we’ll be fine,” I added. “Wait… which one of the Women’s Center directors was moved to work over at the Health Center as a special liaison for sexual violence prevention?” I asked. The organization chart didn’t have a name next to the block yet; the Patriot staff settled on the conclusion that we weren’t through the woods yet with the death of red tape. “Someone make sure we get that name before we go to print,” Ben added.
“Did anything happen to the outreach for the Rainbow Room? Who’s doing Safe Zone now?” asked Associate Editor Alyssa Gerety, ’13. “Alyssa, I think it’s also under the new Health Center liaison. They decided to decouple the politics from most of the outreach from all of the resource rooms, and most of the sexual health stuff went over to be a part of Dr. Kitei’s team.” I noted. “Incidentally, Brandon, did you interview any of the protestors yet?” Before he could speak, Ben cut both of us off. “Wait a sec, I forgot to scroll down on the Gast Press Release – looks like she addresses the protestors here. Let me read what it says.”
“We must reinforce the idea that diversity means everyone. To this end, the abolition of certain resource rooms as fixed institutions on this campus will allow the natural progression of free markets to enter the conversation. The new Women’s League organization, ALGBTQIAS [Association of LGBTQIA Students] and incorporation of certain legacy M-room events into the Black Student Union, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and other existing diversity and activism groups led by student on campus will allow you, the students of Lehigh to have a say in the course of events as we move forward.
To address the civil unrest that has occupied the front lawn of the UC for the past two weeks, I ask you – put down your signs, stop raising your voices, and listen. Your ideas, your concerns – these are the fruits of a great discussion and a healthy dialogue. Reserve a room in the new conference area of the UC and host a brown-bag discussion. Write an editorial to one of our campus newspapers.”
“I guess some things never changed,” chuckled Ben as he editorialized by adding in his best Gast voice, “Just get off my damn lawn – it’s almost candidates weekend, and we need our plants and trees to look picture perfect. Brickman needs to mulch soon…” The room laughed, but I had to break the mood, “Wait – Ben, this org chart… there’s a lot of stuff missing here. It looks like some things got absorbed into Office of Special Projects, but almost everything under Dean Allison Gulati is gone, except the Clubs & Orgs people who help Senate manage the 140+ student-led organizations on campus. In fact – I can’t even see Gulati’s name – where did she go?” Ben smiled, “I knew you’d notice that. Check this.” Ben brought up a copy of The Brown & White’s Crime Report, where it noted that, “…a female employee was escorted off campus recently for behavior that served no purpose.”
“I heard about that!” interjected staff writer Will Thode, ’12. “She was in Upper, screaming at the workmen who were dismantling the old ‘victim’s hall,’ saying ‘you’re tearing this community apart!’ over and over. It was nuts. I think they towed her car.” The staff roared with laugher, as Ben logged off the room’s computer. “You know,” I started, “we all know that I was the last possible person you might think would’ve supported some flavor of a Chief Diversity Officer on this campus. But the fact is, Lehigh’s made a clear commitment to demonstrating that diversity really means everyone – a point I’ve been making for…” Light laughter. “…well, forever. They’ve trimmed the fat, cut back on staffers, opened a hall for universal student use and I think made a great step in starting some penetrating conversations on this campus. Plus, if anyone should be VPEC, Odi’s clearly the best choice. And – we didn’t hire anyone new! I mean, that’s the best thing of all… this is a cost-neutral move that signifies both economically and symbolically that the school really is committed to open discussion. And while the media spotlights us for ditching the resource room leads who were let go rather than focusing on the big picture, the fact is, those leads were diluting the conversation. By speaking on behalf of their representative groups, they were like lawyers who tipped the scales in favor of one point of view over another – a situation that’s historically divided Lehigh more than it has united us. It’s like, if MSNBC and Fox ditched the pundits and let the people think for themselves…”
“Hold on now, Trevor,” said Brandon. “I have one more question – these leads tackled issues as they arose. That is, if Lehigh experienced a hate crime today…” I cut him off. “Brandon, you know I don’t believe in hate crimes, and…” Brandon retorted, “…regardless, say a situation arises where one of these special interest groups experiences a rash of, say, vandalism with their posters.” I replied, “This would be a situation for both the VPEC to handle in conjunction with a temporary ‘working group’ – a cohort composed of faculty, students and administrators who represent a fair cross section of Lehigh to assess what steps should be taken. Why retain these resource rooms for a situation that arises perhaps once, if ever in the course of a year? It’s much more action-oriented to form a committee – which I note would loose the bias that the resource room head would have. I’ll counter your example, Brandon – say there was an incident where a transgendered person was harassed in a bathroom. Now, no one here would ever defend harassment, but look at the situation closer… what would harassment constitute? The LGBTQIA head now might insinuate that you have the right to enter a gender-segregated bathroom of your choice based on ‘how you feel that day.’ This is radical, in my humble opinion, but more so, it’s a dimensioned issue that impacts both the transgendered community and the heteronormative community. Just like that individual doesn’t have the right to be harassed, I don’t either – and I find that someone of the wrong gender in my bathroom is sexual harassment. In short – it’s a highly faceted issue that deserves a full evaluation. That’s something a resource head could never provide.
But with the working groups,” I continued, “Lehigh has the opportunity to bring all respective angles to the table to have a conversation. That moves us more forward than any complaint-based system, or worse – the risk that a resource lead would demand some kind of skewed solidarity for their interest. After all – remember what we talked about the incentives? They spend their time evaluating the issues that plague the communities they claim to support. It’s like, I go to CPAC every year – a conservative convention. If I spent my whole life listening to people who speak at just CPAC, I’d only get one side of the story. I’d see the world as a very scary place, and fail to realize the breath of what’s around me. But these leads, they are very much in-tuned with the special interests they defend. And because of this, they are the last people who should be in a position to lead a ‘crisis’-based response to any issues that arise on campus.”
I was on a roll. I couldn’t stop now. “Finally – and this is back with the incentives – what resource lead will ever step down? This whole thing, it’s about money and power. Money and power entrench their necessity more than anything else. Do you think that there would be a day when one of these leads walked out of their office, handed a letter of resignation in and said ‘I’m no longer needed here’? No! Their ‘research’ will always lead them back to the conclusion that the world is out to get them and their constituents, and being that their job is essentially to carry out this research in addition to tending to student programs and directives, and occasionally teach – frankly, when you couple in the highly political nature of their work, I feared that they’d never go away.
Remember what we said about dialogue. Simply telling students that their views are antiquated and oppressive – that just breeds internalized resentment, and that’s the favorite tactic of these resource rooms. I always feared that my children would someday go to college, and in their first day or two, they’d have to undergo some kind of ‘sensitivity training,’ where they learned that – perhaps unintentionally, they were consistently offending and oppressing individuals. Now, at Lehigh, the fist thing students are told at orientation is that..” Ben cut me off. “Wait, Trevor, I’ll pull up the document…” Ben was referring to Lehigh’s new Diversity in Discussion pledge. “Here it is, I’ll read it.
We the students commit that as members of this university, we challenge ourselves to never close our minds to an idea. Ideas are the basis of humanity’s finest hours – ideas may be challenged, loved or hated, but they must never be quashed, quieted or censored. As such, we understand that college is about the free and open exchange of ideas. Some may be more comfortable to us than others. We understand that discomfort from an idea does not constitute harassment. We further acknowledge that the root of ideas is a dialogue. Dialogue demonstrates to us as individuals which ideas will stand the tests of time, and which shall fall. No one student, professor or administrator has the right to destroy an idea, be it at birth or gestation. Lehigh has committed itself to this through our office of Equity in Community, a permanent cabinet-level position whose role is to start and moderate conversations – not to control the flow of dialogue (and ideas), but rather, to challenge and maintain order.”
“Ah, words to live by, eh Ben?” I asked, calmer now. “I’ll be curious to see how this all holds up nationally – the VPEC report itself stated that we are moving towards a new epoch in diversity, and I believe it. We are the children of the first generation, and we have been raised under radically different standards than those who necessitated the resource rooms in their early years. Now, we can proudly say that we’ve moved past this piecemeal approach, tackling the challenge of diversity in education with a holistic, singular vision dedicated to dialogue and the free and open exchange of ideas. Sounds rather Platonic, doesn’t it, Ben?”
…Lifting her head from the pensive, Alice stepped back. The Gang of 8 cracked their fingers and necks, and chatted quietly amongst themselves for a moment before Alice broke the murmur. “I think we all know what needs to be done. I’ll call a meeting with the board – we’ve got work to do!”