Commission on Diversity holds retreat

The President's Commission on Diversity and Equity held a two-day retreat at Sweet Briar College over the fall reading holiday to make plans to help address diversity issues at the University.

The commission, co-chaired by Angela Davis, associate dean of students for student life, and Politics Prof. Michael J. Smith, was formed last spring to assess the quality of the student experience within the University with special attention to the experiences of women and minorities.

The retreat began with presentations from ex-officio members of the commission including College Dean Edward L. Ayers, University Vice President and Provost Gene Block and Vice President for Student Affairs Pat Lampkin. The presentations were intended to help the Commission's members gain a unified picture of the University's current diversity climate as well as to present best practices models from other colleges and universities.

The 25-member commission then split into four working groups: Student life and climate, faculty and staff recruitment and retention, curriculum and community and business models.

The student life and climate working group will investigate strategies for creating a welcoming environment for a diverse student body and will look to other colleges and universities to find "best practices" models for recruiting and retaining undergraduate and graduate students.

Faculty and staff recruitment and retention will try to find ways to increase the University's female and minority faculty and staff population and will research retention strategies for current faculty and staff.

The curriculum committee will look into incorporating diversity training into academics whether via classroom-based diversity training or the Internet.

Despite criticism of a proposed online diversity training system, Both Davis and Smith said the Commission's talks had not been dominated by discussion of the pros and cons of an online system.

"The committee that is looking at curriculum is considering an online instrument as one of many options that would involve the curriculum," Smith said. "It didn't have any special status as one of the many possibilities that was discussed."

Other examples of proposed curriculum changes include a broader range of course offerings addressing diversity issues.

The Commission will not rule out the possibility of instituting an online system because of controversy at this time, Davis said.

"We're not being reactionary," Davis said. "We're trying to look at all the possible ways to diversify curriculum."

Curriculum diversity is necessary for a university "to provide students with a better skill set for negotiating the world," she said.

Community and business models will look at the attempts of businesses and community groups to encourage diversity within their organizations and communities and will research adopting successful practices at the University.

Members of the four working groups will continue to work independently with a second full-commission retreat planned for mid-January. The commission will make a report to the Board of Visitors and University President John T. Casteen, III at the beginning of spring semester.

Now that the working groups have a more coherent sense of their individual missions, the next few months should be busy, Smith said.

"We would like to see progress from all the working groups on their issue areas and some systematic plan for wider engagement for the broader University community" by the second retreat, Smith said.

At that retreat, the commission will try to "get our hands around the shape of the whole problem," Smith said. "At this point we're still figuring out the scope of the problem."

Published October 23, 2003 in News

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