Letter to the Editor: Priya Jha Responds to Forum on Diversity and Inclusion

My friend and colleague, living and teaching in Portland, Oregon, in a recent, similar forum, said that ‘most of our failures, whether in politics or in education stem from our failure to imagine. .. failure to imagine policies and failure to imagine implementation of policies.” She may be hundreds of miles away but she could speaking about our campus. Not unlike universities and colleges across the nation, we face uphill battles when it comes to our collective fights for equity and addressing issues of diversity, in our students and in our faculty and staff. For us, our shared experience of being framed by difference renders us racially visible but politically invisible. In recent days, on events on campus, especially the forum on race and diversity organized by the President’s Office, over 600 students, faculty and staff, administrators, members of the Board of Trustees, and our larger community came to listen, to learn and to offer support to our students of color. Their pain-ridden and sometimes angry statements on feeling disconnected and alienated; of the gaps in the curriculum that (can) reflect the chasm between their expectations of the college experience and their actual experiences – in classrooms and topics that remain absent in the curriculum; in their daily interactions with peers, and social events; and, feeling like they had been sold a bill of goods when it came to the admissions process reverberated throughout the Orton Center and changed the way many of us will move through the hallways, the buildings, and the streets and, also, teach and learn.

Twenty years ago, when I was a graduate student working on transnational black studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder, frustrated undergraduate students of color held sit-ins at the President’s Office until the Administration funded courses in South Asian-American studies, and added more courses in Chicano/a studies and African-American studies. It is striking to me that the issues that were so relevant to so many of us as students back then are just as relevant to us today, as faculty. Right now, I am a faculty member who is deeply concerned with the disproportionate form of representation within faculty constituencies and with how we bring diversity-related work to our academic curriculum, as well as the ways in which Universities are lacking in the ways they attend to the working lives of faculty of color, and of faculty women of color.

While the number of students of color has increased – 47% of the first-year student body is comprised of students of color – the numbers of faculty of color are at least at a standstill, if not reversed. In the College of Arts’ and Sciences, where I live, we have 187 full-time faculty members, according to the University website and, only 23 – I was able to identify by going through the most recent University phone directory – are faculty of color. In other words, faculty of color make up only 12% of the overall faculty body in the College! When thirty faculty members across the University were “let go” during the economic downturn purge in 2010, we were dealt a severe blow to the hard work that many folks working on diversifying the faculty body had already done. Most notably in the College, we lost two faculty members who were hired in Chicano/a studies. It is incumbent upon us to not let these losses fall into a morass of institutional amnesia where the vicissitudes of the budget become the determining factor towards the diversification of our faculty.  We must continue to demand that the College of Arts and Sciences work with relevant units on campus to hire someone in Chicano/a studies, a glaring gap in our curriculum. The second is to initiate programmatic efforts to increase the hiring of faculty of color across the University campus, from tenure-track, instructor, and Visiting Professorships to help to build back what we lost in those budget cuts, rather than adding to an overworked and underpaid adjunct pool. Moreover, we must attend to the retention of such faculty through careful mentoring and recognition of some of the unique challenges that faculty of color face.

President Kuncl, in his memo to the University community last week said that a Council of Diversity would be convened. This is a step in the right direction. But, the work of the council must be supported by academic, student life units and administration across all the colleges. We must ensure that the discrete and arbitrary boundaries that divide student life and academic life must be torn down through some sort of mechanism which will link these two entities, so that we can trace diversity in its multiple iterations in our intellectual and personal lives.

These issues cannot be resolved with meetings, or posters that ask us to celebrate diversity, or by displaying black and brown bodies on public relations documents and the University website. Some of us were born here and some in other countries; we span different generations, languages, and cultural contexts, but we all share some common predicaments: issues of isolation, lack of mentoring, micro-aggressions and racism from peers, colleagues and some administrators, most of whom are often “well-meaning.” We are not here for the University to check off its diversity boxes, we are not native informants; some of us teach but we are all here to learn., Langston Hughes asked “What happens to a dream deferred?” / …  Maybe it jut sags / like a heavy load? / Or does it explode?” – this was in 1951! The sentiments of the poet penning these words in the wake of the Civil Rights movement  are not so far removed from us today. The same germ of an idea put forth well over half a century ago, started people thinking in new directions and we find ourselves circling back. That we have moved forward since Hughes’ time is true; but now is the time to move from a crawl to a sprint, to keep the momentum going and repeatedly and publicly advocating for positive change. We must continue the conversations we have begun on our campus and hold the administration accountable for the promises that will be forthcoming. In addition to supporting student ideas and the list of demands on which they are working, we must also demand that the administration be as proactive and transparent about its owns ideas and policies. By sending out a University-wide memo and convening the Forum last Wednesday, President Kuncl has shown good faith and he did as he promised: that he is listening and that he does want to understand, respond, and come up with novel ideas on how to move forward together. Removing presidential portraits from the “white wall” of the third-floor of the Administration Building so quickly after student requests shows us how serious the administration is in working with constituencies across campus. We must respond in like by holding ourselves accountable to keeping the promises we make: to have those difficult conversations we must in both public and private spaces so that we can move beyond imagination and its multiple failures. All of us must work together to realize a community that integrates diversity-related work not in select classes or through select faculty members or the work done in CDI, but in all aspects of our daily lives, inside and outside the University.

After all that has happened on our campus during the past two weeks, evidence is showing that this University community is something which I could be proud of, again. I look forward to the next steps we will all take together.

Priya Jha

Associate Professor, English


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