Miles to Go: Toward an Equitable, Inclusive Campus Learning Experience

In recent weeks, three separate events embedded in a much broader historical context have brought to light the need for greater attention and resources devoted to shaping our campus climate and continuing to foster a  community that is safe and inclusive for all.

First, during the weekend of Feb 21-22, an anti-Semitic comment was posted anonymously to a social media site similar to ones aimed at colleges and universities nationwide on which anonymous posters post all sorts of hate-filled speech. K has no control over what is posted there, and the post in question may well have originated with someone unassociated with K. The content of the entry, however, was antithetical to Kalamazoo College and to its Honor System. Moreover, members of the K campus community suffered unnecessarily as a result of this attack. K President Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran urged the entire campus community to stand in solidarity by rejecting this action and any action that dehumanizes members of our community.

Second, at the February 23 Student Commission meeting, a K student asked StuComm to support his effort to allow him and others to carry a concealed weapon on campus, part of a national campaign for concealed carry on college campuses. StuComm declined to support his effort. Some Commissioners have reported that the student visibly displayed an empty gun holster and made threats to individuals and/or groups. The meeting made some students feel unsafe. The following day, students expressed these safety concerns via a social media campaign and directly to College administrators and trustees. The student advocating for the concealed-carry measure cooperated with a search of his residence hall room and vehicle. No weapon was found. The Campus Security Director performed a threat assessment, and determined that this individual did not pose a threat to the community or individuals on campus.

Weapons are not, and will not be, allowed on campus.

No weapon was involved in any of the events of the past two weeks.  The wearing and showing of an empty holster is not against the law or the Kalamazoo College code of conduct. Nor does the action in and of itself constitute bullying and harassment. Nevertheless, we know that some felt bullied or harassed. That concerns us deeply.

The third event occurred last week (March 3) when College officials were informed that a highly inflammatory entry had been placed in a Student Commission Google Doc, a document repository hosted on Google servers which allows for anonymous group editing and sharing online. The entry was racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, and homophobic. It also contained a direct threat for March 5 aimed at “faculty at Kalamazoo U, that will teach them the value of campus carry.”

The College and the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS) consider the inflammatory entry a hate crime, and KDPS is investigating it as such. Police investigators have also enlisted the FBI‘s support in the matter. Investigators are seeking to determine the identity of the source of the anonymous entry; the likelihood of such an identification not known.

Kalamazoo College and KDPS take all threats seriously. The initial assessment of KDPS was that the threat was not credible and was unlikely to be acted upon. However, patrols by campus security and Kalamazoo police officers were increased around and on campus, including plain clothes officers, on March 5. As police officials expected, no incident of violence occurred on campus that day. Nevertheless, the matter was and is unnerving for many people, and we are taking precautions and measures to address the concerns of those who feel uneasy. Being safe and feeling safe are two different things. Both are important, particularly for students of color, international students, first-generation students, and students from low income families who have traditionally been underrepresented and underserved at K and by higher education generally.

These recent events have generated new conversations, renewed previous discussions, and sparked protests on the subjects of safety and institutional progress toward a learning environment that is equitable inclusive for all students.  The conversations, discussions and protests have involved students, faculty, staff, President Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran and other senior administrators, and the Board of Trustees. On the matter of an equitable and inclusive learning environment for students traditionally underrepresented and underserved by K and in higher education generally, the College has made some progress and still has further to go. Progress in and of itself is not our end goal. Instead the achievement of an equitable and inclusive learning environment is the end goal.

Toward that end we have dramatically changed our representational diversity. We have increased our percentage of domestic students of color and international students, becoming the most racially diverse school in the Great Lakes Colleges Association, which includes Hope, Oberlin, Kenyon, Wooster and eight other small top colleges.. We need to do more. We have trained more than half of our faculty and staff (and some students) using the VISIONS, Inc., multicultural training and ERAC/CE anti-racism training. This training is ongoing; we need to evaluate its effectiveness and expand it. We have listened to the campus experience of our students of color and from that focus group work we must continue discussions and develop or refine recommendations that will eliminate or change institutional practices and structures that inhibit an equitable and inclusive learning environment. A recent result of this ongoing effort was the creation last quarter of the “Sense of Belonging” Task Force charged to make specific recommendations to achieve that learning environment. We have recently secured a grant from the Mellon Foundation that will allow us to hire additional staff in student development and to reconfigure our intercultural work there. We’ve also approved a new major in Critical Ethnic Studies, and have secured an endowed gift to support a faculty line in this area. The Mellon Foundation Grant will also be used for faculty development and further curriculum development on behalf of educational practices and a learning environment that is equitable and inclusive.

In regard to that goal the events of the past weeks have allowed us to take a critical look at our roles, and in doing so the duress and struggle associated with our discussions and self-criticism are signs of health. We are committed to building an equitable and inclusive learning environment. We’ve made progress. And we have further to go. Both of those statements are true. Progress requires hard work, struggle, and occasionally pressure from our community. All of those phenomena–work, struggle, and pressure–are signs and part of progress. We will not content ourselves with progress alone. We are committed to the goal no matter how difficult it is to get there.