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communication tips From Dialogue to Action: A Student’s Perspective on the National Campus Dialogue on Race
Emily Musil, Class of 2000, Drew University

Campus diversity can be a highly sensitive issue, but all members of campus communities need opportunities to address diversity issues openly and honestly. In my wooded, small, liberal arts campus in suburban New Jersey this past spring, students began to tackle campus diversity focusing on one of its most volatile components--race.

Drew University’s President, Tom Kean, the former governor of New Jersey, had been appointed to the commission advising President Clinton’s Initiative on Race which has sought to create a national dialogue on race. President Kean wanted to include his own campus in sponsoring dialogues as part of the initiative. Before the Initiative’s Campus Week of Dialogue on Race last April, the campus of Drew University was abuzz when we heard that President Kean had arranged for a panel of noted speakers to hold a Town Hall Meeting about diversity on campus. One of the most exciting aspects of the meeting was that it was designed as a forum for students to voice their opinions, describe their experiences, and suggest solutions to race related problems on campus. The panel included U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Deputy Assistant of the Treasury Ted Carter, another member of President Clinton’s Initiative on Race, Angela Oh, as well as students from various colleges in New Jersey. This panel was an attempt by Drew’s administration to provide a springboard for campus-wide discussions about race.

Despite the panel’s intentions, many students actually left the meeting feeling frustrated and unheard because there was not enough time allowed for student commentary. Panel speakers seemed to talk more than they listened. Although the panel was an important catalyst, it lacked a structure that would have allowed for more substantive and inclusive dialogue. As President Kean had hoped, many informal discussions did emerge from the event. The administration, however, had orchestrated no formal structure for ongoing campus-wide dialogue. Many of the conversations on campus occurred within isolated college sub-cultures, divided by group attitudes and often by race. This made them a lot less productive in terms of initiating intergroup dialogue and lasting changes in campus life.

As a result of these frustrations, a group of students decided to organize a “Town Hall II” meeting as a follow-up to the original panel. We believed that this meeting could provide space to bring up issues that many did not feel comfortable enough to raise in the more formal forum. Town Hall II was organized not only to express our views and feelings, but also to look for some concrete solutions and actions that we, as students, could take. The whole campus was invited, and President Kean himself sent out a campus-wide e-mail encouraging students, staff, and faculty to attend this meeting. We were thrilled that more than sixty people showed up that evening, a significant number for our small campus. We discussed issues ranging from the definitions of diversity and power to student relations with the administration, seating within dining halls, course selections, and student clubs. Important voices were still missing from this dialogue, however. One professor and the campus chaplain were the only non-undergraduates in attendance.

In order to try to get the campus more involved, we decided to create a petition to recommend concrete actions that could move the campus toward better intergroup relations. A small group of us drafted the petition and focused on four main areas identified at the meeting as important for improving campus race relations. The petition was printed in our student paper, The Acorn, and included the following recommendations:

  • Student Accountability--Students need to take initiative, and act! Bring friends to these meetings and events. Use your resources--clubs, organizations, Drew TV, The Acorn, WMNJ, classrooms, friends, social interactions…and be heard. Don’t allow negative attitudes in your own sphere.
  • Faculty/Administration--We want to see professors and administrators (more than the handful dedicated to these issues) supporting student initiatives by engaging in critical dialogue with the students. We want the classroom to be used as a forum for discussion of these issues.
    There are 14 faculty openings this year, and we would like to see Drew use this opportunity to show its commitment by introducing diverse perspectives to the campus. We challenge the administration to act proactively, not just reactively.
  • Curriculum--Diverse faculty bring diverse perspectives. This promotes the ultimate goal of a university truly committed to the liberal arts: a diverse education.
  • Public Safety--We would like to build mutual respect between Public Safety and the student body. This will arise from an awareness of Public Safety’s responsibilities to Drew, their expectations of the students, and the students’ expectations of them.”

In one day, more than 130 people, including eight faculty members, had signed this petition which was printed in the campus newspaper the next day. Along with the petition, we encouraged campus members to attend another meeting, and we even personally invited our professors. At the next meeting, we were disappointed that only half the number of students and only the same professor from the initial meeting showed up. It was still a productive meeting, but the focus of the group was already beginning to disintegrate.

We want to see professors and administrators (more than the handful dedicated to these issues) supporting student initiatives by engaging in critical dialogue with the students. We want the classroom to be used as a forum for discussion of these issues.

Many students were frustrated by what they perceived as a lack of impact from our petition and we didn’t know what steps to take next.

Despite this setback, I think this meeting was critical to sustaining some momentum even with just a core group of student supporters. Genuine involvement of faculty and key administrators, however, is essential and would have had a great impact at this point in the process.

Reflecting back on the events at the end of last semester, I think that there are ways that students, faculty, and administration need to work together to create an environment where conversations, understanding, and solutions about intergroup relations on a college campus can take place.

This isn’t easy and requires strong leadership both from students and from faculty and administrators. For instance, the administration should provide information from contacts at other schools about what steps and programs are helpful. They might sponsor multidisciplinary faculty-led discussions. Students can and should also initiate programs, but it is the more permanent parts of the campus controlled by the faculty and administration that really need lasting changes. It is critical in today’s world that we learn to understand, communicate, and work together, building on the strengths our diversity brings. But intergroup dialogue isn’t easy. College can be a place to learn these skills, but we can achieve them only if higher education leaders pay more than lip-service to the effort to initiate genuine dialogues and real learning about these issues. They need to work with core groups of committed students and staff to involve more members of the campus community in these initiatives in order to permeate campus life with a genuine commitment to building strong, multicultural communities.

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The media may be interested in covering, and the public in learning about, this kind of dialogue and the process it takes to create it.

When undertaking such an initiative, consider asking a newspaper columnist to cover the process. Or ask a participant to write an op/ed piece (or guest editorial) about the results of the dialogue for a student, ethnic, or community newspaper. Or, if there is a television station in your city with a Town Hall or Community Forum type of public affairs program, ask the producer to feature participants on the program. Doing so will increase your ability to reach both the campus community and the public.

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