Series: An examination of the diverse future of college campuses

Stephanie Miller October 14, 2017 0

Steph Headshot ColorPhoto by Megan White

This is the third and final installment of a series that examines issues related to diversity at Elizabethtown College and around the country. Past installments have discussed why diversity is such a heated topic on college campuses, how Etown compares to other colleges and universities and what the College is doing to welcome and accommodate students from underrepresented backgrounds. This installment examines how the College plans to handle diversity in the future and concludes that while there is still room for improvement, progress has been made toward making Etown an institution that welcomes students from all backgrounds.

According to senior Jessica Sullivan, Elizabethtown College is “not as good as it could be” in terms of diversity. Campus community members, from other students to the College’s highest administrators, recognize the issue of diversity and share Sullivan’s opinion.

“We want to be known as a college that is making its experience built around people in a more diverse world,” President Carl J. Strikwerda said. “This involves everything from the curriculum to dorms to clubs to anywhere else we can touch students’ lives.”

All aspects of the College can play a role in maintaining a commitment to diversity, starting with the student body itself.

According to Director of Institutional Research Debra Sheesley, members of ALANA (African, Latino, Asian and Native American) groups make up 12 percent of Etown’s current student population. For the Class of 2021, that number is nine percent. In terms of religious diversity, the College currently features students who practice Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. There is also something to be said about the College’s geographical diversity. Sixty-five percent of Etown’s students are from Pennsylvania, as are 70 percent of first-years.

This does not reflect today’s world. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people from underrepresented racial groups are expected to outnumber non-Hispanic whites by the year 2044. Strikwerda and Director of Diversity and Inclusion Dr. Monica Smith both believe it is important for students to be able to function in an increasingly diverse world and that college is an ideal time to learn how.

“It’s difficult to lead and function in society if you can’t interact with people from different backgrounds,” Strikwerda said. Still, he said the College has come a long way with diversity in the last decade and called efforts, such as the Momentum program, “real success stories.”

Smith agreed, citing concerns for students who fail to become involved with diversity efforts and noting consequences the College could face if it does not continue efforts to prioritize diversity.

“Institutions that haven’t attended to diversity have not survived,” Smith said. “It just won’t happen. If we don’t do diversity and inclusion well, we will not live our College’s identity and core values.”

In light of those possibilities, diversity is playing a role in plans for the future of the College.

The current Core Program revisions, led by the Dean for Curriculum and Assessment and professor of history Dr. Brian Newsome, may include diversity-related changes. This could be anything from a separate diversity-related core requirement to more diversity within the program itself (i.e. more class options per requirement). Newsome said that while it is uncertain exactly what effects diversity-related core changes will have on students, the College is in a good place to start implementing them.

“Diversity has been an issue on this campus for some years now,” Newsome said. “The core revitalization is another good opportunity to address it.”

He also mentioned that some courses already incorporate lessons of diversity. For example, students in Newsome’s Western Civilization class learn about the lives of women, racial minorities and members of the LGBTQ spectrum throughout history.

“I don’t think students walk away from my class thinking they’ve taken a diversity class, but any way they can gain that knowledge will benefit them,” Newsome said.

Issues of diversity are receiving even more attention this year with the introduction of the new Inclusive Excellence Strategic Plan. Like the College’s Envision 2020 Strategic Plan, this includes goals for the College’s future. However, the steps in this plan all pertain to increasing and promoting diversity in campus life. According to the College’s website, the plan is designed to help Etown maintain a commitment to becoming a diverse community. The previous plan was created in 2009.

The new plan is currently being vetted in the campus community. Forums have been held for students to learn about the plan and offer input. Faculty Assembly and Student Senate will also read the plan soon. A full draft will be presented at the Board of Trustees’ meeting later this month.

Smith encourages students to become knowledgeable about the plan and to voice their suggestions and concerns.

“The best way to advocate is to be empowered and knowledgeable for the kinds of changes that will make us a better institution,” she said.

Still, there are some who believe Etown’s priorities should be elsewhere. Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus Dr. Paul Gottfried still follows what happens on campus. According to him, Etown’s efforts to increase diversity are nothing original compared to other colleges and universities.

“The only diversity I care about is diversity of thought,” Gottfried said. According to Gottfried, this is the opposite of what Etown is doing now. For example, Gottfried said that the speakers at Etown events are becoming less diverse in terms of their opinions on different subjects.

He suggested bringing in speakers with different views on controversial topics as one way to increase diversity of thought, saying it would expose students to points of view they may not agree with.

He also sees potential consequences of continuing to treat diversity as Etown has and said there is no way to balance increasing Etown’s current diversity efforts and prioritizing diversity of thought. According to Gottfried, things like safe spaces and speech codes put people in verbal and moral “straitjackets.” He said increasing diversity-related regulations, such as the Inclusive Excellence Strategic Plan, will only tighten those straitjackets and make people more afraid of saying something that may offend members of different groups.

“Instead we should prioritize increasing academic standards and having people of different views able to freely express those views,” Gottfried said.

Sophomore Mar Gogineni would disagree. Gogineni is part of the Momentum program and has attended workshops about diversity that she said would benefit people not in the program as well. She thinks Etown is doing well with diversity-related efforts but wants to see more opportunities for people to learn about it. “It’s still kind of a closed-off topic,” she said.

Closed-off or not, diversity remains a heated topic on college campuses, and Etown is no exception. While there is much progress to be made, the College and its students have shown no signs of slowing efforts to welcome and accommodate students of all backgrounds, now or in the future.

“We’ve got to continue to value one another enough to be concerned about the things that impact some people differently than they impact us,” Smith said. “We have to show our shared Blue Jay identity and say, ‘What affects you affects me’.”

 

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