Lawrence Univ. tackles diversity discussions after students complain of campus racism

Lawrence University hosted a “campus community gathering” last Thursday night to discuss diversity on campus and what measures the school is taking to combat racism.

No cameras were allowed inside the meeting at the liberal arts college in Appleton, Wisc., which more than 200 students attended. Discussion focused primarily on different initiatives to address racial concerns and promote diversity.

“We have to start somewhere right, and so we’re brainstorming,” said Assistant Dean of Students for Multicultural Affairs Pa Lee Moua to WBAY. “We’ve got lots of different ideas and initiatives in place, but we really need the voices of our entire community. That’s what this fair really serves the purpose of.”

Wesley Varughese, student government president, said the meeting was a first step in a long discussion that would need to take place on campus.

“It’s definitely going to be a long-term thing. I’m just glad we’re at least [going] in the right direction, and hopefully by the end of this trimester we can at least see some positive change, but I think for something really impactful to happen it’s going to take a few months,” he said.

Officials from the university and student government did not respond to request for comment from Campus Reform.

In November, "fellow Students, Staff and Faculty of Color gathered in the Diversity Center with President Mark Burstein and Dean of Students Curt Lauderdale to present a list of Demands and Concerns,” according to a Facebook post on the school's Committee on Diversity Affairs page.

The post lists 14 demands and 21 concerns including a "public apology to Students and Staff of Color" from Burstein and "mandatory cultural sensitivity training for all faculty and staff."

The concerns claim that "there isn't accurate representation of People of Color" in each campus department and "support services for Students of Color arriving to campus are needed."

The students also listed 11 faculty and staff members by name for “discriminatory actions.”

The post says if demands are not met within a timely manner, students will "respond with civil disobedience, protests, and other means."

The Committee on Diversity Affairs did not respond to requests for comment from Campus Reform.

Reactions to the meeting caused tensions on campus to run high, with some claiming that they felt threatened and were concerned for their safety.

“Members of our community are expressing fear for their safety, frustration that issues are not being addressed (or addressed fast enough), being overwhelmed and emotionally spent by the toll these complex and very personal issues take when they are faced head-on, and the feeling of being targeted and victims of harassment and threats," said Nancy Truesdell, vice president for student affairs in an email to Lawrence University’s faculty, staff and students.

Lawrence University again appeared in the news in December after they accidentally published a photo in its annual report that showed a racist slur carved on a wall behind administration officials.

University officials sent an email to alumni, faculty and students apologizing for the photo, which shows the university cabinet in cupola of Main Hall with the wall behind them including graffiti and the “n-word” clearly visible above the head of one of the administrators.

The university responded to students in a letter from Burstein on Jan. 2, promising to hire a more diverse faculty and staff and offer more ethnic courses.

"We ended fall term together with a greater awareness, led by our students, that we must become a more inclusive community and thereby strengthen Lawrence and the education we offer," Burstein wrote in the seven-page letter. "We have been too reliant on Lawrentians of color to educate our community on the central issues of race and identity.”

Lawrence will add an associate dean whose primary responsibility is diversity and inclusion, a faculty member in ethnic studies, and a staff member at the campus Diversity Center. The search for the new dean, who will lead efforts to attract a more diverse staff, address reports of bias, and lead “cultural competency training” efforts will begin immediately, Burstein said in the email.

The racism controversy at Lawrence University is one of several cases at college campuses around the country. At other schools, racial issues and student demands have led to hunger strikes and ousted presidents.

Three committees met over the winter break to work through the student list of demands. Burstein told the Post Crescent that Lawrence University should prepare students to be inclusive and respectful in a diverse world.

"Different viewpoints, even disagreement is not a bad thing," he said. "What needs to happen, though, is to create an environment where those kinds of conversations can really be thoughtfully engaged in.There is a larger conversation happening here. And I would argue that we are not doing a good job in colleges and universities preparing people to have these conversations, and so instead of having it in person, they're resorting to posting on social media really hurtful things."

The president said he would continue to update students and faculty periodically throughout the year on the implementation of their diversity plan.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @kylejplantz