Saint Mary’s students should be required to have difficult conversations about politics and diversity, argued student attendees of last week’s open-invitation discussion of the recent election.
On Wednesday, members of the Saint Mary’s faculty and staff, as well as students, gathered together for the second Post-Election Conversation on the SMUMN campus. Besides the possibility of mandatory consideration of the election in classes, attendees also discussed plans of action for the university and contemporary definitions of diversity.
Hosted by Dr. Mark Barber, associate vice president for academic affairs, and Dr. Beth Seebach, chair of the psychology department, the conversation began with an establishment of ground rules that asked attendees to “participate to the fullest of your ability—community growth depends on the inclusion of every individual voice,” the distributed handout read.
Although faculty attendance doubled that of the students, the discussion was largely student-led. The most pivotal topic of the conversation was what student attendees referred to as a widespread avoidance by professors of discussions about difficult issues such as race, gender, and other hot-button topics that have increased in controversy since the election of Donald J. Trump. The classroom setting, they argued, is the ideal space where students can interact with one another and learn different perspectives. One student attendee lamented the lack of greater student turnout at the event.
“The students who aren’t here will never come if you make it voluntary,” she said. “We have to force students into that uncomfortable place.”
Junior Lupita Gonzalez did not attend the conversation but agrees wholeheartedly with these complaints. “I think faculty and staff need to be more mindful about their students and how this election will affect us—both Clinton and Trump supporters,” she said. “A higher education setting is the best place to be exposed to different opinions and hear other voices, and that’s just not happening here.”Several students also voiced their frustration at a lack of official university response to Trump’s victory. The university did not release an official statement, but the first post-election conversation occurred the day after the election. The small margin of time between the release of the results and the discussion created an emotionally charged event, according to Dr. Barber.
“I wanted to host this second conversation after students had had time away from the campus with their families over the holiday,” he said. “The last conversation was more directly about the election because it was so soon after. This one was more about how we can have a diverse campus and how we can integrate ourselves successfully, and how we communicate with each other.”
Diversity was a central topic during the discussion, as students and faculty alike shared their interpretations of what it means to be diverse. Dr. Esther Peralez, dean of student success, reminded the group that “diversity is not just about people of color.” Instead, she said, diversity also describes differences in religion, gender, sexual orientation, and more.
In response to Dr. Peralez’s comments, it was asked what progress toward eliminating racism, misogyny, and the like has been made as a nation and as a university, with several attendees (among them Dr. Seebach) arguing that even if progress has been made in recent years, the tone of the recent election—on both sides—suggests that the nation and the university alike still have a long way to go.
Key suggestions spurred by the discussion included diversity workshops and/or multicultural competency courses for both faculty and students, as well as ideas on how to maximize student participation in such discussions. So far, the only project that has formally begun is assembly of a resource sheet with primary contacts for the pertinent offices and organizations on campus, which could be widely distributed to students and handy in a time of need, as Dr. Seebach explained.
Director of Student Activities Alex Johnson reminded the group that “his door is always open” for students who are looking for a helping hand or listening ear, a sentiment that was echoed throughout the room by multiple faculty and staff. As for Dr. Barber, he hopes to see the building of a genuine open exchange in the institution.
“People must know that we have a broad diversity here, and we must have avenues where we can hear each other,” he said. “How do we hear every voice?”