Students debate increased diversity education

On Sunday, Peter Amadeo ’15 held an open student meeting to discuss a first-year diversity requirement. Amadeo and others have been thinking and informally discussing options for a diversity requirement for months, but the weekly meetings mark the beginning of a more organized movement that aims to involve the whole student body.

“It’s led by Peter, in that Peter was the person that came up with idea in the first place and started organizing it,” said Sara Morell ’15, who has attended both meetings so far. “But it’s not formalized in that anyone else has any titles and the goal is to include as many voices as possible and to try to provide some degree of egalitarianism to all opinions and perspectives.”

While Amadeo said inclusivity is a goal of the meetings, he does not think that it should be allowed to weaken the goals of the movement. “There are people on this campus, and I’ve spoken to them, who are fairly bigoted,” he said. “I don’t know what would change their minds, and I’m not really concerned with them.”

He broke the school into three groups, those who are bigoted, those who are passionate and those who are in between, either ambivalent or indifferent.

“My goal is to get those people a little bit further towards caring,” he said.

At the meeting on Sunday, Amadeo presented the plan which, as it currently stands, consists of two near-term goals. The first is the establishment of a non-academic diversity requirement, which would take the form of a lecture series by Swarthmore professors. There would be twelve lectures every semester given by professors from different departments and backgrounds, and the lectures would focus on diversity and structural oppression. While the lectures would be open to anyone in the college, first-years and transfer students would be required to attend eight throughout the semester.

“The whole idea is that you have professors that have studied these topics their entire lives and are experts in the field and can translate that knowledge to other people in a really engaging way,” Amadeo said.

Some students were critical of having mandatory diversity lectures.

“I have very little faith that the organizers could construct an objective and non-politicized series of lectures,” said Preston Cooper ’15. “The organizers should reexamine whether sitting all the freshman down every Friday and talking at them will actually accomplish their stated goals. We already have mandatory workshops during orientation that cover precisely these issues, and yet the organizers are still displeased with the state of affairs on campus.”

The second part of the current plan would involve the establishment of diversity mentors. Similar to the way RAs and SAMs currently operate, diversity mentors would be trained students living in each dorm. Diversity mentors would be trained to facilitate regular discussions among hallmates regarding issues of diversity and inclusion.

“The idea of the diversity mentor is that it would give people a platform to talk about diversity issues that affect their lives specifically,” Amadeo said.

There are 41 RAs, and Amadeo’s plan currently calls for an equal number of diversity mentors. Amadeo does not think that hiring more students for these positions would be a serious obstacle, though he hopes that the position would be paid.

While Amadeo stated that he is confident in the plan as it stands based on conversations with students and faculty, it is only going to become more powerful, in his view, the more it is refined.

The plan for a diversity requirement as discussed Sunday does not currently seek a diversity-listed academic requirement similar to the writing one. When this kind of requirement was discussed at the meeting, Amadeo argued that it would put too much strain on interdisciplinary programs.

These programs are not treated as full-fledged departments and have only been allowed to apply for dedicated tenure positions since last year. Increasing the number of permanent positions held by these interdisciplinary programs is a goal of the diversity movement, but while Amadeo said that he wants to accomplish the lecture series and the diversity mentor program in the next year or two at the latest, he believes that an expansion of interdisciplinary academic programs would take more time.

Compared to student action during the spring of 2013, commonly referred to as the spring of our discontent, the current diversity requirement movement is more short-term in its goals. A report published by a “Community Action Meeting” in May 2013 included a list of 14 demands related to issues of diversity, safety, and respect on campus. Few of the areas covered by that report were discussed at length on Sunday’s meeting. While the 2013 report and the current movement overlap in a desire for the establishment of interdisciplinary departments and an academic requirement in ethnic studies and gender and sexuality, the current movement sees these as secondary, long-term goals.

“One of the reasons why we’re focusing this as a lecture series as opposed to as a diversity requirement, or a new class, or a new program, is that previous attempts to create better conversation through academic structures on this campus have been stymied by difficulties with institutional support,” said Morell, claiming that a lecture series would demand less money and time from the administration.

Still, Cooper expressed concern that introducing any educational requirement would reduce academic freedom, which he cited as a reason for attending the college. Instead, he said, it “shoehorns all students into what will likely be a heavily politicized series of lectures,” he said.

Amer Ahmed, director of the Intercultural Center and dean of the sophomore class, suggested that students look at how similar ideas have played out at other schools.

“To my knowledge, there are a diverse range of examples at other institutions in regards to such requirements. It is also my understanding that the effectiveness and impact varies and many efforts often do not fully [achieve] desired outcomes,” he wrote in an email to the Phoenix. “Most success stories that I know of regarding broad-based campus climate impact involve multi-pronged, institution-wide Diversity Strategic Planning processes.”

Another concern that came up during the meeting Sunday was the willingness of faculty members to support a diversity requirement proposal. Concerns were expressed that some faculty who would support a diversity program in theory would not do so publicly or in practice if it meant going against the administration, especially for non-tenured professors.

“We’re aware that anytime you’re pushing for institutional change there’s going to be pushback,” said Morell. “We don’t want professors to feel like they’re put in an uncomfortable position.”

Amadeo thinks that any reluctance to support diversity movements is the administration’s problem, not the faculty’s.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact that people are scared of losing their jobs if they speak up in defense of the students,” said Amadeo. “And I think that’s something the administration really needs to look at. I think they need to examine the fact that so many professors are afraid to help their students because they are afraid of being fired.”

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