News Editor, The Pendulum
Discrimination, diversity, direction.
The three d-words have permeated the discussions of many in the Elon University community over the past few weeks as the student body continues to voice its opinions on the racial slur incidents that recently occurred on campus. After a handful of private meetings, two public forums and several emails from Smith Jackson, vice president and dean of Student Life, plans to curb discrimination and continue the Not on our Campus movement are beginning to take shape.
Elon held the second of two open forums Wednesday afternoon for students, faculty and staff. President Leo Lambert led the forum and participated in a panel with Jackson, Sam Warren, executive student body president, and Leon Williams, director of the Multicultural Center. A group of more than 25 people attended the event, including Brooke Barnett, faculty administrative fellow and assistant to the president, and Jodean Schmiederer, assistant dean of students.
Since the incidents, senior staff have been working to create a faster, more effective response in case of future incidents, Lambert said, and several students who spoke up at the forum offered suggestions based on their previous experiences.
“With regard to responding to incidents themselves, it’s our commitment that we want to have in place by second semester something we’re calling like an incident response team,” Lambert said. “It might be built on the model that we have at Elon for sexual assault – a number you call, protocols established, a website, support, advocacy. This just simply needs to be put into place, and it’s our commitment that it also ought to be in place for faculty and staff as well.”
When Lambert opened the floor for comments, several students also raised concerns about students’ tendency to think the Multicultural Center is just for African American students, and proposed solutions to the problem. Senior Nicki Daniels expressed interest in diversifying the staff employed by the center as well as expanding its reach to go beyond matters pertaining solely to race.
“When I was a freshman I felt like I could trust anyone here, walk the streets at night, coming from class, coming from parties, coming from studying and not have any negative things, negative thoughts to worry about. Come to sophomore year, now I’m just like, ‘wow, I just have no one I can trust anymore.’ That’s a real issue for me and my friends.” –Sean Patterson, Elon sophomore
“It’s very much looked less like a multicultural center and more of a place for maybe African Americans as a majority,” she said. “I’ve spoken to other people about, ‘oh maybe you should meet me there for study groups,’ or anything, and they say ‘isn’t that where all the black people meet?'”
Expanding the reach and perceived role of the Multicultural Center is one of the biggest questions Elon is currently asking, Lambert said, and Elon is considering whether there should be a specific facility for African American students, faculty and staff. Whether that center should be related to the Multicultural Center or its own separate entity also remains to be seen.
Daniels said she does not want African American students to feel alienated from the Multicultural Center, but she wishes there were a designated point person to respond to incidents and assist students with issues and questions pertaining specifically to African Americans.
“For someplace like Elon where African Americans are small in numbers, it’s very hard to keep your black identity,” said senior Brittany Walker. “And when you get out into the working world, of course the working world does look like Elon, but it’s still very important to know who you are as a person.”
Having a point person to assist African American students and keep track of their retention rates, grade point averages and other statistics would be an important resource, she said, especially for freshmen who may unexpectedly encounter racism and not know where to turn.
Sophomore Sean Patterson said he was the subject of a racial slur incident when he was a freshman and has not seen evidence of the progress the university claims to have made with regard to diversity.
“If we welcomed in the most diverse class and we have more reported incidents, whereas when I came in as a freshmen there were incidents like that that weren’t being reported, I don’t see how that can be considered progress,” Patterson said. “And (Lambert is) right. People are paying an extensive amount of money to be here. If I can’t be comfortable as a student on my own campus and in a community where I’m supposed to be part of the diverse, tolerating, accepting community, I just don’t see how that’s progress.”
But having more reported incidents actually is a sign of progress, according to Jackson, since it means students are more comfortable talking about their experiences. It does not mean more incidents are actually occurring, he said.
“We, years ago, had a series of sexual assaults and we hired a person, created an office for violence prevention,” Jackson said. “The reports of sexual assault increased. I think that’s progress.”
Patterson still doesn’t always feel safe on campus, he said.
“When I was a freshman I felt like I could trust anyone here, walk the streets at night, coming from class, coming from parties, coming from studying and not have any negative things, negative thoughts to worry about,” he said. “Come to sophomore year, now I’m just like, ‘wow, I just have no one I can trust anymore.’ That’s a real issue for me and my friends.”
Elon is an institution composed of 5,000 imperfect beings, Lambert said, and it will never be perfect.
“I think the worst thing that could happen right now is if we all just leave (this forum) and say this has passed,” he said.