Forums offer campus climate solutions

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By Kimberly Wethal and Maddy Scheel

March 30, 2016

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The UW-Whitewater Campus Culture Working Group discussed  short- and long-term plans for campus betterment during open forums   the week before spring break.

The forums were the result of the Feb. 23 Action Forum and feedback from students, faculty and organizations in the past month and a half.

The campus climate situation began at a Pizza with the Chancellor event on Feb. 16 where 80 Black Student Union members showed up to share their stories of discrimination with Chancellor Beverly Kopper.

The discussion ramped up when social media got involved, as a Snapchat photo of students wearing a dark facial mask was taken by some to be blackface. That incident was followed by a video showing a student with cerebral palsy struggling with wheelchair mobility in freshly fallen snow.

The themes for the forums, defined by different sub-groups within the Working Group, included: diversity learning, accountability and consequences, capturing student experiences and community.

Diversity learning

The need for a more comprehensive look at the current required diversity learning courses became evident through the Action Forum as students, faculty and staff shared the need for the classes to be used to change campus climate.

The group in attendance at the forum, around 20, was concerned with changing the mindset that a diversity credit was just “something to get out of the way.”

“That’s the message somehow students are getting,” said Julie Minikel-Lacocque, leader of the diversity learning forum.

In the past, a diversity task force had looked into getting more diversity into classrooms. It had dissolved following the retirements of key members of the group, said former task force member Lauren Smith.

Smith, a women’s studies professor, said she’d be interested in relaunching the task force, after hearing interest from other faculty.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Smith said. “It might not be the only approach. If this group decides they want it to happen and they get together a group of people, that would be great. I do think we could do it.”

The short-term action steps discussed would be create connections between students and the University Advising Council to get academic advisers on the same board with diversity courses’ contribution to a positive campus climate. Additionally, getting students across different differences to have conversations about diversity was another immediate goal.

Long-term solutions include requiring more than one diversity course to graduate (with one focusing on race/ethnicity, the other on different forms of diversity), holding summer training workshops for instructors and developing a diversity education training program for all UW-W employees.

Accountability and consequences

Creating accountability and consequences for students who use racially charged and discriminatory language doesn’t come without backlash.

“Freedom of speech includes speech that is offensive,” senior political science major Kyle Brooks said. “The idea of the university punishing students for controversial speech is morally and legally reprehensible.”

During the accountability forum, members of the Working Group shared the goals of the subgroup. Immediate actions included creating a Hate and Bias Response Team and an electronic form to report it.

The goal of the electronic form is to give students, faculty and staff an outlet to confidentially report incidences of discrimination on campus.

The facilitators of the subgroup compared UW-W’s newly formed Hate and Bias Response Team to UW-Madison’s.

“We’re here to just get a feel for things and figure out what we can do that’s best for the school,” forum attendee junior Kyle Forester said. “I think it will make a difference for people to join into the conversation given the things that have happened on campus.”

Long-term goals include creating safe offices on campus for students to report incidents, in addition to the online submission system, creating a hate and bias training presentation for everyone affiliated with the university and creating better protocols for those incidences of hate at the University Housing and administrative level.

“We need to look at what students and teachers are experiencing and how do we make it a better place for everyone to achieve the same goal here of education,” Working Group member junior Sam Azzaro said.

Capturing student experiences

The need for giving students a voice was what sparked motivation in the Working Group to hold last month’s Action Forum.

The trend continues, as it’s become one of the four sub-groups within the Working Group.

“I absolutely think that [open forums] are a good channel for change,” sophomore Katherine Schulte said.

The short-term goals within the sub-group include streamlining a centralized response from Kopper to student leaders, and utilizing the ConnectUww platform to give students a timeline as to where Kopper and the Working Group are on the implementation of campus climate solutions.

Long-term solutions include the facilitation of a platform for dialogue  about hate and bias, creating two campus-wide surveys and leveraging required diversity courses.

One survey would be held yearly with the goal of identifying the origins of negative climate culture on campus so an action plan can then be created. The other would be similar to the exit surveys students fill out as they get ready to graduate, but would be required for those departing the university or a major.

The reasoning behind having students who are changing their major fill out an exit survey on campus climate is to find if changes in study are due to campus climate issues with the program.

The leveraging of diversity courses was a small focus for the student experiences forum, seeing it had already been broken out into its own sub-group.

Community

The community open forum centered around how the UW-W community could take action to reduce the incidences of hate and bias.

The community subgroup is looking to create ways for the community to rally together over social media and Web platforms, developing a civility conduct expectations and recruit more faculty and staff to represent the diversity pool of the students.

Retention and outreach also were mentioned, with the idea to give each new employee three colleagues to mentor them: one from student affairs, one from their teaching department and one student leader.

There are more than 600 student leaders on campus to help fill those roles, community open forum facilitator Jan Bilgen said, with 10 times more students being involved on campus.

Professor of social work Jim Winship says students who are actively engaging in their communities are a key part of the solution for changing the campus climate both within themselves and throughout the community.

“There is a considerable number of students who are involved in the university in one way or another, other than taking classes,” Winship said. “A big chunk of those 600 leaders feel a big obligation to create this community that is civil [and] that is welcoming.