University makes incremental progress with continued diversity efforts
Students and administrators are continuing to spotlight issues of diversity and inclusion on campus six months after February’s Bear’s Den incident, though many of the efforts are still months or years from implementation.
The Washington University Mosaic Project is a far-reaching effort to establish which parts of the University need the most attention in regards to diversity. It incorporates seven different working groups looking to do everything from creating a Bias Response System to appraising how school policy might be amended to deal with future issues that arise.
But while the project has a number of tangible goals—the Bias Response System is set to be implemented by the start of next semester—organizers are continuing to focus on discussions with students before they offer suggestions to the chancellor at the end of the current academic year, senior Josh Aiken, student co-chair of the project, said.
Ultimately, the project is just one piece of the school’s larger focus on diversity programming.
“The Mosaic Project isn’t supposed to act as a fill-in for anything that’s happening on campus. We’re not replacing the Social Justice Center,” Aiken said. “The outcome of the Mosaic Project is going to be further investments in a variety of areas…we’re not just trying to tackle one issue here.”
The project looks to proactively put strategies in place to deal with future diversity-related incidents on campus, though the project itself is reactionary.
Last February, a group of Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledges crowded into Bear’s Den, where one freshman read the lyrics to “B—— ain’t S—” as part of a scavenger hunt. When the pledge read the N-word, a number of students at a nearby table in the area were offended. Within the day, the University suspended the fraternity to investigate what had happened.
But it was the response to the event and SAE’s suspension, during which community members made incensed remarks on social media and the Student Life website, that left many more concerned about the tolerance and social awareness of students at Washington University.
The discussion quickly spiraled into something much larger than race. At a town hall-style discussion last spring, students voiced concern with a number of issues on campus, including sexism and a “rape culture” in which victims of sexual assault are stigmatized.
Sharon Stahl, vice chancellor for students, said that it is important to be diligent with the project in order to ensure that any moves the University makes to address various forms of offensive speech on campus do not infringe on free speech.
The University’s current policy regarding harassment has previously been called into question for failing to do just that. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education criticized the Office of Residential Life in April for its harassment policy that gives the University sole discretion to define as harassment “any behavior or conduct that is injurious, or potentially injurious to a person’s physical, emotional, or psychological well-being”—wording the nonprofit watchdog group said is too open to interpretation.
Stahl said people in working groups for the project are still involved in conversations to figure out how the many moving parts will come together.
“It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight; nothing happens overnight. It needs to be given a lot of thought to think about the impact that it will have in the community,” Stahl said.
She noted that follow-up from the Bias Response System, for example, may vary from case to case, depending on whether the students who bring information forward choose to stay anonymous.
“I don’t have all the answers now; that’s why we have all these working groups,” Stahl said.
The seven working groups, though, are just one element of the Danforth Campus’ intensified focus on diversity.
This year’s freshman reading book, “Notes from No Man’s Land” by Eula Biss, touched on the issues of race and privilege in contemporary America. And a new student-written vignette in this year’s Choices program focused on various types of diversity, from socioeconomic diversity to sexual and racial diversity.
“The idea with Choices is that [what] we’re trying to do is prevent some situations that we feel are realistic and are issues that students will have to think about in their first year here,” Rob Wild, dean of the First Year Center, said. “This was something that was really important to change, I thought it worked great.”
Freshmen said the addition was generally well-received and that their groups were able to have meaningful conversations on the topics.
Residential advisor Divya Rayapati, a junior, said she thought her freshman floor in Eliot House took the program well.
“I feel like my group took it really well. We were able to have good discussions, and people were really respectful of each others’ ideas and able to share without being frightened,” Rayapati said.
“I don’t know if people were really surprised by the amount of diversity that was presented, but I think that a lot of them come from areas that have a lot of the same type of people, and the play and the discussion afterwards helped them to see the different viewpoints and be aware of the different types of people at the school,” she added.
Freshman Charlotte Smith said the skit made her think more about the types of diversity present on campus but that much of it seemed largely academic.
“I was impressed that they were able to touch on most of the categories of diversity; it seemed like they covered all of the bases,” Smith said. “I think that afterward during the discussion, everyone on my floor did take it seriously, but I think that most people had a mindset that the topics covered were issues that they would never really have to encounter, so they only took it to a point.”
With additional reporting by Divya Kumar.