Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Townhall meeting addresses campus diversity issues, initiatives

Leah Kucera | Student Life

Dean Jen Smith fields a question from the crowd about diversity and how it applies to the curriculum of the College of Arts & Sciences. Smith, several faculty members and over 40 students attended a townhall meeting in January Hall about Washington University’s new initiatives regarding diversity and the launch of the new Mosaic Project.

Microaggression, rape culture and difficult reporting processes were just three of the Danforth Campus’ many diversity-related struggles discussed at the Diversity Affairs Council’s first town hall meeting.

About 60 students and Washington University staff met in January Hall room 110 Wednesday to discuss issues brought to light over more than a month of focus groups following February’s Bear’s Den incident.

In the months following the incident, the council has held multiple focus groups addressing issues related to sexuality, religion, socioeconomic diversity and race. Wednesday night, the council formally proposed that the University create a center for diversity and cultural issues and a bias-related incident reporting system and offer First 40 programming specifically related to campus diversity next fall.

Vice Provost Adrienne Davis also unveiled the school’s new “Mosaic Project,” a new website dedicated to centralizing all campus diversity-related conversation and events. Much of the outreach planned for the coming year will be branded under the new project intended as an extension of and specifically geared toward undergraduates.

“[The diversity website] has been very successful for faculty and staff, and we’ve been having some challenges having students seeing it as a resource. So we’re hoping that Mosaic will actually become a mechanism by which students see the University as a place that they own…and that they can use to showcase what they care about,” Davis said.

“It’s a pilot, which means we will be coming to students for feedback,” senior and former Student Union President Julian Nicks said.

Many of the specific problems discussed in the focus groups centered on campus culture.

“People expressed that there is a rape culture on campus, and it’s perpetuated through problematic language. Reporting sexual assault and rape is stigmatized, and it’s also not visible enough on a day-to-day basis,” sophomore and former Pride Alliance President Brendan Ziebarth said. “It’s also stigmatized as a heterosexual problem, but that is not always the case.”

While focus group participants said student attitudes may be much of the problem, a number of campus departments and offices are also in need of improvement. Ziebarth said many students complained that Student Health Services and the Career Center offered particularly gender-specific advice.

Students in the focus groups also noted acts of microaggression from faculty, particularly those in science, technology, engineering and math fields and business classes, Ziebarth said.

Jen Smith, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, noted that the new Integrated inQuiry system—which replaced the cluster-based system at the start of the academic year—is intended to make students think about issues like cultural diversity and social diversity. But she acknowledged that some classes that satisfy IQ distributions may not necessarily fulfill their purpose and that the requirements do not apply to other divisions.

“Part of the issue is just getting everybody at the table,” Smith said.

The town hall meeting also touched on ways in which the University is already addressing a number of diversity-related issues. In her presentation, junior Ayah Abo-Basha noted that many students could take better advantage of the Social Justice Center and religious studies classes, in addition to other campus offices.

Junior Andrea Bennett, one of the students who attended the discussion, said she considers it important to be proactive about diversity-related issues, and she stressed that having conversations about them allows people to learn about things going on in the community that they aren’t necessarily experiencing firsthand.

“Some of the issues are very big, and possibly all of them are very big, but I think every person can only experience possibly so much of it,” Bennett said. “I can comment on what I’ve experienced, but I’m sure there are a hundred or so things that I haven’t experienced and therefore I don’t know exist, which I think is also a problem.”

Davis said that while diversity on campus is not necessarily worse than at other schools nationally, February’s pledge incident brought to light many underlying issues within the community that should be addressed.

“We really see what happened as presenting us with a profound opportunity to change our institution,” Davis said. “We’re good, but we should be the best. It’s an opportunity for us to model to our peers and to universities all over the world [that] this is how you do diversity in the 21st century. This is how…to create thought leaders for the next generation.”


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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878