On Wednesday evening, President Harvey Stenger met with students and faculty in the Mandela Room at an open town hall meeting organized by the activist group Students for Change. As many students are aware, the meeting ended with the president dropping his microphone on the floor and exiting the room. His exit was inappropriate, and what came before disappoints us even more.
Students for Change released its list of demands in late December. They have been rallying, protesting and meeting with administrators — ranging from Chief Diversity Officer Valerie Hampton to Vice President for Student Affairs Brian Rose — since the end of last semester. After months of work, it’s baffling that President Stenger agreed to address concerns in public with apparently no preparation, and unwilling to discuss any progress he’s made.
One of the greatest frustrations of the night was how frequently the president responded to questions with, “I don’t know,” or “People are working on that.” He came with a disturbing lack of real answers on matters of policy.
Students pressed Stenger for a timetable on the administration’s progress on the demands. He explained that he’d delegated the demands among specific administrators. There is nothing wrong with organizing the demands this way, but Stenger did not provide any summaries on these administrators’ progress. Stenger has repeatedly expressed the utmost confidence in the team of administrators that he has assigned to research each and every one of the demands put forth by Students for Change. He was confident in their qualifications and character.
But that begs the question: Why did this team of experts — who have been researching these issues of institutionalized racism and discrimination for the past five months — not prepare the president with answers to the same questions that have been asked at previous meetings? He didn’t seem prepared to discuss the substantial, nuanced policy and legal issues about which attendees asked him.
The two options that seem possible are that his staff did not prepare him, or that he chose not to discuss the material with which his staff prepared him. Both are damning. It is not Stenger’s job to solve all of these problems himself, but it is also not the job of the students to go to tens of administrators individually to find answers. This meeting could have been an opportunity for Stenger to speak with all of his colleagues and bring students progress reports on each initiative.
To his credit, Stenger endured nearly two hours of intensive, often contradictory and, frequently, hostile questioning. This is to be expected. Students for Change and its supporters are not a singular voice and at times presented differing visions for how the president could address the group’s demands. One professor in support of Students for Change condemned the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) as a means of excusing the rest of the administration from their duty to respond to the concerns of students of color. Another questioner argued that students should not have to jump from administrator to administrator with their concerns.
When pressed on the duties of the ODEI, Stenger gave conflicting information. He referred to ODEI as a possible outlet for student grievances, but later said it wasn’t created for that purpose. At any rate, ODEI seems to have taken on the mandate of hearing student grievances instead of directing students to the Dean of Students office. Clearly, students are having problems with this office, given the numerous anecdotes of being patronized or dismissed. Something here needs to change, and if it isn’t going to be the personnel, it needs to be in mandate and goals of this office. If administrators are not able to properly deal with students, they shouldn’t even be trying to give counsel or advice.
As the meeting progressed, questions became less informative and more combative. Students told Stenger he should feel intimidated. In the same way the president came unprepared, some questions presented by Students for Change revealed a lack of research. On more than one occasion, students presented inaccurate statistics or asked Stenger to make changes that are simply illegal or outside of his jurisdiction. Had his answers been more helpful at the beginning, things may have not gotten so heated at the end.
With so many concerns, there was no way for Stenger to satisfy everyone in the room. He made some points that many of us can stand by. He argued for a change to the Code of Student Conduct to institute consequences for those who make racist or homophobic remarks. But there are a few key items he did not present. He did not bring a timetable. He did not present the progress made by his team. He did not give a definitive date for the release of the year-old campus climate survey.
Clearly, Harvey Stenger has the best interests of students in mind. In his initial statement, he expressed his commitment to work with students to stop racism and homophobia and increase diversity on this campus. But Stenger and other administrators must make their efforts to do so more transparent. That way, more students will take them seriously and learn to trust the administration. Until then, equally unproductive conversations will continue and progress will remain out of reach.