Norton holds success center meeting, tackles questions of diversity, inclusion and top-down decision making

Published by adviser, Author: Chris Gordon - Assistant News Editor, Date: March 17, 2016
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Slippery Rock University President Cheryl Norton apologized to students and faculty at a meeting held Tuesday to clarify plans to transform the University Union into a Student Success Center in coming years.

The concerns raised, notably those regarding the controversial and since abandoned proposal to move the Women’s Center, Pride Center, Office of Multicultural Development and Veteran’s Center from the Center for Student Involvement and Leadership (CSIL) to the Student Success Center, took Norton by surprise, she said.

“The communication ball was dropped and not only dropped, but shattered,” she said.  “For that, I truly do apologize.”

The Student Success Center is still in its early stages of development, with only a few architectural renderings of what the building could look like and a 63-page feasibility study, which tests the affordability of the plan, Norton said.

The suggestion that a formal plan, including space allocation, had already been developed is inaccurate, she continued, stating “we haven’t even gotten to the design stage yet.”

“We should focus on what this plan could be, not what it is,” Norton continued.  “What I do know is that we have 2,739 square feet of unallocated space,” a message that frequently resurfaced during the meeting, which was held during common hour in the Smith Student Center Ballroom.

Cindy LaCom, the director of SRU’s gender studies program, suggested during the meeting that the real issue at hand was not space allocation, but the administration’s pattern of top-down unilateral decision making that leaves students and faculty out of the conversation.

Many discussions regarding the Student Success Center took place, Norton said, but students were initially left out due to the conceptual nature of the plan.

“The hope was that these conversations would trickle down from one level to the next, but obviously they didn’t,” she said.  “I apologize for that.”

Norton admitted that the administration could do more in terms of transparency and communication with students, but told LaCom it’s untrue that the university doesn’t care about their concerns.

“I’ve been told the perception is that because the Smith Center is up here and the Success Center is down there, that in some way implies positional value,” she said.  “I had never considered you would think of it like that.  My perception was we have this building, $19 million, so what can we do to advance social justice?”

LaCom indicated that her question was not about space, but Norton moved on to another question after mentioning that a second meeting would be held on March 23 at 6 p.m. in the Alumni House to further discuss the Success Center.

In a later interview, LaCom said space is important, but management style is too, stating “I think this may be the right time for a paradigm shift.”

Conversations regarding the Student Success Center should have started when Norton took office, LaCom said, as plans for the building have been in place for over a decade, as indicated in an unsigned email addressed to the university community on March 1.

“When Bob Smith became provost he would hold regular town hall meetings,” she said.  “Anytime you’re a newcomer, you need to actively listen before making decisions.”

When asked why the March 1 email was unsigned, Norton indicated it was written by multiple authors and was intended to show a broad consensus for the ideas expressed.

Norton said that she still stands by the email, but several figures given in the meeting contradict what was originally said.

Notably, the email said that “visits to other success centers have informed our preliminary design” and the project will be completed by 2018 using $17 million.

During the meeting, Norton said the project would be completed by 2020 at the earliest.

On the topic of diversity and inclusion, LaCom said the fact that many positions within the CSIL have been left unfilled, specifically those working directly with underrepresented student groups, may say something about the administration’s concern for these issues.

“There is a pattern that suggests a commitment to diversity is not being made,” she said.

When asked about these vacancies, Norton said it is her hope that responsibility for diversity and inclusion will be shared.

“We don’t need [diversity and inclusion] to be the responsibility of one person, but a responsibility of the community,” she said.

Amanda Yale, the associate provost for enrollment services at SRU, said many of these vacancies, particularly that which was left by Brad Kovaleski, the former executive director of student development, will be filled by the start of the fall semester.

At the meeting, one student questioned Norton’s connection to underrepresented students, acknowledging her involvement in the Jump Start program and commencement, but stating “that’s only catching us at the beginning and end of the process.”

Norton said she attends many student events and her schedule fills up quickly, but that she would be willing to attend more events if she is informed of them in advance.

The use of passive voice during Tuesday’s meeting and in recent email announcements issued by Norton is a way to deflect responsibility, LaCom, whose background is in English, said, adding that it eliminates the actor.

In an email released Wednesday concerning the Student Success Center meeting, Norton said “there were a number of important points presented and great interest expressed in continuing the conversation as soon as possible.”

“Who expressed interest?” LaCom asked.  “There were 150 students at that meeting.”

The March 2 email announcing the abandonment of the relocation plan was not sent to faculty, LaCom added, as they are not considered SRU stakeholders.

“I’ve never been officially informed of the change of plans,” she said.

The faculty union is in the process of considering formal positions on the Student Success Center and Norton’s management style, LaCom said, concluding she is optimistic that positive change will happen soon.

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