After nine days of outrage from the Slippery Rock University community, the university administration brought stakeholders together to discuss the Zoom bombing incident, heal and make sure students of color are heard.
The virtual attack on a historically Black sorority left the campus community wondering not just how something like this could happen, but what exactly took place.
Students wanted to know what happened because communication put out by the president’s office was perceived by some to be a diluted version of the events compared to what was being shared in classrooms and student organization meetings.
In an email announcing Monday’s forum, SRU President William Behre said he wanted to provide “opportunities for open discussion of ways to strengthen [the university’s] commitment to supporting a diverse campus.”
Yet, for the first 25 minutes of the forum, Behre and officials took turns condemning the racist attack on Feb. 13 and discussed actions taken after being notified of the incident.
Officials from the Provost to the SRU Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF) President leap-frogged statements. This included highlighting the work they had done to support minority students in higher education and the processes they had implemented and were working to implement for a more diverse and inclusive environment.
Behre also took time to address the lessons learned from the lack of detail in his communication.
“By not providing a greater level of detail, we actually created a situation where the individuals who were victims of this event were forced to repeat the story over and over and have to relive it,” Behre said. “That was terribly unfortunate, and I’m sorry that occurred.”
In the two hours of part presentation-part discussion, the only description of the attack provided by the administration was that a horrific video was played during the meeting.
Along with concerns that the administration would continue to gloss over details of any future incidents, some wanted to know how the university plans to keep communication lines with its minority students open.
SRU student Brooklyn Graham, who started the #shameonyouSRU movement last week and a member of the President’s Commission of Race and Ethnic Diversity, said every time an incident happens, the university is quick to reach out to its students of color for their opinion and it is exhausting.
Behre plans to schedule regular meetings with student organizations like the Black Action Society. He agreed with Graham’s view that more open channels of communication will better serve the SRU community.
“Dialogue is best when it’s ongoing, not just when it’s in crisis,” Behre said.
Terrence Mitchell, special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion, said the future would require diversity plans for the campus and throughout the academic and administrative units. While large meetings like the president’s forum can do a lot to spur conversation and exchange ideas, working through ideas and talking about issues in smaller groups can provide better results, Mitchell said.
When discussing equity, diversity and inclusion on campus, administrators said they are working immediately on improving diversity in SRU’s academic offerings and faculty.
Students, like Kai Bright, said current diversity course offerings such as human diversity are outdated and riddled with misinformation.
To keep diversity courses offered at SRU up to date, the university is developing a training program for faculty that teach those courses. Along with required professional development, classes are being assessed to ensure they meet learning objectives and provide students with the most current information, according to Abbey Zink, who serves as SRU’s provost and vice president of academic affairs.
The university is also looking to offer students in the future a minor in African American studies, but implementing such a program will take a “coalition of the willing,” according to Zink.
Adding minors and updating courses can take up to a year. Pilot courses could begin as soon as the upcoming fall semester, but having the requirements in place may not happen until late 2022, Zink said.
As with adding courses, SRU wants to hire and retain more faculty of color, something higher education has done a poor job of, according to Zink. Faculty and students of color make up about 12% to 15% of SRU’s population, but when they break down those numbers, the majority identify as Asian, Zink said.
When SRU puts out a search nationally for a faculty position, around 20% of those hired are faculty of color. According to Zink, when the university converts temporary faculty to those positions, they are overwhelmingly white.
Armed with that data, Zink said the university needs to make it a goal to conduct more national searches for positions and target graduate schools producing minority Ph.D. holders.
To achieve the university’s goal of moving the needle of diversity and inclusion, SRU must develop a standard training method, Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he is throwing his support behind intergroup dialogue to achieve this. Those programs help facilitate open conversations between groups of different social backgrounds to provide a more inclusive environment and challenge people’s notions of diversity.
While those programs can be costly to set up, SRU already has administration and faculty trained. However, Mitchell said implementing the plans, specifically within structures like the freshman class, student-athletes and student organizations, is still in the recommendation phase.
If implemented, Mitchell is hopeful the culture and communication on campus will improve significantly.
“Hopefully, in three or four years, you’ll have a campus that is having dialogue in different ways,” Mitchell said. “And be deeply understanding their role in conversations when we’re trying to build a community.”