Diversity Discussion Incites Faculty
Heated diversity discussions that have embroiled Skidmore students and faculty for the last several years reemerged forcefully during the November Faculty meeting. A proposal to change the general education requirements to include a domestic diversity component, in the form of an additional discussion meeting as part of a fourth credit hour, brought confusion regarding implementation logistics. A clarifying question by Mason Stokes sparked a response by Committee Chair of Education Policies and Planning (CEPP), April Bernard, that some faculty members found offensive. While many believe Bernard’s comment was not intended to marginalize minorities, the incident was undoubtedly divisive. Many faculty members took to scolding Bernard at the meeting, and others took to personally attacking her and her defenders in the all-faculty email list. Bernard resigned from her CEPP position within hours of completion of the November meeting. She was asked to resign by outgoing Dean of Faculty, Beau Breslin. The President and Joshua Woodfork, VP for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity, declined to comment, but Dean Breslin agreed to an interview. Despite Breslin’s constant role in faculty discussions and his willingness to comment, many faculty have expressed a concern that Woodfork, now in charge of diversity issues, has refused involvement in this campus-wide discussion.
In response to the faculty division and derision, the administration announced to faculty that classes on December 2nd would be cancelled for faculty diversity training. With late notice of cancellation and no plan provided on what training would entail, a number of faculty, at least in the departments of World Language, Political Science and History, took to lecturing their students on their support or rejection of the cancellation of classes. After much confusion (some professors came to The Skidmore News seeking any updates) it was later decided that classes would run as scheduled. A more modest training regime was still held for faculty members on December 2nd. Before training occurred, Dean Breslin wrote to faculty that “those in the majority are especially encouraged/urged to attend.”
In an interview with The Skidmore News, Breslin stated “there are climate issues on campus that pre-date anything that happened on the meeting floor.” He added that the goal of administrative initiatives is to address “systemic problems” that he felt had not been thoroughly addressed in previous years. Two of these initiatives will be to build a social justice center and start an Africana Studies Program. In 2015, Woodfork and the President went on record as saying they were skeptical about a social justice center. When asked to contend with the President, Breslin suggested, “I think we are in a different environment now, especially after the election.” When asked if he had an idea for how the social justice center would operate, he responded, “No.” When asked why Skidmore, as he pointed out in our interview, was one of the few elite colleges in the country that does not have an Africana studies program, he responded, “I don’t know.”
Breslin estimated that about 250-260 faculty and staff members (of 1167 total employees) attended the optional Dec 2 sessions. At the end of last Friday, the monthly faculty was also held. Prior to this meeting, faculty speculated on whether diversity would again be a hot button issue. The highly attended meeting in Gannett began with an address from President Glotzbach that included his comments about the previous meeting; he had not been present because he was on a business trip to China. He admitted, “I do not have a magical set of words that will make things right for everyone.” Although he began by acknowledging the difficulty of the discussion surrounding proper implementation of diversity policy, his remarks appeared to be sympathetic to Bernard, as he noted, “Sometimes it is necessary for someone to step on a landmine” to make progress.
Glotzbach transitioned his remarks on the controversy to a greater narrative surrounding the election results and the “stormy waters” ahead for higher education. This demonstrated that the November 8th faculty diversity discussion appeared muted by a more general post-election depression. His shift to Trump’s success might have struck some as a surprising sidestep of the November meeting, but his words could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of the bigger threat to diversity efforts: an increasingly hostile political climate. The President went as far as to say, “I’m glad Skidmore is not located in that red region… that voted differently.” Only a few questions followed the President’s address, none of which led to any sustained dialogue.
For now, the explosive November meeting has revealed that plans to create a new Africana Studies program have been accelerated, and a new tenured faculty member will be hired to oversee it. In addition, the administration has confirmed plans to create a social justice center. A recent well-attended community meeting allowed students and faculty to speak about plans for the center. Despite this progress, the quiet and short December faculty meeting has left some professors feeling as though the eventful November meeting never happened at all. Skidmore has a history of this, though. The November meeting was the first controversial faculty meeting since the Fall of 2015, which was similarly emotional and explosive. Faculty-wide talk on diversity policy has come in bursts despite administrative hopes of addressing “implicit and explicit bias,” to use Breslin’s words.
This article has been amended to correct a quote by Dean Breslin regarding implicit and explicit bias. A mistake regarding the date Bernard resigned has also been changed.
A reference to the number of faculty who attended the meeting has been amended. The 250-260 number that attended was a combination of faculty and staff, not just faculty. The former version of this article also said the attendance was out of a possible approximately 370 faculty, but faculty and staff numbers, when combined, total 1167.