A town hall meeting at the University of Maryland on the school’s proposed diversity plan revealed divisions among the invested students, faculty and staff members who critiqued everything in the document from word choice to the exclusion of some groups to the definition of diversity.
Criticized for its ambiguity and lack of specificity – especially with regard to accountability – the draft encountered challenges in defining diversity in an age when identifiers abound and conversations about a post-racial reality flare up in classrooms and courtrooms.
“We’re still trying to figure it out what diversity means and what diversity is may be different things to different groups,” said committee chair Dr. Robert Waters, the assistant to the president for equity and diversity.
In the proposal, the committee called for increased efforts for retaining and training faculty for promotion, facilitating opportunities for diversity-themed projects and conversations at all levels, as well as identifying problem areas within the school with regular assessments and meetings.
There are more than 50 diversity-related offices on the College Park campus, Waters said, but they are so spread out that a lack of visibility dilutes their strength.
“The offices are all over the place and we are uncoordinated in diversity efforts,” he said. “We need to make sure things are lined up. We ought to look like what we are, which is one of the strongest diverse campuses in the country.” As a result, the committee proposed the creation of a chief diversity officer to oversee coordination efforts.
Student body President Steve Glickman, who serves on the committee, said an over-emphasis on racial/ethnic differences obscures other forms of diversity that transcend numerical representation and physical appearance.
“We are missing intellectual diversity as well as socioeconomic diversity,” Glickman said. “Putting one of each ethnicity in a classroom and calling it diversity without minding qualifications and diversity of opinions and thoughts is not going to do it.”
Glickman said he, like many students, wants to move the focus of diversity from numbers to quality interactions that are lacking in the community.
“We do a good job of getting diverse students in but do nothing after (they’re) here,” Glickman said. “They just hope diversity happens.”
The campus climate must change before diversity can take effect, said Dr. Christopher Lester, director of the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Education.
“It’s always about climate, the experience you have here because of your identification,” he said. “If diversity is about creating a liberating, empowering experience for all, that doesn’t exist here.”
Institutional practices, like some proposed in the draft, must change everywhere, not just in diversity-themed programs or demographics, he said.
“You can bring more students and faculty in and still have them drop out because of the uniquely racialized experience they are having,” added Lester, who runs an academic achievement program for Black and Latino male students. “I don’t feel that everyone is doing diversity relative to climate, every student should feel like a VIP without being labeled by peers, professors or anyone else here.”
Similarly, subcommittee co-chair and student union Director Gretchen Metzelaars said the conversation surrounding the draft is too insular and many of the students who will be affected by the plan were absent from the discussion.