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Raising the Bar on Diversity

Part two of three-part series

Dr. Lawrence T. Potter, Allegheny College’s first chief diversity officer, comes from a family that is committed to higher education. As a third generation college graduate, he has mixed his education between Stillman, a historically Black college in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he earned bachelor’s degrees in English, philosophy and religion and then the University of Missouri—Columbia, where he earned a master’s degree and doctorate in English. He also taught in China as a Fulbright scholar.

During his 15 years in higher education, Potter has worked as both a professor and administrator. At the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., he served as executive director of institutional diversity and chief diversity officer as well as McNair Scholars Program director. He also received the William Malevich Faculty Leadership Award. In 2008, the St. Paul Foundation awarded him the Facing Race Ambassador Award for his anti-racism work in the Twin Cities.

Among his many accomplishments, Potter was selected as a 2009-2010 American Council on Education fellow. He spent a year at DePaul University in Chicago, an institution that the Princeton Review has ranked as one of the 20 most diverse student populations for six consecutive years.

DePaul’s president, the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, described Potter as a quiet and thoughtful presence, someone who takes the measure of the landscape around him.

“First and foremost, he’s a scholar with a very personal commitment to academic quality. A true contributing scholar, he must have three more books in him waiting to be written. And, he has a gift for knowing how to set goals and figure out how to get from here to there,” says the Rev. Holtschneider.

Potter has presented more than 60 papers and speeches and has published in scholarly journals and books on such authors as Wallace Thurman, James Baldwin, Essex Hemphill, and E. Lynn Harris. His research concentrates on the relationship between culture and communication as played out in a number of contexts.

“Intellectually, I’m excited that he’s here. And, the conversation has to start; otherwise, nothing is going to change. It will be uncomfortable for a time,” says Vika Gardner, assistant professor of Islamic Studies.

Relationship building

In order to get a better handle on what individuals in the college community were experiencing, the aid of Rankin and Associates was enlisted. In collaboration with the Climate Steering Committee (CSC) in spring 2009, Rankin led a fact-finding mission to develop a survey tailored to Allegheny’s needs. In 2010, the college launched its next strategic plan, Combinations 2020 — diversity promotion being the plan’s premier goal.

His boxes hardly unpacked, Potter assumed leadership of the committee. A confidential e-mail account was established where the community could anonymously voice their concerns, and listening sessions were held.

“Lawrence Potter hosted conversations where constituent groups could talk about their experiences at the college. There were negative comments, it was hard to hear, yet he handled it masterfully. He listened, reflected back what he’d heard and created a space where people could express how they felt,” says Joe DiChristina, dean of students.

With this information in hand, Potter established a summer working group, the Diversity and Internationalization Implementation Team. The 20-member group is made up of faculty, students, staff and administrators.

Clearly not everyone agrees with what is being done in the name of diversity.

“I support the initiatives. The problem is I can’t argue against certain aspects of this without being depicted as a reactionary. I’m concerned that diversity will move from a goal to a dogma,” says Bruce Smith, professor of political science.

Other Allegheny stakeholders have different ideas on how to instill diversity.

“We should be politicizing our curriculum rather than making it about us (faculty and students). We could institute non-Western courses that introduce our students to other cultures and languages. Bring in Mariachi bands or Caribbean dance for example, that will entice student interest, which will lead to the need to hire a more diverse faculty,” says Ishita Sinha Roi, associate professor of media and cultural studies.

Potter has to navigate those varying opinions with care. “Diversity is relationship building. The tools I used at other schools gave me a foundation. You gain allies through building trust, and trust is a hard thing to get,” says Potter.

‘Gators not haters’

During his third month on the job, a couple of students blackened their faces as part of a Halloween celebration. A furor erupted. Cherjanet Lenzy, director of diversity affairs, joined with Potter to support students who organized a forum to air their response to the incident.

“Clearly, blackface started out of ignorance. What’s a joke to one person can be an offense to another. Racism still exists, but they’re trying to make a joke out of it. The only way to battle ignorance is by teaching the history of blackface, that it was used to mock African-American men,” says Duane Baptiste, class of ’13.

Then another incident rocked the campus. On February 11 the word “faggot” was scrawled on a student’s door. Though the college rushed to care and counsel the student who reported the incident, an administrative reply was slow to appear.

President James H. Mullen Jr., who wanted to wait until an investigation had been completed, sent out an official notice on February 23.

According to Jackie Kondrot, associate dean of students and the sexual harassment officer, “The immediate focus of our attention was on the student and students’ needs. The community response informed us that we needed to issue a statement. And we learned that a faster response is important.”

Then on March 4, “faggot” was once again marked on the same student’s door. That day, Joe DiChristina, dean of students, sent out a campus-wide e-mail alerting the community of the act. The e-mail tersely stated that the college does not tolerate any form of harassment, and that it is considered a hate crime in the state of Pennsylvania.

So far, the investigation has yet to uncover those responsible. However, the targeted student has elected to return to Allegheny in the fall.

In April, a rally was held that reiterated Allegheny’s statement of community. On the Institutional Diversity, Equity and Access, or IDEA, website students were asked to sign on as “Gators not haters.” So far, 470 members of the community have pledged to uphold the college’s statement of community.

Organizational change

In a series of moves designed to streamline diversity efforts, Potter co-facilitated revisions to discriminatory harassment and sexual harassment/sexual assault policies and reporting protocols; negotiated the integration of the Committee on Discrimination and Sexual Harassment and the Diversity Gender and Equity Committee into the Council on Diversity and Equity; updated faculty search-materials to enable departments to hire more diverse candidates; and apportioned money for under-represented students to practice research skills during the summer while working on faculty projects.

Potter also has instituted diversity training sessions that will be offered to all incoming freshmen. And, throughout the year, IDEA will offer monthly workshops on social justice, power sharing and diversity.

“Allegheny is going in the right direction. There’s going to be a new crop of people who have an appreciation for diversity because that’s what they know, that’s how they live their lives,” says Franklin E. Forts Jr., assistant professor of history.

Three offices that previously reported to the dean of students began reporting to the IDEA office in July. They are the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life, the Office of Diversity Affairs, and an office to deal with gender initiatives.

Currently, two searches are in gear. One to fill the position of the assistant or associate director of gender and sexual orientation initiatives, and the other to fill the position of director of diversity. That role has been elevated to assistant dean.

Aside from his administrative load, Potter squeezed in a course in contemporary African-American literature this spring. And, finally, that’s what it’s all about: educating students.

“Years in the making and here we are,” says Eddie Taylor, chairman of the Board of Trustees. “We have met the charge from a strategic standpoint, and hopefully the outcome will make everyone proud.”

Editor’s Note: R.F. Levine often writes on social and environmental issues and was formerly an adjunct faculty member at Allegheny College in 2004. Her partner, Daniel Crozier, is a theater professor at Allegheny College.

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