Northwestern Faculty Missing from Diversity Dialogues

It’s about time more Northwestern community members, especially faculty, join diversity dialogues.

At Monday evening’s Faculty-Student Speak Out event, roughly 60 students and faculty gathered for small-group discussions, featured speeches and attendees “speaking out” about proposed diversity initiatives.

Members from NU4DiversityNow organized Monday’s event following the release of a joint faculty-student petition titled “Creating a Culture of Diversity at Northwestern University.” It features proposed recommendations from the diversity report released last month.

African-American studies professor Barnor Hesse spoke to the crowd, sharing his perspectives as a co-chair of the working group that authored the diversity report. He also shared general information from the biannual faculty assembly meeting, which preceded the Speak Out.

Unfortunately, the news on the latter wasn’t all good.

Hesse and other faculty in attendance were clearly displeased with reactions from some of their colleagues. He even noted a faculty member at the assembly characterizing the diversity recommendations as “dangerous.”

That’s unfortunate. And, in reality, the situation among faculty is analogous to what many  students are experiencing. That’s both with difficulties discussing the issue and varying degrees of support and dissent. Regardless of where anyone stands, students and faculty should feel more empowered to share ideas with each other.

One professor at the Faculty-Student Speak Out reminded students of a common community organizing strategy: bringing one or two new friends to an event you’re attending. Those words came to mind while conversing with a friend later that evening. We disagree on more than a few points, yet he grew curious while overhearing my discussion with others about the event.

He asked, “why wasn’t I invited?” I simply assumed since it was on Facebook that many folks were getting the event notices, even though I make practice of inviting as many people as possible online. In some ways, I thought he might not even be interested. But you know what they say about what happens when you assume. From now on, I’ll make sure to keep him posted to ensure he’s present during these important dialogues.

Communication senior Kate Popovec shared similar sentiments while speaking at Monday’s event, noting that the discussion should be broadened to include those not already participating or those who don’t understand what’s happening. Regardless of where anyone falls on the spectrum, perspectives from all sides are essential to consciousness raising, forming community consensus and fostering empathy.

But how could faculty and students make that a reality? It’s a question many ponder, and I certainly don’t have all the answers.

For students, it’s important to remember that professors aren’t employed to simply inject knowledge from their field into pupils’ minds like a hypodermic needle delivers a vaccine to a baby. Education requires active participation and engagement in and out of the classroom, including the oh-so-dreaded office hours.

During those hours, nurture natural curiosity. Ask professors where they stand. Inquire about their reasons and rationale. Offer a student perspective, whether it be one based in pure logic, interactions with other students or experiences within the curriculum. It’s crucial that that students speak up, ask difficult questions, get answers, share knowledge and come to an understanding.

I’ve spoken with some of my professors already about how they feel. Some of those professors, past and present, endorse the joint faculty-student petition currently circulating. That’s encouraging to me as a student. However, I’ve come to expect this to a degree given that my academic interests span communication, gender studies and ethnic studies. Still, there are professors in other academic departments who also need to get involved. And many professors, even some in my areas of study, remain reluctant.

So how can more faculty members actively participate in the dialogues?

At Monday night’s event, I noted that relatively few faculty were in attendance with students, despite the event being held directly after a bi-annual faculty assembly. Weinberg sophomore Benjy Liebowitz, one of the event organizers, mentioned the event’s scheduling was to allow faculty attendance following their closed discussion on the issue.

“It’s frustrating that faculty, on the whole, are not willing to take responsibility or engage in any meaningful level of solidarity with student efforts,” Liebowitz said. “Signing a statement is one thing… but the statement’s been a long time coming and faculty haven’t been putting their neck on the line in the way students have been on this issue.”

Sure enough, in the broader picture, the number of faculty members who have signed the joint petition out of more than 2,000 remains quite a minority. And the number who were in attendance at the Monday event was even fewer. I think most of us can appreciate that faculty members have lives outside of their work and can’t always attend events like the Speak Out. Yet the broader disengagement from faculty merits questioning both from their colleagues and their students.

Faculty certainly can find ways to integrate the discussions in what they’re already doing. Where possible, faculty can integrate discussions with relevant classroom material as appropriate, both this quarter and beyond. Like students, faculty program events and establish venues conducive to these discussions, including Monday night’s faculty assembly. It’s somewhat suspect from my vantage point that faculty assemblies are closed to students, even as silent observers, to hear their professors discuss key issues with each other. I attempted to find out why from the incoming faculty senate chair, Feinberg professor Babette Sanders, but my attempts to reach her were unsuccessful on Wednesday.

For faculty members unsure of where they stand or who are otherwise inactive beyond petition signatures, perhaps inspired dialogues with colleagues over lunch or in offices would help some navigate diversity issues. If not doing so already, they can share knowledge about how they could work to adapt solutions from other institutions to NU’s unique needs.

Maybe then will the momentum shift, and perhaps some faculty won’t be so quick to characterize the recommendations as “dangerous.”

Ed. note (5/24): check out a wonderful piece from the Northwestern Chronicle written by a student leader in the campus diversity movement. 

Originally published in the 5/17 edition of The Daily Northwestern.

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3 thoughts on “Northwestern Faculty Missing from Diversity Dialogues

    • How your comments got trapped in the spam filter perplexes me; my apologies for that and not checking the filter sooner.

      Your piece at Northwestern Chronicle was a wonderful read after I wrote this and I hope others gained from your perspective — despite the noisy online comments of the proverbial Northwestern trolls that seem to love us so much.

      Thanks again for reading and for your stand as a campus leader working to improve the picture for diversity

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