Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Administration and students split on diversity efforts at William & Mary

W&M 2018 Commencement. (WYDaily file/Courtesy of W&M News)
W&M 2018 Commencement. (WYDaily file/Courtesy of W&M News)

Universities across the country are starting to look at how their lack of diversity in leadership is impacting their communities.

The College of William & Mary is no exception.

As the second oldest university in the country, William & Mary has a history of slavery and racism that it has been working to grapple with in recent years. W&M issued a formal apology in 2018 for its use of slave labor and discrimination. It announced the following year the construction of a new African American memorial on campus.

The college has been slowly adding diversity to its leadership by recently appointing A. Benjamin Spencer as its first African American law school dean.

Many students feel there isn’t enough diversity represented in the school’s leadership, even with those changes.

“Personally, I see that it’s still mostly white,” said Loni Wright, president of the Black Student Organization. “And that’s not even to say there’s not enough black voices— there’s not enough Asian or Hispanic voices. It’s a problem that plagues higher education in general.”

Wright, a rising senior, said the Center for Student Diversity works hard to support diversity endeavors but other departments don’t seem to have that same interest because they’re mostly run by white people.

“It might be due to lack of representation,” she said. “When you have diversity, it forces you to keep those voices in mind but when you’re talking in a meeting from your own personal perspective, it’s just your experience. When you’re not of another cultural background, it can be easy to forget those voices.”

Celeste Chalkley, secretary of Diversity Initiatives for the college’s Student Assembly, said she also has noticed a lack of diversity in leadership, not just in race but age, gender and sexual identity.

She said the college community in general is a diverse population but administration and faculty don’t reflect that. And as a result, diverse employees are less likely to be interested in the institution and less likely to stay once hired.

Chalkley said the Student Assembly has been pushing for diversity and inclusion training in all departments and student organizations at the college. There is also a push from the Student Assembly to provide more tenure to professors of color in hopes it will create a higher retention rate.

“I think there has to be a lot of policy changes,” Chalkley said. “There has to be a commitment to diversity and ensuring that it’s not going to be a one-year thing…I feel like it’s the responsibility of leaders to make sure diversity is always on the table and being discussed.”

Chalkey added that diversity in leadership is important so students can see themselves reflected in the careers and policies presented by the college’s administration and faculty.

Wright said it doesn’t feel like diversity is prioritized even at the classroom level which can hinder the educational experience for minorities. In her experience, many students don’t feel comfortable confiding or trusting current administration and faculty because of the lack of diversity. 

“Our black students have been demanding change but it’s exhausting to justify your leadership,” Chalkey added. “They want to confide in professors and leaders that look like them and can understand.”

The appointment of Katherine Rowe as president in 2018 began to change that, Wright said, and while it seems like the initiatives for diverse leadership are only happening just now, it’s never too late to make a change.

Students recently have been hosting regular protests in light of the death of George Floyd. Many are asking for even more change at the school, such as the names on buildings that feature former slave owners.

Wright said she believes the current national political movement has pushed the college to look at areas it needs to change, but she hopes it doesn’t take another traumatic event to actually create those changes.

“Until I see results, I’m not sure how students are going to feel,” she said. “It’s one thing to say you’re working on it, but until [we] see the fruit of that labor, students don’t know what will actually happen.”

W&M’s response

Rowe sent out a letter to the college community on June 8 about the recent deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

“While listening to students and colleagues throughout the last week, I met with senior leaders and with the leadership of our elected faculty and staff assemblies to gather their insights about concrete changes at W&M that would systematically eliminate racial bias in university structures and behaviors,” Rowe said in a prepared statement. “We asked ourselves, “what can we do today?” Our answer: accelerate. Define results.”

Rowe outlined several steps the university would take, including monthly Q&A meetings for students with William & Mary Police Chief Deborah Cheesbro, reviewing the right for students and staff to protest, hiring more faculty, expanding a course on diversity and a yearly meeting of staff about implicit bias and training.

WYDaily reached out to Suzanne Clavet, spokeswoman for the college, to schedule an interview with Rowe.

The college was closed on Friday ––Juneteenth––– and Rowe was not immediately available. Clavet instead provided WYDaily with some answers Monday.

We asked for the number of minorities on the Board of Visitors and faculty members in terms of race and gender.

Clavet said sent a link to the Board of Visitors page and the college’s faculty and staff demographic information for 2018.

The Board of Visitors has 17 members. The three officers are all white, two men and one woman and the general members are five white men, three white women, three black men, one black woman, one Asian man and one Hispanic woman.

According to the William & Mary Fact Book: Faculty and Staff document, which was last updated in June 2019, there were 702 faculty members: 410 males and 292 females in 2018. A third of the male faculty members, 306, are white, and 209 female faculty members are white. See the full breakdown below.

Screenshot of the William & Mary Fact Book: Faculty and Staff document, which was last updated in June 2019. (WYDaily/ Courtesy of William & Mary)
Screenshot of the William & Mary Fact Book: Faculty and Staff document, which was last updated in June 2019. (WYDaily/ Courtesy of William & Mary)

When asked why the university hired its first black dean in 2020 and why not hire a black person for the position previously, Clavet sent WYDaily a news release about the hiring announcement.

To help put perspective to the recent publicized response, statements, hiring, initiatives at William & Mary, WYDaily asked a series of questions:

The promotion of minorities? Discussions on diversity, inclusion — why the college and Rowe did not release a statement of inclusion before the recent Black Lives Matter protests?

WYDaily also asked why Rowe was hiring minorities now, changing student protests rights on campus and addressing racism and bias even though she has been in office for two years.

“Per your other questions, there is background related to diversity and inclusion efforts at the university you are missing,” Clavet wrote in an email. “I would encourage you to spend time reviewing the links so you can have a greater understanding of diversity and inclusion efforts at W&M, previous initiatives and statements so that you can do a thoughtful and accurate article on a critically important topic.”

“For example, the president has highlighted diversity and inclusion as a priority from her very first day on campus,” Clavet noted.

Clavet shared a link to Rowe’s 2018 speech, which Rowe talked about diversity and inclusion.

Clavet added there was a “university-wide approach” to diversity and inclusion in December 2018 which included a task force at each school and the college adopting core values like Belonging: “We create a welcoming and caring community that embraces diverse people and perspectives.”

Clavet then provided a timeline of the university’s efforts from The Lemon Project, a 2009 initiative to study the college’s history of slavery, and W&M Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience, a program created in 2010 which gives full tuition to 40 underrepresented groups based on academic achievement.

She said college pledged $1 million in 2016 to hire more “new, underrepresented faculty,” retired two residence halls ––one of which was named after Lemon, a Black man enslaved by the college and the 50th anniversary of African-American “in residence” students in 2018 with events throughout the year and a plaque.

“Just prior to Rowe’s arrival, William & Mary’s Board of Visitors adopted a resolution apologizing for the university’s history related to slavery and racial discrimination and committing to the ongoing work of the Lemon Project,” Clavet said, adding this was done in spring 2018.

“Rowe launched a university-wide diversity and inclusion effort shortly after her arrival at William & Mary as well as a $1 million faculty hiring initiative,” Clavet added. “The Task Forces created in each school reported out plans last fall. Immediate actions out of this process include establishment of the Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Council with hiring underway of Diversity & Inclusion officers for each of the colleges.”

Clavet said the college in August 2019 received a $1 million, five-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for “inclusive research, teaching and community engagement around the legacies of slavery and racism,” and the college is working on a memorial for African-Americans enslaved by the university.

“These are a few examples but please take some time to review a history of W&M’s reconciliation efforts,” Clavet wrote. “This website is helpful.”

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Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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