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Diversity Address to the Ithaca College CommunityDiversity Address to the Ithaca College Community
President Peggy Ryan Williams

Ithaca College, March 15, 2005

Thank you for coming this afternoon. I know it is a busy time but I truly appreciate each of you being here, as the issues I will discuss affect faculty, staff, and students -- current, past, and future. This is the beginning of a new conversation and a recommitment for Ithaca College. I would like to share my thoughts and hopes with you.

In my 16 years of service as a college president, there have been four or five occasions when I have wanted to stand on the rooftop of a college building, with a megaphone, to communicate something to the entire campus community. This is one such occasion -- this room is the rooftop and this microphone is my megaphone. This is a time for face-to-face communication. Following my address, I will be sharing the text of my remarks for those unable to be here.

Recently, there have been several racist incidents on campus that have had an impact on us individually and collectively -- they have shaken us at our core. These, along with recent reports of bias-related graffiti, leave me disgusted and outraged  and raising questions such as these:

  •     Who would do such things?
  •     How did the attitudes that underlie such behaviors develop?
  •     What made the perpetrators think they had the right to treat others as they did?
  •     What was the impact of their actions on the victims and how can we help the victims recover from these attacks?
  •     How many more events like these occurred on campus in recent months that we do not know about?

I am deeply troubled by these incidents. Although we know these kinds of things happen in the world, it does not mean we have to accept them when they happen here. Membership in our community is a privilege and it belongs to those who share our values and our commitment to a vibrant, diverse, and respectful environment in which people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and perspectives gather to explore, to grow, and to learn.

We are all here today to express support for those among us who have been hurt by these incidents -- the victims, their friends, their families. I have been in touch with the victims and personally assured them of my concern and my outrage. But this must be more than the response of a single individual -- even when that individual happens to be the president. We must respond collectively to these outrageous behaviors.

Such intolerant and intolerable behavior does not reflect who we are as a community, nor who we aspire to be. We are all here today because we care deeply about this community and because we want to work together to reduce the likelihood of such incidents in the future. Sometimes on a college campus we feel isolated from and different from the world “out there.” Incidents like these, however, remind us all, sadly, that we are part of the culture in which we live.

Heinous actions of the type we recently experienced, obviously born of ignorance and intolerance, have no place in a community that values diversity and aspires to be a place where all of its members feel free to pursue their education and their work in a nurturing and safe environment. I urge us to not let these acts tear us apart but instead bring us together. To see them as an opportunity to renew our community’s dialogue on the important topics of diversity and tolerance. And to redouble our efforts to educate our campus and the community beyond about the destructiveness of such actions.

At this point in our institution’s history, March 15, 2005, it is time for us to pause, to gather, and to remind ourselves not of our worst failings but of our greatest hopes and aspirations for ourselves, for our institution, for our community, and for each other.

Our College’s institutional plan, adopted four years ago, includes diversity as one of the nine priorities and as a central element of our present and future. It clearly states our desire to “create a campus environment that accepts, reflects, and celebrates diversity.” The plan documents our commitment to diversity and requires us to hold ourselves accountable. Together, as a community, we have made great strides toward building an environment that not only tolerates but celebrates diversity and difference in all of their forms and incarnations. Some examples:

  •     We created the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity (CSCRE). The center’s mission is to ensure that our students are prepared to meet the increasingly complex demands of a multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic society and global community. CSCRE has already had a significant impact on our community, offering new courses, important lectures, and events exploring diversity and multiculturalism for students, faculty, and staff.
  •     We launched the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar Program to attract more gifted ALANA students to Ithaca College. This community of talented students has, in turn, reached across campus, into the local community, and in fact around the world to foster education and opportunity through their sponsorship of service programs and cultural events.
  •     We instituted new hiring policies and procedures that strive to increase diversity among our faculty and staff. We have also increased our efforts to recruit students from diverse backgrounds. As a result of our efforts we have seen an increase in the diversity of students, staff, and faculty over the past five years.
  •     We chose The Color of Water as the book for our inaugural first-year reading initiative. This memoir, written by James McBride, helped us engage the campus in a lively dialogue about important messages regarding the many aspects of difference.
  •     The Bias-Related Incidents Committee was in place for many years, providing an avenue for reporting such incidents and for educating members of our community that such incidents took place. However, about a year ago the committee recommended, in response to questions raised about the effectiveness of the alerts, that the use of alerts be put on hold pending further review.
  •     In 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of affirmative action in college admissions, the College publicly applauded that decision. We took that opportunity to reaffirm Ithaca College’s commitment to providing student recruitment resources to identify and target students of color; to communicating to select populations through direct mail, phone calling, school visits, campus visits, institutional partnerships, alumni networking, and other focused activities; and to making strong efforts to convince accepted students of color to attend Ithaca College.
  •     We established the HOME program in Terrace 2. Housing Offering a Multicultural Experience is designed for international and domestic students committed to expanding their multicultural experiences.
  •     We established the LGBT center and hired a full-time director
  •     We conducted a “campus climate survey” during spring 2004. The objectives of this survey were to determine students’ general experiences at Ithaca College, attitudes and beliefs about diversity and multiculturalism, and experiences regarding diversity at Ithaca College.
  •     We have held diversity training for members of Administrative Assembly, and diversity training is included in our LeaderShip program for staff. A cross-section of our faculty has also participated in diversity training -- some as recently as three weeks ago.
  •     This year our first-year students participated in the Cooperative Institution Research (CIRP) freshman survey; through this we found that a very high percentage of new students had interacted with others from different racial or ethnic backgrounds and expected to do so at Ithaca College. This suggests that Ithaca College students expect to live and study in a diverse community of peers.
  •     Last year I created the Presidential Task Force on Diversity with the charge to review the Ithaca College institutional plan and make recommendations about “next steps” to assure consistent progress towards the College’s goal of “creating a campus environment that accepts, reflects, and celebrates diversity”. I have received the task force report and have scheduled a meeting with the task force. More on that later.
  •     Also as part of our institutional plan, a committee is finishing its work addressing the importance of a coordinated core experience for all Ithaca College students, with one area of focus being students’ ability to understand, appreciate, and think critically about cultural complexity. I am very encouraged at the direction this work is taking and look forward to learning more about strategies to make this a part of every Ithaca College student’s experience.

We have made progress, we have much to be proud of -- but there is much work still to be done. We can do more, we need to do more, and we will do more.

Looking forward, I would like to share with you some of the steps we will take in the very near future.

  •     I urge any member of the community who experiences racial, ethnic, sexual, homophobic, religious, or any form of unlawful harassment to contact the Office of Public Safety so that a full investigation can take place and those responsible can be held accountable.
  •     As students have requested, we will note Martin Luther King Day on our campus calendar and in our catalogs. I have also asked Provost Bardaglio and the College Calendar Committee to explore starting the spring semester the day after MLK Day or later that week. And, whatever decision we reach about holding classes on MLK Day, I have asked Provost Bardaglio and vice president for student affairs and campus life Brian McAree to continue work to enhance meaningful multicultural programming during that week and throughout the year
  •     In spring 2003 we developed a list of courses that addressed diversity and/or multiculturalism. I have asked Provost Bardaglio to see that this resource is available to students and advisers on a continuing basis.
  •     We need to recruit more students from underrepresented populations. We need to do likewise in our recruitment efforts for a diverse faculty and staff. We need to build on our success of recent years. Ultimately, it is critical that we also retain those whom we recruit. The quality of our campus climate is essential to such retention.
  •     We will include diversity programming in our new student orientation program to ensure that students understand our expectations of them as they join our community.
  •     I have asked Vice President McAree to engage in discussions with his staff about how to best extrapolate the learning that occurs in the HOME program to students beyond the walls of Terrace 2.
  •     We will expand diversity training for all of us.
  •     I have a meeting scheduled with the diversity task force. I still plan to take this opportunity to discuss the report as well as next steps, including ideas about coordination and assessment of our diversity efforts. However, in light of these recent developments, I have decided to extend the life of the task force and expand its charge, to address at least these three things: 1) revisit the effectiveness of bias-related incident alerts and assess what works best for Ithaca College; 2) review the campus climate survey once it is in final form, and see whether the survey results can further inform the task force’s work; and 3) review the draft report in light of the recent incidents on campus and determine what changes to make, if any. It makes sense to keep this group intact for a little while longer to do this important work, which fits with its original charge. In light of this decision, I will consider the present report a draft. I look forward to the final report and to sharing details about it with the campus community.
  •     As we examine our own practices and explore new ideas, we will search out effective programs in multicultural and cross-cultural awareness in place at other colleges and universities.
  •     Finally, our time today is limited, but we need many more opportunities in the future to continue this discussion. I will work with members of the campus community to plan events that foster open and constructive dialogue, such as community forums, cross-cultural retreats, and diversity coffee talks.

These steps are only a beginning -- a small part of our overall commitment to creating a diverse and welcoming campus. We are all here because we choose to be. I honestly believe that we want to learn and grow together. That will not happen if any one of us feels superior to another or engages in despicable and degrading behavior towards others. It is difficult to change the world, but each of us can begin today by naming such behaviors when we see them and saying, “How dare you! That offends me! Stop it!”

The issues we are addressing on our campus reflect those seen on campuses across America and throughout our society. Discrimination, whether based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or other difference, is an unfortunate part of our cultural fabric. Our goal is not to create a utopian or unrealistic world. Rather, our goal is to create greater understanding among us all -- students, faculty, and staff -- in order for each of us to make a positive contribution on this campus and in the world beyond. In any community of our size, no matter how carefully selected, there will be racists and bigots. When these people act out against our rules and policies, we have disciplined and will continue to discipline them. Whether they are caught or not, we will spare no effort to educate them -- and in the end there will be fewer racists and bigots graduating from or working at Ithaca College

Each of us has a critical role to play in changing the culture of this campus. Each and every one of us must make this commitment. We need to send the message to our classmates, colleagues, friends, family, and others that we will not tolerate racism or bigotry in any form. Each of us needs to take an active role in engaging our peers in meaningful dialogue and reaching out to others who are different from us -- to gain a greater understanding of one another and of ourselves. Ithaca College students, faculty, and staff have a long history of being determined, hard-working, goal-oriented individuals who can show tremendous focus and energy when taking on a challenge.

I challenge you now. Help me move the campus forward and bring about change that will make Ithaca an example and model for all institutions of higher learning across the country. In doing this, we will create a culture of mutual respect and understanding at IC, where differences are embraced and where civility and respect are the norms for all human interactions. We must work together, not in factions, to create and nurture this culture. There is no more important work for us -- for all of us -- to do.

I would like to conclude with a powerful quotation by Hanif Kureishi, the British playwright and novelist. “The evil of racism [and I would add bigotry] is that it is a violation not only of another’s dignity but also of one’s own person or soul; the failure of connection with others is a failure to understand or feel what one’s own humanity consists in, what it is to be alive, and what it is to see both oneself and others as being ends, not means, and as having souls.”1

I urge you all to view today -- March 15, 2005 -- as a new beginning and to engage with one another to meet the challenge that confronts us. I welcome your comments and reaction.


Notes

   1. Hanif Kureishi, "The Rainbow Sign," in My Beautiful Laundrette and the Rainbow Sign (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 31.