National Conversation about Race Increases PSU Students’ Demands of Faculty

speak outThe start of PSU’s Fall Term was no different from years past. We welcomed new students, faculty and staff; launched new academic programs; deepened our community partnerships; and made advances in both research and scholarly efforts. It soon, however, became different—punctuated by a nationwide student of color movement that quickly brought attention to issues of race, ethnicity, identity intersectionality, and feelings of marginalization and isolation leading to a call for action.

Groups and individuals at PSU are engaged in this national conversation. Students are expressing their experiences and perspectives on race, equity and campus climate through meetings, large gatherings, letters, protests, one-on-one conversations, and social media. They organized a day-long event on December 1 in the SMSU with the help of the Vice President of Student Affairs, Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion and the Multicultural Resource Center. President Wiewel was present for the culminating four-hour listening session, along with myself, other members of the President’s Executive Committee, many deans, a number of department chairs, directors and staff, and some faculty.

The event began with poems, dance, prayers, and statements celebrating the diversity of PSU followed by students of color speaking out with expressions of personal experiences, concerns, desires and demands for change. These included curricular and classroom issues; required diversity training for staff, faculty, administration; additional cultural resource centers; support for student success; increases in staff, faculty, and administration who reflect the diversity of our student body; and a comprehensive campus safety plan.

Students demand changes
The students’ statements and expressions of pain, criticism and anger directly related to the classroom environment and our curriculum resonated the most with me. Our curriculum and classroom climate is at the core of what we do and who we are. I wish more faculty had been present to hear first-hand our students’ concerns, dissatisfaction and demands for change.

What students want from faculty
Students of color brought up the lack of course materials and course content that reflect their respective communities. They want faculty members to include these perspectives, histories and contemporary issues in the subject matter covered in classes and assignments. They want training for faculty in how to present and manage classroom discussions that address the spectrum of marginalization, stratification, bias, and oppression underrepresented groups experience and, to present in a positive way in each discipline, the contributions of such peoples. They demand respectful conversations to intentionally occur in real-time class discussions.

Many of these curricular-based demands were directed at President Wiewel, but as faculty know, most curricular and classroom decisions are the purview of faculty, and not decisions a university president or provost have the authority to make. Faculty decide the content of courses, the course materials, the micro-climate in the classroom, and interactions with students.

The changes and accountability students are seeking are a shared responsibility of administrators and staff and faculty, but one where faculty play the critical lead role.

Request to faculty
I call on our entire faculty to examine their courses, content, course materials, and classroom climate. We should ask ourselves what needs to change in our pedagogical approach and how to ensure our course content incorporates histories and contemporary social issues relevant to our student population and the world we live in.

As provost, I am committed to providing leadership to accomplish this work, but it will require faculty-driven processes and decisions for these changes to be made. We will begin that conversation in earnest in the coming months. In the meantime, I welcome your ideas on what each of you can individually do, as well as how we can make this change at a scale that will truly have an impact.

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6 thoughts on “National Conversation about Race Increases PSU Students’ Demands of Faculty

  1. Bravo!

    These issues receive a lot of attention throughout the Conflict Resolution program, though as the saying goes “you can always do more; you can never do enough.”

    Although this is just my first term teaching at PSU, I am happy to say that many CR faculty who teach “Intro to Conflict Resolution” teach modules on, and provide ongoing attention to, identity, intersectionality, microaggression, structural violence (e.g. systemic racism), social justice, inclusion, civic participation, human rights, and peacebuilding. Other core and elective courses, offered at the undergraduate and/or graduate levels, continue and deepen this learning.

    Students and instructors work concentrically, moving from personal awareness and interpersonal communication to local/regional, national, international, and historical contexts. There is sustained pedagogical emphasis on encouraging intentionality (via awareness, knowledge, and skills) about the roles we play in our circles of influence (e.g., home, classroom, workplace, etc.), in wider society, and over time.

    If I can extrapolate from the conversations I’ve had with my students this term, many PSU students appear hungry for more of these kinds of learning experiences and environments.
    Several students have told me that mine is the *only* course they’ve ever taken at PSU – or elsewhere – in which they have focused on the kinds of issues, topics, and skills I mentioned above.

    Simply put, they want more opportunities to work with faculty, fellow students, and administrators who are willing to “go there” with them – hopefully with facility and expertise, but at least with the willingness to safely stretch beyond comfort zones!

    Case in point: the Provost mentions the “conversation” that’s happening on college campuses, across the nation, and here at PSU. We have talked about these issues in my Intro to CR course throughout this term.

    As a result, many students have chosen to write their Final Exercises on these issues.
    When asked to design an imaginary intergroup conflict resolution process to address a real social conflict, several students chose to focus on thorny issues within the criminal justice system, law enforcement and policing, campus safety, organizational diversity/equity/inclusion (in higher ed and other sectors), even immigration policy and immigrant/refugee integration.

    I couldn’t be more proud of my students for tackling real social issues, seeking to find ways to help resolve conflict and build peace, and displaying real equanimity and empathy!

    Yet I also find myself thinking “We, as educators, need to do more here. Our students want it, and our world needs it.”

    I am deeply heartened by the Provost’s call and happy to be at PSU in this interesting, important moment.

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    • This is an important conversation for faculty to have. Perhaps the administration could organize workshops for faculty so that we can improve our classes in this important area.

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  2. Portland State University is required by state law to interview one qualified minority candidate when hiring a head coach or athletic director. 2009 House Bill 3118 http://gov.oregonlive.com/bill/2009/HB3118/

    Why not broaden The Rooney Rule and apply it to faculty and staff hires. Texas has done it http://www.texasmonthly.com/the-daily-post/new-ut-system-chancellor-announces-rooney-rule/

    The city of Portland will adopt it next month to address Bureau Director hires.

    Lets talk http://www.thenohatezone.com

    Sam Sachs

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  3. Speaking as a member of the PSU community, I agree that faculty must take a lead in addressing student concerns related to our curriculum, pedagogy and classroom climate. As the current Presiding Officer of the Faculty Senate, I will bring this to the Steering Committee and then to the floor of the Faculty Senate for discussion and then action. Our current Steering Committee has examined new course proposals through an equity lens, but how do we best address the existing courses and their delivery? There must be a rigorous examination of the issues raised by students.

    In the meantime, I urge all members of the PSU community to attend the Winter Symposium, “What does it mean to be educated in the 21st century?” One of the four questions that we will explore with panels of students, alums, faculty and community members will be related to the national conversation about race and the specific issues raised by our students.

    The Faculty Senate will use the Winter Symposium conversation as a launching pad for a deeper exploration of our approach to undergraduate education in a rapidly changing world. So I do hope to see many of you there on Wednesday, January 20, 2016, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the Smith Memorial Ballroom.

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  4. Thank you so much for this post, Sona. This is exactly the kind of thing we need more of… opportunities for conversations. It sounds like last week’s event was an extraordinary opportunity and I appreciate that your post provides another.

    I have to say that as the PM on the Strategic Planning Project working through the process of applying an equity lens was educational, emotional and extremely impactful. I strongly believe, based on these experiences, that we work in a community that truly desires to be inclusive and equitable but that we need more education and support overall.

    It’s very pleasing to see a lot of support and consensus between administration and faculty on this post and throughout the comments as well as to hear about the innovative and thoughtful work of our students. I hope that you all will continue to call on us to do our part and lead the way toward better understanding, compassion and mutual respect. It sounds like the foundation is there with real support to build upon it. I look forward to seeing the many opportunities that will evolve out of these conversations and efforts.

    In community.

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  5. I think it is important to note that what students are calling for is a social justice issue as well as a thoroughgoing learning/pedagogical concern. Identity, power, privilege, inclusion, and intersectionality are significant although not always named components of knowledge production. The ability to engage across experiences to confront continuums of oppression is a form of critical thinking that can enrich a dynamic community dedicated to education, particularly one where, “knowledge serves the city.” This idea is sharpened if we accept the notion that knowledge is filtered through relationship. Accordingly, the unfamiliar other respectfully encountered in the cosmopolitan city is an opportunity for growth and greater understanding that represents hope in the possibility of common cause. Therefore, when the Provost states, “Our curriculum and classroom climate is at the core of what we do and who we are,” I would suggest that this is a comprehensive sense of inclusion covering both experience of the physical classroom and the character of what we teach.

    I too hope that the PSU community will continue this conversation at the Winter Symposium on January 20.

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