Forums explore campus racial issues

Administrative and student leaders met in McCoy Commons Sept. 27-28 for two forums about recent campus incidents involving racial slurs.

Speaking to about 35 students, faculty and staff in attendance at each forum, Elon University President Leo M. Lambert outlined several steps the university is considering in the weeks and months ahead as it promotes one of the central goals of the Elon Commitment strategic plan: preparing students for the 21st century with an institutional pledge toward diversity and global engagement.

Lambert was joined in leading the dialogue by Smith Jackson, dean of students and vice president of Student Life; Leon Williams, director of the Multicultural Center; and senior Sam Warren, executive president of the Student Government Association.

The university leaders said they wanted to clarify existing procedures and share ideas for additional policies for responding to acts of harassment or discrimination, and ways to further a campus climate of respect.

Lambert said several ideas have surfaced since two early September incidents in which African-American students were the victims of racial slurs from people in passing vehicles.

“This is by no means a complete list, but it’s some of the things we’re thinking about getting started on,” he said.

Ideas include the following:

  • Discussions by the Academic Council for helping faculty address issues of race, diversity and bias in the classroom, especially “hot moment” comments by class members that include elements of stereotyping or insensitivity.
  • Focus on staff development for training university employees to be more effective at their jobs when dealing with various populations. Programs would likely start with employees who have the most interaction with the public, Lambert said.
  • Creating a Student Diversity Council, as was recently suggested by a student.
  • Develop a bias incident reporting system for students to formally channel their experiences and concerns to the university. The university will also explore the creation of a staff position to serve as an advocate for victims.
  • Identifying and designating new spaces for student groups is another priority, Lambert said. He noted that Elon Hillel will soon have a gathering space of its own, and similar plans could be made for African American students.

Lambert said Elon is by no means a perfect, but it is a university that is constantly trying to get better. “This has been a moment of awakening for us, these moments have challenged us to do this really well,” Lambert said.

Students had an opportunity to share their reflections, concerns and suggestions with the room. David Brown, the junior class president, expressed concern that despite the prominent attention Elon leaders have paid to the racial slurs – reactions that included a special College Coffee – he was dismayed at the relatively small number of people who attended the forum.

“Where is everybody?” he said. “Where is the sense of community that we all need to come together to address this? What are we going to do to get students from all walks of life involved?”

Williams was the first to respond to the concern. He noted that diversity is not a priority for many students, and that despite what may be preferred, that was the “reality.”

Associate professor Brooke Barnett, a Faculty Administrative Fellow and assistant to the president, also responded to Brown’s concerns, saying, “our challenge will be to have lots of ways … for people to show their commitment to this cause. It won’t be the same way for everybody.”

Other discussion points that students brought up included a need for the university to invest more in programs and resources already in place, and to consider how the Multicultural Center can do more to dispel the notion that it exists only for African Americans but rather for people of all backgrounds, religious faiths and sexual orientations. Some students also called on Elon to designate a point person who would serve as a resource specifically for African American students.