GW administrators in attendance listened and responded to students on issues of race, diversity and inclusion at the Black Student Union town hall.
By Briahnna Brown
George Washington University students expressed their frustrations as black students on campus at a town hall Thursday night asked administrators to work to create a more inclusive community.
The town hall, hosted by the GW Black Student Union, had the theme “Changing the Culture” and encouraged students to talk openly and honestly about issues they have faced, especially those related to the racial climate at the university.
GW administrators—including President Thomas LeBlanc, Provost Forrest Maltzman, Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement Caroline Laguerre-Brown, Senior Vice Provost for Enrollment and the Student Experience Laurie Koehler and Dean of the Student Experience Cissy Petty—were also in attendance at the discussion in the Elliott School of International Affairs to hear the students’ perspectives on their experiences and respond to some of their concerns.
At a Faculty Senate meeting on Friday, Dr. LeBlanc told faculty members that those concerns are not only a problem for black students or the administration but also a problem for the entire GW community.
“They're experiencing a different GW than many of us are experiencing,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “To sit there and listen to these things gave me hope because we're having a conversation, we were hearing things, and we were listening. There were some proposals about things we can do better—I tend to generally live life as an optimist, so I think we can do better.”
BSU President Michael Ferrier and Vice President Nneka Onyekwuluje moderated the Thursday night discussion with the help of executive board members Owen Manning and Alexis Sam. Ms. Onyekwuluje encouraged participants in the town hall to actively and respectfully listen to their peers.
“This is a safe space, so please feel open to voice your concerns,” Ms. Onyekwuluje said. “Tonight is focused on making a change to the issues or concerns that we have in our community, so please keep that in mind.”
Students discussed “moving on from Alpha Phi,” faculty diversity, addressing ignorance and discrimination, finances, housing, safety and creating a sense of community at GW.
BSU President Michael Ferrier (l) and Vice President Nneka Onyekwuluje (c) moderated Thursday night's discussion during the town hall with the help of executive board member Owen Manning (r).
Several students expressed concerns over what they described as a lack of transparency in GW’s administration, particularly with how the university responded to a deeply offensive social media post in the Spring 2018 semester.
Ms. Laguerre-Brown responded to the concerns. Regarding the offensive post, she said that it carried a narrative that was not fully supported by facts gathered in the university’s investigation. However, the university fully acknowledged the need to work on improving the racial climate on campus. She shared that her office has taken concrete steps to address their concerns, including updating the Code of Student Conduct and drafting an update to the university’s Equal Opportunity Policy. She explained that the changes to the Code of Student Conduct include new sections on and definitions of harassment and discrimination.
“We know that policy changes are not going to change culture overnight,” Ms. Laguerre-Brown said. “We want to keep working at this every single day to try and make it better, and we hope that you will continue to work with us on trying to achieve those goals.”
At the town hall, students said they were disappointed with the lack of diversity among GW’s faculty. Some students said that classrooms lack cultural competency and that they felt out of place in their learning environments. Others said that diversity training for incoming faculty does not address the issue of cultural awareness with current faculty.
Dr. Maltzman said that the university is trying to provide training to current faculty in as many forums as possible, including school-wide faculty meetings. He also said that the university will not achieve its aspiration of preeminence without a faculty that is diverse. “Unfortunately, we are not where we need to be,” he said.
To help create a faculty that is more diverse, Dr. Maltzman added, the university is providing intensive unconscious bias training to faculty search committees and is trying to create more diverse applicant pools by defining more positions broadly.
Ms. Laguerre-Brown also noted that her office brought on a new director for diversity and inclusion education, Jordan West, who has been training a number of faculty who have requested assistance in making their courses more inclusive.
After the town hall, Mr. Ferrier said that he believes people are beginning to understand that change requires more than just being upset or understanding the issues.
“Half the battle is knowing what the problem is, the other half is knowing what we're going to do and planning out how to fix the problem,” Mr. Ferrier said. “I don't think real change happens unless you have an energized [and organized] group of people.
“I think what we're trying to do right now is start getting those organized people and start really fighting for the things they want but fighting together.”