OUT OF COMMISSION

OUT OF COMMISSION

UMD's president rarely meets with his permanent diversity commissions. But the groups want more support.

File photo/The Diamondback

Published on October 27, 2016

Members of four president’s commissions, which specialize in women’s issues, LGBT issues, disability issues and ethnic minority issues, said they rarely meet with university President Wallace Loh.

Instead, the commission chairs regularly interact with Chief Diversity Officer Kumea Shorter-Gooden and Loh’s chief of staff or another member of the administration.

“If I never attend their meetings, I don’t know what they do, why do we still have [them]?” Loh said. “The answer is, they’ve been around for [many] years, and people would be very upset.”

These are the only permanent president commissions, while councils serve temporary purposes. The President’s Student Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion — which formed after a university Kappa Sigma fraternity member’s racist, sexist email surfaced on Twitter in March 2015— disbanded after just four meetings.

The diversity council aimed to provide an opportunity for students to discuss the issues it caused on the campus, Loh said. Once a president’s council addresses the problem at hand, there is a “sun-setting” to the group.

Now members from the council have the option to work with Shorter-Gooden on diversity issues, a structure similar to the president’s permanent president’s commissions.

“There are certain issues that … at that moment in time are so salient, so visible, so important that you have to lend them the name to the president,” Loh said. “As president, I have [a] responsibility for the whole place. If I start getting into the weeds in any given area … then I’m not doing my job.”

But Shorter-Gooden said the council’s purpose hadn’t really been served and Graduate Student Government President Stephanie Cork, who sat on the council, said it never developed specific goals.

ABOVE: University President Wallace Loh. (File photo/The Diamondback.)

Reaching the upper levels of the administration has been one of the ethnic minority issues commission’s bigger challenges, said Nacie Grigsby, a member of the group. This year, it appointed co-chairs, rather than a single chair, in the hopes it would create a stronger voice.

“The administration is very receptive, but it could be more responsive,” Grigsby said. “I don’t want to blame it all on the administration – things happen in all steps of the way – [but] to see things not going anywhere, it can be challenging at times.”

When told some members on the diversity council and commissions were disappointed in a lack of visibility from the president, Loh said he abides by principles of “shared governance” and prefers not to micromanage. He trusts the appointed chairs and Shorter-Gooden will adequately carry out the presented tasks.

“There’s a fundamental difference between leadership and management,” Loh said. “The role of a president, of any president in leadership, we make the big picture, the strategy, the direction and then the management, the day-to-day implementation or execution of a plan, that is done by the cabinet.”

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“A stronger role”

The commissions were formed before Loh became president, and while they continue to operate, he said “the only real president’s [groups are] those that I appoint.”

It wasn’t his choice to create these groups, and he isn’t very involved with them, he said. However, he recognizes the prestige of maintaining the commissions under the name of the president.

Ellin Scholnick, the chair of the President’s Commission on Women’s Issues, agrees.

“If taken away, you’d lose a voice,” Scholnick said, adding it would be “a tremendous loss” to lose the commission.

The women’s commission, established in 1973, aims to tackle issues facing female members of the campus community, such as advocating for a day care center for faculty and staff, said Scholnick, who has worked with the group for more than 25 years.

The group meets about three to four times per semester and holds an annual ceremony to honor female university leaders. Loh doesn’t directly communicate with the commission — his chief of staff Michele Eastman does instead. While he attends the annual awards ceremony, he doesn’t go to its regular meetings, Scholnick said.

Scholnick described the commission’s structure as “reactive, rather than proactive.”

“If there were a breaking issue, we could go to him and we would be heard,” Scholnick said. “A stronger role is always appreciated.”

Grigsby, who is also the staff adviser for this university’s NAACP chapter, said there are issues “every step of the way” – such as a need for better communication between the ethnic minority issues commission and the administration – but seeing ideas from the commission “not go anywhere” can be difficult.

ABOVE: University of Maryland accepted its first four-year female student 100 years ago. (Photo courtesy of the University Archives.)

Luke Jensen, director of this university’s LGBT Equity Center, was the first chair of the President’s Commission on LGBT issues and has remained involved in the group. While he doesn’t see the absolute need to place this commission under the president, Jensen wants to ensure the group has the authority to adequately address these issues on the campus.

“Whether or not we have these commissions, where they are located within the administrative structure in the university needs to be addressed in a larger context,” Jensen said. “We need to think very critically about their role and make them more effective.”

Jensen acknowledged the commissions’ connections to this university and the importance of the president’s office in ensuring campus involvement. But he added that there are university officials whose sole positions are related to diversity.

“The root is that the commissions are under Dr. Shorter-Gooden — what is she doing to make sure these commissions are vital, noteworthy, and constructive,” Jensen said.

The four commission chairs and Shorter-Gooden interact roughly once a month to address issues that encompass diversity in various aspects of the campus, Scholnick said. However, she acknowledged that aside from advocacy efforts, the groups can’t enact or change policy on their own.

Cork said it can be frustrating for the commissions to make improvements on the campus without more support from the administration, as the president’s commissions don’t have the power to enact major policies.

“There are so many offices and people here doing amazing things, and if they’re constantly pushing up against brick walls … it’s infuriating,” Cork said. “I understand that the [president’s] title’s important, but … he could do more if he wanted.”

“We could’ve done things differently”

ABOVE: Julian Ivey leads chants during the march on Frat Row on Friday, March 27. Students gathered to march in protest of the university’s response to the racist and sexually explicit 2014 email sent by a member of Kappa Sigma fraternity last January. (File photo/The Diamondback)

When Cork found out in an Aug. 31 email that the diversity council was no longer meeting, she felt both frustrated and relieved. While she wishes the council could have continued, she acknowledged it wasn’t accomplishing much.

“The administration had a different vision than the students who tried so hard to be [on the council],” Cork said. “We could’ve done things differently.”

Loh created the council as a reaction to the campus climate to the leaked email, which referenced sexual assault and used racial slurs to tell recipients not to invite minority women to a rush party “unless they’re hot.” It prompted about 100 students to host a sit-in at Stamp Student Union and march around Fraternity Row chanting, “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. These racist frats have got to go.”

But the council was never intended to be permanent or particularly long-lasting.

“They’re formed for a specific purpose; they do what they’re supposed to do, they give me their advice, and it’s disbanded afterwards,” Loh said. “In all areas, whether it’s diversity or student affairs or academics, there are members of my cabinet who have [a] responsibility for that.”

Loh will form a president’s council when there are urgent, specific situations he wants to be involved with, such as the Commission on UMD and Big Ten/CIC Integration, which stemmed after this university’s move from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Another council was the Byrd Stadium Naming Work Group, which was used to provide Loh with research on the possible renaming of the stadium, ultimately leading to its current name: Maryland Stadium.

Loh will still be meeting with students and campus groups to talk about diversity, but as the president, he said he can’t afford to be directly involved in every issue he’s been confronted with. Otherwise, there would be “hundreds” of president’s councils, university spokesman Brian Ullmann said.

Loh added that if the council kept operating under his authority, he would be undermining efforts by Shorter-Gooden, who was also a member of the former diversity council. Diversity efforts will now continue to be taken on by this university’s Diversity Advisory Council, a group of students, staff and faculty, led by Shorter-Gooden.

This council offers another outlet to discuss diversity-related issues, and is “where the [diversity] work actually happens,” Ullmann said.

Still, Shorter-Gooden said the president’s council’s purpose hadn’t really been served.

“We need multiple ways for students to share what they’re experiencing and to engage with administrators,” Shorter-Gooden said. “No, I don’t think it was a problem that got a fix.”

And it won’t be fixed in the near future, she added.

“There are going to continue to be big issues around inclusion on this campus,” she said. “We’re in a context nationally and internationally that is distressing for many … These are ongoing issues.”

“It makes us feel more isolated”

Despite the existence of president’s groups tailored to women’s issues, LGBT issues, disability issues and ethnic minority issues, senior finance major Bria Sladden, who is also the president of the Black Student Union, said she has seen and experienced diversity issues at this university.

On paper, the campus sounds diverse and accepting, she said. But she’s never had a black professor teaching one of her business classes, and on multiple occasions, she’s been told she only got into college because she’s black. And when she heard the president’s diversity council had ended, she was “appalled.”

“Numbers say we’re diverse, but it doesn’t feel like members of minority or marginalized communities have much of a voice on campus,” Sladden said.

About 40 percent of non-foreign undergraduate students are minorities this fall, according to the Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment. Of those students, about 16 percent are Asian, about 13 percent are black and almost 10 percent are Hispanic.

The state of diversity issues on the campus hasn’t seemed to improve in recent years, and it’s hard to be a student of color at a predominantly white institution, said Lauryn Froneberger, president of this university’s NAACP chapter.

“It feels like it’s not important with the absence of the administration,” the senior journalism major said. “The university’s response … is neutral, detached, and it makes us feel more isolated and causes friction.”

Currently, this university offers several academic programs and campus resources encouraging diversity. It also hosts a Rise Above ‘isms’ campaign to promote respect and eliminate stereotypes, and the program offers grants of up to $750 for bias- and identity-related events or workshops, according to this university’s 2015 cultural diversity report. But members of the university community aren’t using this money, according to a Sept. 8 Diamondback article.

In February, Loh announced the start of the Maryland Dialogues, a series of events designed to bring together members of the university community to talk about issues in topics like race, gender, sexuality and disability. And after University of Maryland Police used pepper spray this summer at a graduation party with predominantly black students, Loh addressed a letter to the campus community July 13.

ABOVE: Students use the LGBT Equity Center to hang out and do homework. (File photo/The Diamondback)

“It helps that Loh has lived this experience as a man of color,” Shorter-Gooden said. “He gets how important [diversity] is. I don’t see him as abandoning this issue at all.”

But to Cork, taking away the president’s student advisory council was a step back in combating problems with diversity.

“When you start dismantling the infrastructure on this campus that people have fought so hard to have … that’s messed up,” she said.

Sladden and Froneberger agreed there is a need for greater approachability, support and involvement from the administration to tackle diversity issues, not just the president’s title tacked onto an initiative or event.

“We need more face time with the administration in a collaborative environment,” Froneberger said. “Loh is starting to do some of those things; I want to see a more human side of the administration. I want to know who is in charge of the university, and I don’t feel like I do.”

 

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