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Weatherford Hall peering above trees during sunset.

Town hall centers Black experiences in the College, paves the way for action

By Tamara Cissna

On October 8, the College of Science hosted a virtual town hall listening session to give the community an opportunity to center the experiences of Black science students in the College. The event laid the groundwork for the development of an anti-racist action plan that aims to ensure the College is a more inclusive and equitable learning environment for Black and other underrepresented students, faculty and staff.

The College organized the town hall in response to a petition signed by 105 College of Science students following the national outcry after the death of George Floyd, who was murdered in police custody on May 25. 

Attended by over 300 people, the listening session spotlighted the considerable obstacles Black science students experience in the College of Science where there are few Black professors and where the fraction of Black students (0.9%) is smaller than the Black population of Oregon’s population as a whole (2.2%).

Black students in the College have lower retention rates and graduation rates than students who are not historically underrepresented. And while 23% of science students overall are issued a drop, fail or withdraw (DFW) in classes, 40% of Black science students are issued a DFW.

“Regardless of intent, these are racist outcomes,” said Roy Haggerty. “As Dean of the College of Science, I'd like to acknowledge the failings that we've had in the College and pledge to do better.”

Panelists shared the history of ongoing Black student protests and struggles at OSU. They stressed the challenges Black students face in the College of Science and in a U.S. K-20 educational system at large that was not designed with them in mind. They advocated for the adoption and enforcement of cultural and structural changes in the College that create equity, not just equality. Panelists and Black students who responded to a survey overwhelmingly urged the College to “hire more professors and staff that look like us.”

The meeting included questions from the virtual audience. Many questions circled around hiring practices, critiques of past actions, clarity about the College’s plan to address racism, and concerns about why changes are taking so long to materialize.

The town hall moderators included:

  • Charlene Alexander, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer
  • Dorian Smith, Assistant Director of Black Student Access and Success at the Educational Opportunities Program

Panelists included:

  • Jason Dorsette, Associate Director for OSU’s Educational Opportunities Program; College of Liberal Arts Faculty Member 
  • Terrance Harris, Director of the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center
  • Arica Nassar (’15 Chemistry), Assistant Volleyball Coach  
  • Afua Nyarko, Assistant Professor in Biochemistry and Biophysics, College of Science
  • Robert Thompson, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies, College of Liberal Arts

Panelists also emphasized the complex relationship between Black racial identity, on-campus racial dynamics and academic achievement. Too often, an implicit bias against Black students is conveyed in the classroom.

Alexander said that when training new OSU faculty on equity, she shares that Black students know immediately upon walking into a classroom whether or not their professor thinks they belong. She challenges these faculty to consider: "Are you going to be the one who, whether intentionally or unintentionally, communicates to Black students that they don't belong in that classroom – when we chose each and every single one of these students to be here?"

In addition to the challenges faced through implicit bias in the classroom, panelists shared that it is important to discern that Black students experience their racial identity in different ways both internally and externally, which is compounded by external racial dynamics and generations of trauma.

“We need to put that context into what is happening now,” Dorsette said. “That is to say, there is no one way to support Black students specifically in the College. It has to be a multi-pronged approach, and we have to be adaptable to every single student. We are not a monolithic group. So, it's going to take work.”

Participants emphasized that Black students have been waiting too long for institutional change in the College of Science and at OSU, particularly given the history of ongoing calls for change.

“The College needs everyone, from advisors and staff to faculty and instructors, as well as administrators and leadership, to look at current policies, procedures, practices and philosophies with an equity – not an equality – lens, and start making changes now,” Thompson said.

An anti-racist action plan aimed at results

The listening session helps inform the College’s newly formed diversity, equity, justice and inclusivity (DEJI) working group that is charged with developing an anti-racist action plan to address these and other issues of equity, justice and inclusivity in the College. The group starts work this month with a goal of completion by March 31, 2021.

The plan will involve community input, and will be developed consultatively with faculty, staff and students in the College, as well as with the Office of Institutional Diversity and the Cultural Resource Centers. It has been allocated an implementation budget of $150K per year, beginning in academic year 2021-22.

The plan will align with OSU’s strategic plan 4.0, the Office of Institutional Diversity’s strategic plan, the College’s commitment to systemic change and will be consistent with free scientific inquiry and informed by evidence. It aims for measurable results – that is, greater numbers of historically underrepresented students reaching achievement levels comparable to other students in the College. 

Members of the working group include:

  • Felipe Barreto, Assistant Professor of Integrative Biology
  • Vrushali Bokil, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies
  • Dustin Campbell, Undergraduate student in Zoology
  • Terrance Harris, Director of the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center
  • Dave Hendrix, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics
  • Doug Keszler, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry
  • Katie McLaughlin, Assistant Professor of Statistics
  • Kim McQueen, Assistant to the Dean and administrative assistant to the working group
  • Mark Phillips, Postdoctoral Scholar in Integrative Biology
  • Isabel Rodríguez, Graduate student in Physics
  • Xavi Siemens, Professor of Physics
  • Becky Vega Thurber, Associate Professor of Microbiology
  • Scott Vignos, Assistant Vice President for Strategic Diversity Initiatives
  • Tze-Yiu Yong, Project Manager

Bias reporting form

With the input of students, the College has implemented a process to better address incidences of bias and experienced discrimination, recently launching a report form and process.

The goal of the feedback form is to provide all students, faculty, staff, alumni and guests with a mechanism to provide both positive and negative feedback to the College of Science about their experiences in the College. It also provides the College information to create meaningful change. Although this report form has a larger target, bias incidents are explicitly called out for reporting.

Throughout the summer and fall, a group of students and the dean have been meeting regularly to follow-up on the students’ petition, which sought academic accommodations following the death of George Floyd, the requirement of diversity training for all College of Science members, and the town hall. These students include Michael Allen, Katie Caspary, Tilo Chatterjee, Anne Devan-Song, Dorice Goune Goufack, Isabel Rodriguez, Corbin Schuster, Rhea Sellitto, Christian Solorio, John Stepanek and Noah Vaughan.

“I’d like to thank these students. They have worked tirelessly in putting the town hall together, and it would not have been possible without them. It’s now our turn to drive further change,” Haggerty said.

The College has adopted several recent steps to promote and embed diversity, equity, inclusivity and justice. While these are efforts in the right direction, the College acknowledges it has not yet done enough to create the equitable and inclusive environment it aspires to uphold. The College joins the Office of Institutional Diversity and other OSU units our collective commitment to systemic change. Advancing diversity, equality, justice and inclusion as well as the academic success of all students is essential to the College of Science mission.

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