Hundreds witness message on diversity, racism

Students, faculty and administration filled seats and lined the walls of Newton 202 yesterday afternoon for an unprecedented convocation, as President Christopher Dahl stepped to the podium to address issues of diversity and racism on campus.

Speaking in response to the message of student group Fighting Against Racial Injustice (FARI) and to the longitudinal studies of psychology professor Monica Schneider and student Peter Kang, he declared that "building community and building diversity in a positive sense are absolutely essential."

According to Dahl, "Talking honestly about issues related to differences, related to race, is somewhat difficult." But without such honest and open dialogue, he emphasized that "we will never, never get where we want to be as an outstanding undergraduate college." He framed the lecture as a "call to action" for all.

Following his introduction, Dahl gave the floor to Schneider, who presented unconscionable statistics from a year of research. From 2005 to 2006, Schneider approached three SUNY schools - Geneseo, New Paltz and Buffalo - with 150 questions. The questions were derived from 47 areas of perceived social support and were addressed to 453 minority students.

Schneider also demonstrated that many ethnic minority students feel oppressed in several categories. Institutionally, she found that over a third do not feel welcome in the college community. Nearly half experience negative stereotyping by peers and a third encounter difficulty with others on campus. In reference to the support of faculty, 45% felt there was no professor to contact with personal ethnic issues, and over a third said that ethnicity had a negative effect on classroom evaluation.

According to seniors Jason Dorofy and Charlie Elliot, the statistics presented in Schneider's lecture held the greatest impact.

With facts as appalling as they are undeniable, they agreed that the Geneseo community cannot ignore diversity issues. According to Schneider, "A quarter to a half of the differences between individual students can be explained, predicted and accounted for by social support." On social, academic and emotional levels, her research clearly demonstrated that social support is connected to college adjustment as oxygen is to life.

Each slide in Schneider's presentation was complemented by a segment of FARI's video documentary project about diversity issues at Geneseo, which is still in production. The video, in which Geneseo students were interviewed for their experiences and perspectives, gave faces to the facts. Geneseo Alumnus Jared DePass told of the first time a person targeted him with a racial slur. "It's more common than people want to believe it is," he said. Others interviewed agreed that derogatory remarks and degrading inferences are not unusual on campus.

David Granger, chair of College Senate, followed Schneider with his response to the statistics and testimonies. "If we are to provide a truly liberal education at Geneseo," he said, "all members of the community have to express and live their differences in a trusting, respectful environment." He suggested that the driving forces behind such progress are the democratic process and communication. According to Granger, the source of change is found in the link between democracy and the call to action.

Dahl returned to the podium to deliver his own response, a summation of the issues, and a plan of action for the future.

He explained that diversity can be viewed and explored within two contexts. In a quantitative context, "the college is working steadily to make a compositionally diverse student body." In this endeavor, he said, "We are better than some and considerably behind others." In a more qualitative context, he said the school must take action to raise social support and cultivate a more welcoming community.

All of the speakers agreed that the responsibility for such action lies on the administration as well as the faculty and students. "We all play a role in helping foster that type of community," Schneider said, and it begins with open and honest dialogue.

Dahl closed the lecture with five simple but profound "calls to action." First, he warned everyone not to stray from individual responsibility by assuming that numbers alone will create diversity. Second, he called for classrooms in which diverse audiences can feel comfortable. Third, he called on students to engage in their own education and to "seek out insights and experiences from those who are different from you." Fourth, he addressed the long-range outcomes, centered on the purpose of building community. And finally, he emphasized the importance of deliberative dialogues, international programs, Cultural Harmony Week and other events that explore diversity throughout the year. "I hope this is the beginning of a year-long discussion," he said.

The student response to Dahl's lecture was mixed. Dorofy felt that "the call to action was a cop-out of sorts." According to Elliot, "It was good of him to address the issue…but there's still a lot of work to be done."

Junior Scott Snowden, a founding member of FARI, agreed that the address was a positive thing, but felt that Dahl should have taken action sooner. "It's going to be a struggle," Snowden said, "but that's the point."