Bahls discusses diversity improvements

Augustana Observer File Photo.

Augustana Observer File Photo.

President Bahls opened the diversity forum on Monday fully ready to answer questions and take suggestions. The meeting was relatively productive, with plenty of constructive criticism and comments, regardless of the fact that the room was mostly empty.

President Bahls opened by thanking those who have been bringing Augustana’s problems to light.

“I’ve been moved by what you have had to say about [the status of race inclusion] on campus,” said President Bahls, referring to those who have made themselves heard on campus. “Augustana has made progress on many, many, issues [and] we still have a ways to go.”

He referred to a survey from last fall, which showed that students of color on campus did not have the same sense of belonging that majority students do. With regards to this survey, he pointed out that in his diversity statement he said, “Such an environment cannot be sustained.”

In the last five years, Augustana’s diverse population has increased dramatically. According to Bahls, the college has found itself unprepared to fully achieve a sense of inclusion.

He criticized himself slightly, referring to himself as “a little sheepish and embarrassed” while writing the statements. He wanted to ensure, however, that everyone understood that as the leader of the college, he would respond to what was being reported to him.

Bahls’ statement was focused on race. He wanted to face the issue head on, worried that trying to be too broad regarding diversity would brush the main issues to the side.

Bahls mentioned that this focus isn’t to disregard the other diversity issues on campus, whether they be issues of religion or sexual orientation or identification, but rather because Augustana students of color were reporting problems that the faculty wasn’t aware of.

“It’s surprising to many of my faculty colleagues when I tell them what you’ve told me,” said Bahls, “they’re surprised. I didn’t focus on it as much as I should’ve.”

The faculty have been ready to embrace change and accept training to improve campus.

He argued, however, that the students need to keep showing support on the topic. Bahls couldn’t fix it all, and the faculty couldn’t fix it either.

Switching to the topic of diversity within faculty, Bahls reported that they were reforming their application process for faculty were they could. Steps such as widely advertising positions, reviewing each hire to ensure it is a “fair hire”, and making the process to be more inviting to everyone.

He concluded his speech by saying that the school was eager to embrace dialog about diversity and social justice, then opening up to comments and questions from the audience, many of which are listed below.

There was a brief open question period where audience members were able to ask questions.

The first question was about putting the symposium day of social justice on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Provost and Chief Academic Officer Pareena Lawrence explained that this had already been tried.

However, it wasn’t ideal since it was a big visit day for Augustana, as well as many places that work with Augustana for symposium days are closed. There was too much distraction to hold a symposium on MLK Day.

A question was asked about how the school was active now to address intolerance. President Bahls explained that they are starting by training faculty on how to prevent behavior in the classroom. However, he admitted, they can’t control students outside of the classroom.

One student wondered why there wasn’t any curriculum that students were required to take that would teach them about equality and equity. Lawrence explained that this is where they need your help. The faculty cannot guarantee change without the influence of the students.

One student asked why there wasn’t diversity training for leaders of student groups and clubs. President Bahls simply agreed that would probably be a good idea, since that was exactly how they were managing their faculty.

According to a student, there was a section of the faculty retreat where “teachers were being instructed on a particular way to learn the names of students, rather than trying to pronounce them incorrectly”. They wondered why this wasn’t being enforced more strictly, since the faculty doesn’t always do this, and doing this helps students feel more accepted.

President Bahls responded by saying that he wanted to avoid talking about the faculty negatively. He simply pointed out they are trying to do the right thing.

At one point, a student showed concern about whether or not the campus was embracing a dialog about diversity as well as it should, calling attention to the fact that the diversity forum was mostly empty.

President Bahls agreed with the student, simply saying, “This isn’t the way it should be.”

President Bahls concluded the forum by stating, “This is the biggest challenge facing Augustana; that a percentage of our students don’t feel the same sense of belonging. And I hope that you stick with us and help us improve. I thank you for that.”