Questions of Diversity and Student Life

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At the meeting on November 12th, students asked diverse questions to their Juniata College senior leadership team. Among the issues discussed were the status of Parkhurst, bias and discrimination on campus, enhancing faculty and speaker diversity, improving the administration’s communication with  students, and increasing student representation on committees.

The meeting was held at 9 p.m in Neff Auditorium. Over 70 people came to  ask questions of the team, which consists of Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs: Lauren Bowen, Vice President for Enrollment, Rob Yelnosky, President Jim Troha, Vice President of Student Life, Dean of Students Matthew Damschroder, Chief Information Officer Anne Wood, Vice President of Advancement Jim Watt, and Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusive Excellence Dr. Marita Gilbert. The additional members of the senior leadership team –  Gabe Welsch, Bethany Sheffield, and Christine Gibson – could not attend.

“Parkhurst has done a good job of listening and building relationships with students,” President Troha told the room in response to a question about the food service provider’s status on campus. “The quality of experience has improved in some respects, but we have lots to do,” particularly in terms of accommodating student dietary concerns. He referenced the plans in the works for next spring and said that when Juniata reopens next semester “we’ll be ready to go from day one.” He also said that he has had “numerous conversations” with Parkhurst employees and even the CEO about the food service provider’s transition process.

In  response  to concerns  about cases of  roommate discrimination resolved by moving the targeted roommate out, Dean Damschroder said that the ultimate goal in situations where one roommate is “actively engaging in behavior that diminishes or marginalizes their roommate” was to work towards a resolution that makes the targeted roommate most “comfortable” and offers them the most solutions.

The question of hiring more faculty of color was raised, to which Provost Lauren Bowen responded, “There is a commitment to it and a desire to diversify the faculty in a number of dimensions.” She ensured that the school considers it a “priority” to be more strategic in their efforts to recruit and retain diverse faculty, something that President Troha confirmed was part of the senior leadership team’s strategic plan. Dean Damschroder reminded the room that on December 18th, the Huntingdon Borough will be considering an inclusion ordinance, and that in order to create a more welcoming environment for future faculty of color, everyone should voice support for the ordinance.

A student said that although racist and biased incidents have continued, there  has been no real progression in the community discussion of the biases present  on campus. President Troha maintained that the school has worked on discussing these issues with students in a number of ways, from the allschool assembly last semester to inclass talks to small group sessions to faculty outreach. “Is it all working?” Troha wondered aloud. “We might have had some winds here and there. I don’t know if [racial incidents] will ever stop, unfortunately. We’re open to suggestions from all of you.”

Dr.  Gilbert  said that one thing which has changed is how the school approaches its democracy and diversity speaker series, and that through these Juniata has brought together people with different ideas and ideologies for civil dialogue.  “I think these were actual educative opportunities,” said Dr. Gilbert. Dean Damschroder mentioned that for incoming students, there was an online training module tying into the school’s diversity and inclusion expectations, a “uniform message though not perfect.” He also indicated that the school has changed its responses to bias incidents in some ways, as evidenced by the fact that “some students have been told that their participation in our community isn’t welcome if they violate our community standards.”

A senior stated that in her time at Juniata, she’s noticed the culture shift from unity to division. She said a key example of this was the lack of communication from the administration to the students, which she believes has fostered mistrust. She asked what the senior leadership team was going to do to “heal what I loved so much and feel like I’m missing,” highlighting issues such as the changes to the college logo and motto, reduction of off-campus housing options, and changes in meal plans as problems that “seem small in the moment but…are  not insignificant and do add up.” Troha said that he can offer many apologies for various incidents over the years, and admitted that the pressures on the College have “insulated” the administration from its students. He connected the reduction in enrollment to the dwindling number of high school graduates nationwide, saying that while this places a financial burden on the College, it is “not an excuse for poor communication.” He highlighted the fireside chats, administration emails, and open forums as examples of the administration’s efforts to communicate  with students, and said that the school has tried to include students on every applicable committee. “We’re not gonna get it right every time,” Troha admitted. “In the last 24 months it feels like we’ve gotten it wrong because we’ve had to make some really hard decisions financially. We’re working at building community and ask for your patience and trust and understanding as we do it…This is a time we have to pull together collectively and not have there be a chasm between students and faculty.”

In  response  to this, another student called for higher student involvement on committees, specifically asking for there to be more than one student representative on the average committee as is the norm in most cases. Provost Lauren  Bowen responded that she is “not opposed” to this idea, and informed the audience that this would require a constitutional  amendment. “Which I love,” she added, encouraging students to mobilize, take the idea to faculty, and have it debated. Students were also reminded that Damschroder is their “conduit and voice” as the Vice President of Student Life.