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Campus Climate Survey reveals student diversity concerns

September 30, 2010

UW-River Falls students aren’t the only ones setting out to make the campus more inclusive; the faculty, staff and administration share the same goal.

In the fall of 2009, UWRF was one of four University of Wisconsin Systems to partake in an online Campus Climate Survey that was comprised of 93 questions. The results were released the following spring according to the survey’s report.

Psychology Professor Cynthia Kernahan analyzed the data and said that the survey was good news for the campus overall. There was one exception: students of color and sexual minorities were more likely to have experiences of harassment, said Kernahan.

According to the survey, 31 percent of the participants reported observing or being personally aware of a form of harassment at UWRF. It was found that the majority of the harassment was directed towards racial, gender and sexual minorities.

“It was troubling,” Kernahan said. “It is a problem that needs to be dealt with.”

“We desperately need to address inclusivity on our campus; but to be fair, there are a lot of people working on that,” said Departmental Chair for the Journalism Department Sandra Ellis.

“Living the Promise” is the name of the strategic plan on UWRF’s campus. The plan encompasses certain goals, including ones of diversity and inclusivity, said special assistant to the chancellor Blake Fry.

Chief Diversity Officer Andriel Dees said it was Kernahan who explained what the data meant and gave advice to the administration regarding what needed to be done in order to move forward.

Rather than trying to address all of the needs indicated by the survey, it was recommended that the campus should try and focus on a few aspects at a time. With less to focus on, superior results are expected to follow, according to Fry.

A committee from Faculty Senate, the Diversity and Inclusivity Committee was charged with addressing those needs, said one of the Committee members and secretary to the Senate, Todd Savage.

Inclusivity means having a greater awareness, appreciation, respect and understanding of all people and their identities, according to Dees.

“It’s making sure we are including voices of different minds of thought and perspectives,” Dees said.

In the coming months, the Diversity and Inclusivity Committee is going to review the data and come up with two items to address first.

The timeliness of the survey has been a crucial factor for the committee in determining how they want to further approach the establishment of an inclusive campus, according to the Committee’s chair, Carolyn Brady.

“We are making sure we are doing what we can to explore and to continue to centralize the services of individuals across campus by having a resource bank,” Brady said.

The Committee is centered on meeting the needs identified by individuals, Savage said.

Recently, the committee worked towards better maintaining the campus sidewalks in order to make them more handicap accessible during the winter months, Brady said.

Last spring, they proposed and successfully implemented the establishment of a number of gender neutral bathrooms throughout campus, to meet the needs of those who identify themselves as transgender. There is one in the University Center and in the dorms. The final goal is to carve one out of every building, Savage said.

“It is important for us to find ways we can value and respect and accept each other,” Savage said.

Dees said asking oneself about their identity is not an active thought process, and the society people live in does not make this question a priority.

“We want to change that so people can respect those differences and get beyond the superficial identities that we tend to place people in,” Dees said.

Dealing with diversity on this campus is something that most UWRF students don’t have experience with. The issue of diversity and the challenges of creating an inclusive campus is the product of unconscious stereotypes. These stereotypes can grow if interaction beyond familiarity is limited, according to Kernahan.

“Some professors are afraid to talk about race: It’s scary and it shuts down discussions,” Kernahan said.

Kernahan said that breaching colorblindness is important and one way that professors can teach their students to overcome it is to hold discussions on race in their classroom.

“Race, Class, News,” is a class taught by Ellis. It is one where she works to bring in qualified guest speakers to address the issues of race and class, according to Ellis.

Addressing diverse learning styles is something that professors need to be responsive to. Strictly lecturing means risking loosing some of the audience, Savage said.

Student and co-diversity programmer for Falcon Programs, Nene Eze, said she has noticed a difference in the classroom. There are professors who are willing to slow down and explain material to students who speak English as a second language.

“There are some professors creating vibrant classrooms, and we need to do a better job celebrating those successes on a regular basis,” Dees said.

“We have a lot of fantastic people committed to assisting this campus,” Savage said. “People who care and are working hard to make this an inclusive campus.”