Local academic institutions take steps to be a solution in the conversation about racial injustice

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” – President Barack Obama

In the wake of George Floyd’s death while in the custody of the Minneapolis Department, many colleges and universities spent time this summer asking themselves what they can do better to ensure racism is not tolerated on their campuses, and how they can actively address concerns that may have been going unnoticed.
 
As students begin returning to school this year, they will notice some of the policies and procedures that have been accomplished will be evident while others will continue to take place behind-the-scenes. Presidents of these colleges and universities agree that - as places where people of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities converge before going out into the world to pursue their careers and as central institutions in the community - their campuses have a responsibility to take an active role in conversation about racial injustice.
 
“Universities are not only the ideal place for these conversations occur, we have the obligation to make sure they occur,” says Central Michigan University President Robert Davies. Robert Davies, CMU

Each college and university has a unique approach to being part of the solution in the conversation about racial injustice; however, there are three main trends that emerged from interviews with the presidents of Central Michigan University, Mid Michigan College, Saginaw Valley State University, and Delta College.
 
Provide an outlet for concerns and solutions
Finding ways to ensure people know their voices are heard has been a critical step for academic institutions this summer. Following the death of George Floyd, President Davies assembled a group of 19 student leaders to create a mixed race committee that meets every two weeks to discuss the challenges they face and present solutions to those challenges.
 
“We talk about challenges of implementing those ideas, and they provide solutions for those as well,” says Davies.
 
One of the ideas that emerged from this group was to modify the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion classes offered at Central Michigan University. Currently, all students are required to take two DEI classes before graduation as part of their curriculum – regardless of their major. The committee of student leaders suggested tailoring these classes so there are different DEI classes for each major since a student majoring in engineering and a student majoring in fashion may face different scenarios in his or her workplace. Davies says faculty brought up this same idea as well, and it is a conversation that is being looked into further.
 
Additionally, Davies says there was a productive discussion over the summer between CMU’s Police Chief Larry Klaus, himself, and several students about the role of the CMUPD on campus.
 
“The leadership of the university is committed, is open, and transparent. We purposely engage all audiences… I think Chief Klaus heard and learned a lot from the students and vice versa,” says Davies.
 
Saginaw Valley State University President Donald Bachand reached out to students, faculty, and alumni after George Floyd’s death via a heartfelt letter condemning racism and concluding, “if you have been silent about an issue of racism or intolerance within SVSU, I want to hear from you. I want your voice to be heard.” His letter garnered enormous support and response from the SVSU community.Donald Bachand, SVSU
 
Bachand is a former police officer who joined the Detroit Police Department as a cadet in 1968 – shortly after the 1967 riots, which he watched take place outside his family’s living room window - and patrolled from 1971-1978.
 
“Many things have not changed since my early days on the police department in the 1960s,” he says. “Concerns haven’t changed all that much and that’s really disturbing to me.”
 
Bachand says some of the feedback he received from his letter is helping to form the foundation of how the university will move forward. One of the many outcomes was that he met with a number of Black faculty on campus who wrote to him in response to his letter.

“I needed to know more about their experiences – the good, the bad,” he says. “I hired most of these faculty members… so I’ve known the faculty, but I wasn’t acutely aware of all of the experiences they’ve had.”
 
Realizing that some students and faculty aren’t coming forward in person, Bachand adds, “We’re trying to develop improved communication where people who want to make us aware of issues can do so without necessarily making a formal complaint. Formal complaints are appropriate in many cases, but issues can be resolved sometimes just by being aware of them.”
 
Along that line of thinking, Mid Michigan College is implementing a tool this year for students to use if they wish to report a situation to the campus. Tim Hood, Mid MIchigan Community College
 
“Prior to the fall semester, Mid will launch a “Campus Climate Concerns” reporting tool, similar to that already in place by GVSU (Grand Valley State University), which will allow students to provide feedback about any situation on one of our campuses that has caused them distress,” says Mid Michigan College President Tim Hood. “Our hope is to utilize this tool to understand our own campus climate and continuously improve the Mid experience for everyone we serve.
 
Bring the community into the conversation
In order to be part of the solution in the conversation about racial injustice, colleges and universities are reaching outside of their campus communities and recognizing their place as important institutions within the community – institutions that can foster growth and initiate conversation about topics that may otherwise be brushed off as “too divisive.”
 
While bringing in speakers who generate conversation is a common way to engage the community, Delta College and Central Michigan University have each found unique ways to make this more interactive.

“We’re the perfect place to have these kinds of discussions where people can be open,” says Delta College President Dr. Jean Goodnow. “What I’m particularly proud of at Delta is we’ve had a number of faculty who have taken a leadership role in discussing, ‘How do we communicate and how do we communicate in a civil way?’”
 
One way Delta College has worked to foster that civil communication with people outside of the campus community is through its Human Library event, which brings in people of various backgrounds who are available for students and faculty to “loan” in order to hear their stories and engage with them.
 
“That’s a great opportunity for our students to get involved when we have various speakers come in and speak about their backgrounds,” says Goodnow. “There’s opportunities for students to talk to a real person about some of these issues that relate to racial injustice.” Dr. Jean Goodnow, Delta College

CMU has an event called, “Conversations that Matter” which brings students, faculty, and community members together to discuss what are often controversial topics, such as gun rights and abortion.
“We purposefully plant 2 people that will be on opposite sides,” Davies says, adding that each table has a facilitator to ensure the conversation remains civil.

These events allow people inside and outside of the campus community to step away from their comfort zone and have a conversation with someone they may not otherwise interact with.
 
Put thoughts into action
While academic institutions sometimes have a reputation for inspiring more conversation than action, campus presidents agree that now is the time for actionable steps if they are going to be part of the solution in the conversation about racial injustice – a challenge they are up for.
 
“We’re not in the passive mode here,” says Bachand.
 
Over the summer, Delta College reached out to local law enforcement to have open discussions about how to improve the coursework at Delta’s Police Academy so future law enforcement officers are best prepared for their careers.

“We have already had 3-4 meetings since the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery – all of those recent deaths – we’ve had meetings related to the specific things we’ve been doing,” says Goodnow.

However, Goodnow says, “Delta College is not just interested in putting something on paper, but we are interested in action – in walking our talk… We’re taking action with our police academy by adding on additional curriculum that includes diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice.”

Goodnow explained that the curriculum already included diversity training, but the meetings with local law enforcement helped with the decision to add more.

Academic institutions  - including Mid Michigan College - are also using surveys to determine their next actionable steps.
“Ahead of our fall semester, students will be surveyed about various topics including racial justice and equity, and we anticipate using their responses to assist with programming strategies throughout the coming year and beyond,” says Hood.
 
At CMU, Davies says every vice president has diversity goals and initiatives that they are accountable for.
 
He adds, “If you don’t have a sense of diversity, equity, and inclusion … given the interconnected world we live in, you can’t claim excellence.”
 
 
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