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Town hall meeting addresses racial incidents

An overflow crowd of more than 500 jammed into Perella Auditorium Tuesday evening for a frank and sometimes-tense open town meeting prompted by several racial incidents on the Lehigh campus last week.

“I am truly proud of this turnout,” said Lehigh President Alice P. Gast in opening the discussion. “Your very presence here tonight is a very powerful statement. These events that have insulted or frightened students on campus are not acceptable.”

While commending those at Lehigh dedicated to working on racial issues, she acknowledged that “there clearly is a lot more we have to do” and encouraged the community to continue the dialogue.

“I do not want to find us gathering in this type of forum a few years from now to recognize how we’ve failed,” she said. “I’d like us to look at tonight as a turning point.”

The forum was convened in response to several events that left some students shaken by what they described as overt and frightening acts of racial hostility.

Audiotaped narratives were shared with the audience of students, faculty and staff, who heard female students recount being called an “ignorant black bitch” and being the victim of other racial slurs.

The forum was moderated by Michael Raposa, professor of religion studies and co-chair of the recently formed Council for Equity and Community (CEC); CEC co-chair Carolina Hernandez, director of Community Services at Lehigh; and Lehigh Career Services Counselor Ayanna Wilcher.

Throughout the evening, a number of speakers expressed concern for what they view as an unwelcoming environment for students of color.

A significant portion of the discussion focused on the idea of a curricular requirement on racial and gender studies. The requirement is one of the proposed resolutions developed by the Black Student Union (BSU) and circulated at the meeting.

Others included: an immediate revision of institutional language on racism, the addition of a service learning requirement for all students, the hiring of a chief diversity officer, the addition of an amendment to the university’s student application to assess a commitment to endorsing diversity, and an adaptation of the Greek accreditation process to involve sensitivity training.

They were described by Charles Choice ‘10, president of the BSU, as “useful steps” the university could take to demonstrate a commitment to resolving these issues.

Raposa articulated a philosophical discomfort with mandated courses, but agreed with College of Education professor and fellow CEC member MJ Bishop that all options remain under consideration.

“I don’t believe that one size fits all and tend to feel that requirements build resentment,” he said. “But I want Lehigh to be an institution that is famous for curriculum that addresses these issues. We anticipate that in the next two or three years, students at Lehigh will see dozens of courses that didn’t exist before. I want to build a curriculum from the ground up and top down that is so incredible that students won’t want to avoid them.”

William Scott, professor of history and director of Lehigh’s Africana Studies program, said that the university’s “critical transformative spaces have been marginalized.”

“Without them, nothing’s going to change,” he said. “These students came to Lehigh as bigots and will probably leave here as bigots, because they aren’t here as part of a transformative process.”

Working from the ground up

Bobby Buckheit ’09, president of the university’s Interfraternity Council and the Sigma Chi fraternity, encouraged attendees not to seek resolution solely through administrative directives, but to “work from the ground up.”

“It has to be student to student,” he said. “Anyone who saw these (racial incidents) happen and didn’t do anything is as much a part of the problem as the people who did it. I don’t think that a required class will change the bigots. They’re only a minority, but unfortunately, they are also the loudest.”

CEC member Ted Morgan, Distinguished University Professor of Political Science, restated his support for an expanded first-year experience that would join efforts with the National Coalition Building Institute that could “bring people together to enhance understanding across historic divides.

“We have to recognize that we all have some of this in common,” Morgan said. “Many of us are marginalized or victimized by gender, race or sexual orientation. We need to build understanding and to break free of the limited worlds many students at Lehigh come from.”

Graduate student CalvinJohn Smiley, past president of the Black Student Union and a founder of The Movement—a group formed two years ago to denounce racial hostility at Lehigh—expressed frustration with written university policy statements on harassment.

His comments prompted Dean of Students Sharon Basso to assure students that “there are many people on this campus who care deeply about what happened and who care deeply about the people in this room.” She advised students to report any incidents of harassment so that they can be fully investigated.

“We will investigate. We will follow up. It will not fall away,” said Basso, who, with Vice Provost of Student Affairs John Smeaton, underscored a commitment to pursuing any allegations through the university disciplinary system for violations of the Student Code of Conduct, or through legal channels if crimes are committed.

John McKnight, director of Lehigh’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, challenged students to take an active role in creating an academic environment that is characterized by a “thirst for information and intellectual engagement.”

McKnight pointed out that attendance at programs developed by Multicultural Affairs tends to be sparse.

“We watch bigoted people graduate every year, yes, because all of you wait until something critical happens before you show up,” he said to applause.

A number of students, administrators and faculty members expressed frustration that the hostilities have existed for years and seem to continue unabated and unpunished.

Kashi Johnson, associate professor of theatre, said she graduated in 1994 and had the same experiences being retold today. “What has to happen to make this change?” she asked.

It was a sentiment echoed by others, including Wilcher, and CEC member Yaba Blay, director of Joint Multicultural Programs.

Juana Claudio ’10 warned that racism toward whites also exists, noting that the use of a derogatory term such as “cracker” is also unacceptable.

“I guess I might lose some friends after this,” she said, “but both sides need to take accountability.”

The most enthusiastic applause of the night came after a statement from an international student from Ghana, who placed the onus of moving out of personal comfort zones on the students themselves.

“If you go to Lehigh and if everyone on your contact list on your cell phone looks like you, is that all right?” he asked. “Start making friends with people who don’t look like you. That’s the way you start to learn about people and how people learn about you.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Wednesday, November 12, 2008

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