Blackburn’s new President Dr. Mark Biermann hosted a virtual town hall on Monday, August 31 centered around diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. Over 60 staff, faculty and students attended. The discussion touched on diversity in race, gender identity and economic status. Some people made suggestions on how to fix these issues, and others attempted to provide perspective or context on some of the problems.
Where is there a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion?
Students and faculty both said the Carlinville community was an unwelcoming place for some students. On this, biology professor Dr. Ed Zalisko suggested having police come on campus to explain their training on neck holds and other restraints. Psychology Department Chair Dr. Pamela Danker said Blackburn should include Carlinville’s administration and business owners in these efforts.
Someone said some professors do not respect students’ preferred pronouns or names. Dean of Students Jarrod Gray said there was a way for students to make note of their preferred pronouns and names. Students suggested giving this information to all new students before they have to ask for it. “If it exists, and no one knows about it, then it doesn’t exist,” Biermann said later in the forum. Minutes after the town hall ended, everyone received a Blackburn Announcement email about the gender inclusivity policies on campus.
Junior creative writing major Jameela Brown talked about the students who don’t continue beyond their first semester because of educational gaps between them and other students. Brown spent her time in the town hall advocating for other students. “I always intend to speak for other people,” she said. “Just because there’s been a lot of times when there was nobody to speak for me.” She asked faculty members how they are addressing these students from underprivileged areas. Some faculty members highlighted the importance of one-on-one interactions.
Senior biology TA Kelsey Jachino said the biology department has one-on-one conversations with new students before classes start. She explained some of the students never learned how to take notes, so she was able to find out their needs before they had a chance to fall behind. Other students talked about self advocacy, saying that students need to be speak up if they know they need help.
How does the campus go about tackling these issues?
In Biermann’s email about the town hall, he said he would create the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force. Its goal is to make outcome-based recommendations to improve campus diversity, equity and inclusion. The task force also needs to consider how to redistribute time and money to meet their goals. Blackburn will include these recommendations in the college’s strategic plan, along with other important issues like COVID-19, staying within budget, enrollment and retention.
Junior elementary education major Brianna Milich suggested requiring all students to take a diversity and inclusion training course. Brown emphasized the importance of updated and quality training. Senior biology major Koegler said an element of persuasion could reduce the chances of polarization among students who might be offended by these discussions. English and communications professor Dr. Natasha Casey said training is the bare minimum of what Blackburn should implement.
Zalisko talked about creating a mentorship organization for his students who want to go into the health profession. He said there are students who could benefit from a mentor relationship with professionals who are more like them. Because Carlinville is a small and limiting community in that respect, he knows it would take a group effort potentially with alumni.
After the meeting, Brown said “If the community doesn’t want to change, then nothing will change.” Some students are not hopeful about Blackburn’s new, but not their first, attempt to put diversity and inclusion at the head of their priorities. Biermann is hopeful that this task force and community are ready to make the changes necessary to be more equitable. From his individual conversations with Board members, Biermann said they have been very enthusiastic about concrete change.
Biermann will dissolve the task force at the end of this calendar year. Biermann admitted these changes are going to make some people uncomfortable, “If it takes some upheaval,” he said. “I guess that’s what it will take.” He is hopeful, however, that by making Blackburn more equitable and inclusive, it will have a positive impact on attracting students and keeping them here.
Biermann said the Blackburn community needs to understand that it’s not “someone else’s problem.” Diversity, equity and inclusion are issues that everyone is responsible for. Keogler said one of the purposes of college is to introduce people to a diverse set of ideas and perspectives. He said, “Diversity is actually really, really important and not just some buzz-word that’s on college campuses.”
The task force meetings will be transparent and open, according to Biermann. He didn’t specify how, but he said he is going to be making decisions on how to start by the end of the day on Tuesday. Biermann welcomes any input from staff, faculty and students before making these decisions. He can be contacted at email@example.com.