Climate study results released; Father Dease invites UST community to work together to achieve achieve 'common dream'

Climate study results released; Father Dease invites UST community to work together to achieve 'common dream'

In September 2001, I addressed issues of climate and diversity in my fall academic convocation remarks, and I asked the faculty to help me realize a “common dream” in which all persons “would feel welcome, supported, accepted and included at St. Thomas.”

Nearly seven years later, I am happy to report that the results of a new climate study indicate that in many respects we have a more diverse and inclusive campus today. That is the result of two factors: hard work by faculty, staff and administrators to create a more caring environment, and a genuine willingness by students who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests to work just as earnestly to achieve this goal of inclusivity.

In some respects, however, we still have a long way to go. Climate study results show uneven perceptions among some populations, with significant concerns registered by students, faculty and staff who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender regarding just how welcoming of them this university truly is. People of color and those who are not Catholic also raise concerns about how they are received on campus.

We began the climate study a year ago when we retained Global Lead Management Consulting Inc., which conducted both quantitative and qualitative research. The firm distributed a survey last spring to more than 13,000 members of the St. Thomas community, and 27 percent responded. In the fall, Global Lead conducted focus group sessions and individual interviews with a total of 75 people to gain deeper insights into their experiences and perceptions of the climate at St. Thomas. For more information, see the executive summary, recommendations prepared by Global Lead and overall quantitative findings.

The recommendations identify many opportunities for the St. Thomas community to work together – and not alone or in “silos” – to create a more caring environment in which everyone can thrive. I could not agree more with Global Lead’s statement: “Diversity is not a separate and distinct objective; instead, it needs to be an integral part of the way an institution operates each and every day.”

The Global Lead study challenges all of us to take ownership of this issue and, as the report recommends, to “encourage those with whom (we) interact to do the same.” Consciousness-raising is never easy, nor is behavioral and attitudinal change. What makes me confident, however, that we will make progress in this regard is the deep reservoir of good will that exists here within this university community. I want to encourage you, therefore, to join me in this effort to make St. Thomas more welcoming, respectful and appreciative of all of its members.

The first step of that journey is for each of us to make an effort to begin to learn the skills appropriate to our roles as students, faculty and staff that enable us to reach out to others and deepen our own understanding of their experience here. I took such a step two years ago, when I held a series of breakfasts and luncheons in my home with 80 students who talked openly about what they liked – and didn’t like – about St. Thomas.

“Diversity is not just the job of one department or one person,” a student from the Dominican Republic told me at one luncheon. “It is the job of the whole community.” Students are here to learn not just from books and lectures, she added, but also from each other. “Once people know more about me and my country, they are more comfortable with me, and I with them.”

Those are wise words, indeed, but what can – and should – we do in light of the climate study results?

I have asked three administrators – Dr. Susan Alexander, executive adviser in the president’s office; Dr. Lawrence Potter, executive director of institutional diversity; and Ms. Edna Comedy, associate vice president for human resources – to identify this summer what steps we should take over the next year. Using Global Lead’s recommendations as a starting point for discussions, they will consult closely with the Academic and Administrative Leadership group and the University Diversity Advisory Committee as we begin to revise the university’s strategic diversity action plan.

Embracing diversity and inclusiveness is not always easy but it is the right thing to do, especially in this environment, according to the late Pope John Paul II. He wrote in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that a Catholic university should be characterized “by mutual respect, sincere dialogue and protection of the rights of individuals.” By doing so, he went on to say, others will “achieve wholeness as human persons.”

That is a powerful yet simple aspiration, and one certainly within our reach. I ask you today to join me in working together to achieve it. We will yet achieve that “common dream” in which all persons will feel welcome, supported, accepted and included at St. Thomas.