President Sullivan Embraces Coalition Goals of Providing an Equitable and Inclusive Education

I want to thank members of the St. Thomas Anti-Racism Coalition for their thoughtful and urgent letter calling for the administration, faculty and staff to work together with students to ensure that our university achieves its vision of providing an equitable and inclusive education. It is an absolutely necessary goal mandated by both our convictions and our mission to pursue the common good, and a goal that the administration and I fully support.

The coalition asks that we act on three immediate goals developed by Students of Color: Claim Our Seat. The goals are a safe space to meet in the Anderson Student Center, ongoing diversity training for faculty, staff, administrators and students, and proactive educational efforts to combat racial injustice.

The coalition’s letter reiterates and reinforces messages shared with me and other members of the administration beginning in November, when a number of students of color met with me, executive vice president and provost Dr. Richard Plumb, vice president for student affairs Dr. Karen Lange, and interim officer for diversity and inclusion Dr. Artika Tyner. The meeting was prompted by the students’ concerns over Undergraduate Student Government funding of student clubs and organizations, and broadened into a wide-ranging discussion over how St. Thomas could be a more welcoming and inclusive university. Discussions since have continued between students and the administration (including myself).

We are well aware there is work to do to ensure that every member of our university community feels welcomed, respected and included. This is particularly true for our students of color, who historically have been underrepresented here. We agree with the coalition’s calls for both “a more active, positive and transparent approach” and an ongoing assessment of the effectiveness of our efforts.

Creating a more inclusive atmosphere that truly becomes part of our DNA requires awareness, intention and a commitment by every member of our community to embrace our convictions, our strategic priority of Embracing our Differences as One Human Family and our goal of extending radical hospitality to every person on this campus. This a formidable challenge, evidenced by the fact that similar calls for change are occurring across the entire country, and it is a challenge that we must ceaselessly and persistently pursue every day. We need to make fundamental changes that will endure long beyond our years at St. Thomas, and that our students can carry far beyond our campus boundaries as they become the leaders of tomorrow.

Do we have the awareness, intention and commitment to make the fundamental changes required to move forward effectively? I believe we do. Over the past year, we have stepped up our efforts to increase diversity and institutionalize inclusion at St. Thomas. We started by identifying diversity and inclusion as a strategic priority. The strategic plan task force on Embracing our Differences as One Human Family has identified many measures to achieve greater diversity and inclusivity. I am encouraged the coalition recognizes the task force’s good work.

Since November, we have been working earnestly with Dr. Lange, Dr. Tyner, strategic planning task forces and many others to identify the best steps to take in the short term and the most appropriate foundation to build to affect lasting change. Our action steps to date on the students’ immediate goals include the following:

  • Space. By the end of this month, plans will be in place for diverse clubs and organizations to have dedicated space in the Frank and Judy Sunberg Student Leadership Center on the third floor of the Anderson Student Center. We will continue to assess and explore options for space dedicated to building multicultural community.
  • Diversity Training. Dr. Tyner has provided diversity training for a dozen administrator, faculty and staff groups, including the President’s Cabinet, Student Affairs, Residence Life, Leadership Academy courses offered by Human Resources, new faculty orientation last fall and monthly orientation sessions for new staff members.

Our Faculty Development Center (FDC) has organized multiple workshops for faculty this year, including a three-part series on “Classroom Techniques to Discuss Race and Racism” and a workshop on “Common Mistakes of White Teachers in Multiracial Classrooms” (including discussion of unconscious bias and micro-aggressions). In the fall, the FDC co-sponsored with International Student Services a session offering faculty training on working with our international students, titled “One University; 59 Countries.” The FDC’s J-Term three-day workshop, “Course Design for the Common Good,” provided techniques for enhancing success for under-represented students. In March and April, the FDC will offer two workshops, one on managing conflict and creating intentional cultures of dialogue and another on recognizing unconscious bias.

Thus far, 90 faculty members, both full time and adjunct, have participated in these workshops and 70 already are registered for remaining sessions. We are committed to ongoing and expanded training for our community and to meaningful assessments of our training.

  • Proactive Educational Efforts. Two strategic planning task forces – Embracing our Differences as One Human Family and Educating for the Future – are working in partnership to explore curricular changes. We also have appointed advisory boards of undergraduate and graduate students to work with the Strategic Planning Oversight Committee on key issues. Last fall, we introduced five “living and learning communities” for first-year students, and in our discussion of the development of additional communities, we are exploring themes such as global interests and Muslim-Christian dialogue.

These activities, and many more, reflect a desire to find ways to better enable students to fully enrich our community “with their gifts of intellect, creativity and ways of being,” as the coalition states. It troubles me greatly that any student would feel unwelcome at St. Thomas. All students are full members of our community, and this administration is fully committed to ensuring this is a lived reality. So, we have much more work ahead.

I can’t do this alone, of course, and I am grateful that I have never felt alone in this endeavor. I was impressed the first time I stepped on this campus more than three years ago with the spirit of openness and goodwill, and I always have felt a universal desire exists to make our university a place where everyone can thrive. I am grateful to the Anti-Racism Coalition for its call to action and join with the coalition to be “the bridges to bring our community together to realize our collective capacity to advance the common good.” I also ask you to join us in this effort.