University makes progress on student demands

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Occupy Towson happened just a few months ago. For some, it was what got Towson mentioned in TIME Magazine and not much else. But for others, like the organizers behind the movement and the administrators faced with the demands, Occupy Towson was a catalyst for a substantial amount of ongoing work.

The Towerlight has had the opportunity to sit down with student leaders and administrators involved with the different demands. Below, we’ll go item-by-item and provide updates on what’s been done so far. The demands have not been copied here verbatim. Some of these issues will be further explored in coming issues of The Towerlight.

1. Increase and retain black tenure and tenure-track faculty:
Provost Timothy Chandler said that his office is in the process of developing recruitment tactics, as opposed to merely advertising, for open positions that could be filled by black faculty or staff.

“We’ve got to go and recruit. We’ve got to go and make better connections with some of our HBCUs, where there are Ph.D. programs, and where we can, hopefully, attract high-quality candidates to come and join us here,” Chandler said.

According to Chandler, the University made an offer to someone for the math department, but the candidate took a job somewhere else. Chandler also said that the University has hired a couple of minority lecturers.

“This is an incredibly competitive market, and everybody is trying to do this,” Chandler said. “And a lot of people have bigger checkbooks than we do.”

2. Require semesterly meetings in each department about cultural competency:
Chandler said that faculty and, more specifically, department chairs have been directed to have “at least one” meeting every semester devoted to cultural competency.

He said 14 faculty members have signed up to be “diversity fellows” this year, double the amount of previous years. He said that this shows “the faculty themselves are incredibly committed to this.”

3. Diversity Chair for Greek Organizations:
Vice President for Student Affairs Deb Moriarty said all of the predominantly-white male fraternities have created a diversity chair position, and that most of the sororities had as well.

The Center for Student Diversity is developing modules for students in those positions, so that they are not working toward increased diversity without any form of training.

4. Study the contract between Towson and Maryland Correctional Enterprises:
Shortly after the sit-in, Chandler, then interim president, sent a letter to University System of Maryland Student Council President Gayon Sampson. Sampson and other student leaders, including Towson SGA President Kurt Anderson, recently traveled to a MCE facility to conduct additional research.

From the research that has been conducted by the USMSC, Sampson said that there is no evidence that would support their taking a stance against MCE. Inmates who wish to work at MCE have to sign up and apply. It’s not a mandatory process, and participants are paid better than inmates working for the department of corrections.

Sampson said that he spoke with several inmates who were proud of the work that they were doing and were happy to be doing it for the money and training that it provided.
Inmates at MCE build and create furniture for state facilities, including TU, among other products, including signage, apparel and license plates.

5. Advocate that the SGA maintain communication with diverse organizations, especially when policies will affect them:
According to Anderson, the SGA is in the process of integrating a new information system that would allow them to better communicate and serve all students groups. The system, which Anderson said should launch over the summer, will “completely alter the way we interact with groups.” This system will become a “one-stop shop” that will allow student groups to see things like budget information and Tiger Stripes data.

According to Anderson, Director of Diversity Outreach Xiomara Gonzalez and her department have planned monthly student forums, where students can air grievances or suggestions about the student experience to the SGA.

Anderson said that the SGA has also assigned each member to small program groups that are then required to go to large scale events on campus. Senators emailed all of their student groups and asked which events should be attended. Anderson said that they did not receive many requests back.

The SGA also distributed surveys to student groups, who were asked to evaluate their respective SGA senators. Response was mostly positive, according to Anderson. Negative feedback was reviewed by SGA Vice President Taylor James and involved senators.

6. Require the President’s Diversity Coordinating Council and other institution-wide bodies regarding diversity to have multicultural representation:
Chandler said that President Kim Schatzel takes this “extraordinarily seriously.” Chandler said that Schatzel is looking at restructuring the way that the council works, in order to ensure that different voices are represented. The Towerlight will continue to follow this story as it progresses.

7. Set an expectation to diversify the representation of committees that determine tenure:
University administrators, Chandler said, are currently reviewing the appoint, rank and tenure policy, or ART, which he says is “a huge undertaking.” Chandler said that the policy involves changes at the state level.

But, at the University level, the Provost’s Office is working to educate students on how their voice contributes to decisions about tenure.

“The other thing we’re doing is trying to make sure that students, through the teaching evaluation process, get an appropriate voice,” Chandler said.

8. Advocate for the election of director positions in the SGA instead of having them be appointed by the president and approved by the senate:
Pending the ratification of the SGA’s amended constitution, which is slated to be voted on either this week or next, the Director of Diversity Outreach position will be filled by a student nominated by the Council of Diversity Student Organizations.

According to SGA election literature, the CDSO will be responsible for nominating at least two candidates, who will then undergo a series of interviews with the CDSO Executive Board and either the SGA president or another designated SGA member. These interviews will then culminate in an appointment by the SGA president, who has the right to appoint “the candidate that they deem is qualified,” the literature reads.

“I think one of the biggest concerns that were brought up by the demands was that the minority population wants to have a say in how [the Director of Diversity Outreach] position is selected,” Anderson said. “So, that’s what we’re addressing.”

9. Return the debate team to a traveling team:
“The debate team is on track for being back on the road in the fall,” Chandler said. “We’re actually trying to find them some additional space. We’re working on more support for them, beyond one academic department.”

Towson’s nationally-ranked debate team has, historically, provided academic opportunities for black students at the school. Recently, it’s faced some roadblocks, especially concerning their coaching staff. Chandler said that the team has had some “hiccups,” but also that it has been “incredibly successful.” He said the University shares some blame for the hiccups because, “We haven’t had a solid structure for [the team] to work with.”

10. Honestly and strictly enforce the University’s policies on non-discrimination/hate-bias:
During the SGA’s March 1 general assembly meeting, the organization voted in favor of a resolution that supports including a mandatory statement about hate-bias on all syllabi.
Drafted by James and SGA Sen. Makdes Hailu, the resolution indicates that such a statement would define hate-bias and include the processes by which students can report it. According to James, the language for both would come straight from the University website, which administrators are currently evaluating, according to Moriarty.

James is currently in the process of gathering student testimony to present to the University Senate, whose membership is predominantly faculty, later this semester.

“We’re really working to make professors see the need and how many students are saying, ‘Yes, I need that information and no, I don’t know where to get it,’” James said.

Anderson said that the SGA has also formed an advisory board made up of students interested in diversity and social activism, which has been working on projects including an awareness campaign on how to report and promote TU’s intolerance of hate-bias incidents. Anderson said that the SGA aims to launch the campaign in the fall.

Moriarty said that Student Affairs is trying to clarify the language and procedure for reporting incidents so students will have an easier time navigating the complex University system.
Student Affairs want to work to bring more attention to hate-bias incidents as well as make it clear to students what they can do to report such incidents, and what they can expect during the process.

Chandler and Moriarty both said that policies and procedures have to deal with whether students feel threatened or unsafe, not whether they just feel intellectually uncomfortable.
“As a campus community, being uncomfortable is not necessarily a bad thing,” Chandler said. “We, as a campus community, are here, in some ways, to foster intellectual discomfort, and I don’t want us to lose sight of that.”

11. Ensure policing practices of black student events and white student events are equitable:
Moriarty said that evidence from last year showed that policing wasn’t “quite as equal as it should be.” But ultimately, Moriarty said, the policing for events depends on the type of event–size, student attendance, non-student attendance and what kind of activities the event would involve.

“We’ll assess it again after this year to see if students feel like it’s still differentially applied,” Moriarty said.

12. Advocate for the establishment of a course requirement in American race relations:
Chandler said that the University is already looking at revamping the core curriculum for Towson students. Chandler said that the “easy” way to accomplish this goal would be to add a core curriculum or work within the TSEM classes, but that they’re working out whether or not this subject could be discussed in several of the required core classes.

“As we review the core, we’re looking at how best to infuse this information across the curriculum,” Chandler said. He said it would take at least a year to redo.

Student reaction:
Student activists who helped lead the #OccupyTowson movement in November have continued to discuss ways to accomplish the demands they originally presented during the sit-in.

“There is still a goal and a wish with the demands, but I don’t think that the administration is going to move at the speed that we need,” John Gillespie, one of the organizers, said.

At a March 30 documentary screening, Gillespie, as part of a panel, questioned whether or not a predominately white institution could provide black students with acceptable resources.

In order to change a state university like Towson, he said, the change has to be processed through the USM.

“You can’t fix the University in a vacuum,” he said.

Bilphena Yahwon, another one of the student organizers, described a recent shift in her goals and perceptions of the #OccupyTowson movement. While noting that that larger, state-controlled issues cannot be solved within the bubble of the University, she advocated for more activism on campus to reach individuals.

“I was putting too much faith in individuals and I thought that if we do this, if we fight hard enough and get people involved, they will want to change,” she said. But, she said, the administration is a large system, and she feels such systems are reluctant to reforming themselves.

“We cannot change the University because Towson University is connected to the state of Maryland,” Yahwon said. “Whatever laws and policies are put in place by the state of Maryland, Towson University is going to adhere to that culture.”

–Story by Cody Boteler, Carley Milligan and Sam Shelton

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