On November 4, 2016, the Sewanee Mountain Messenger published a Letter to the Editor written by Charles Whitmer, executive director of the Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace. Among the many compliments paid to Vice-Chancellor John McCardell regarding strides to “make both the University and broader Sewanee community more open, accepting, inclusive and diverse (in all meanings of the term),” Whitmer notes that the University of the South has a unique opportunity to “turn … towards a better and more inclusive future” (Sewanee Mountain Messenger). If you, like Whitmer, have noticed a recent emphasis on promoting diversity, inclusion, and cohesion here at the University, you have the 2012 Strategic Plan to thank.
Many changes have come as a result of the 2012 Strategic Plan; one is the creation of the Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Inclusion position. In February 2015, Dr. Elizabeth Skomp, professor of Russian, accepted the job. With Skomp’s appointment to associate dean for faculty development and inclusion came a reinvigorated pursuit of common goals laid out by the 2012 Strategic Plan. This plan aims to make the University “a better, stronger, truer version of itself: developing an exemplary learning environment, realizing the potential of the Domain, extending the University’s reach locally and globally, [and] fostering a diverse, cohesive, and inclusive community.”
According to Skomp, the University “has a growing commitment to diversity and inclusion that is particularly evident in our partnership with the Posse Program,” a college access and youth leadership development program that has partnered with the University of the South for a decade. Following a November 2015 Sewanee Responds panel aimed at continuing the conversation about race, privilege, and justice, it became clear from student and faculty responses that there was “a desire to explore these issues more fully as a community.”
These conversations resulted in the creation of 10 task forces in spring 2016. Each task force delved into topics including Campus Infrastructure; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Curriculum; Extending the Effects of the Posse Plus Retreat; History and Symbols; and Recruiting and Supporting Diverse Students, to name just a few.
The 2016-2017 academic year has certainly continued to encourage such conversations. First-year students kicked off their Sewanee experience with workshops facilitated by Micia Mosely, an educator whose published research focuses on pedagogy, race, and urban education. Although Skomp acknowledges an increase in discussions and programming centered around race, privilege, and justice, she stated that it is not a theme so much as it is a representation of the “2012 Strategic Plan being pursued broadly and deeply.”
Skomp called Vice-Chancellor John McCardell’s decision to choose a common reading (Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates) that served as a catalyst for these issues a “very timely one.” Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, director of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise at the Ohio State University, visited Sewanee to give a talk on Coates’ work in September, opening the dialogue between the community and the common reading. This fall the Center for Teaching has hosted a faculty study group, led by Assistant Professor of Politics Adam Dahl, on the community book.
The Center for Teaching has also led an effort to assemble other workshops and discussion groups. According to the Office of the Provost:
Dr. Hsiao-Wen Lo, licensed psychologist and experienced workshop leader on diversity, equity, and inclusion, presented to faculty an afternoon session on "Creating an Inclusive Classroom Environment: Barriers and Strategies." Moira O’Neil, Senior Researcher and Director of Interpretation at the FrameWorks Institute, and Sewanee faculty presented two sessions on strategic social issue framing to faculty.
The University has also hosted Dr. Jennifer Hochschild, professor of Government and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, as a part of the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s Visiting Scholar Program. Hochschild’s October lecture on “the possibility of the recent marked growth of inequality within non-white groups changing their political or policy views” was open to the public. Following the lecture, Hochschild visited classes, attended a discussion with Politics majors, and facilitated conversations with students.
The Office of Admission continues to host “potluck” discussions focused on bringing the University community together for conversation. Brandon Iracks-Edelin, C’18, is the current Arcadian co-director for multicultural recruitment and retention, and he has developed a series of roundtable discussions with the theme of “Cultural Sense,” hoping to “reflect on how one's interpretation of other cultures can be influenced by what we see and how we see it.”
As 2016 comes to a close, the University of the South prepares for another semester of challenging conversation intended to lead to action. In February, the Posse Scholars will host another PossePlus Retreat, an annual gathering that brings students, faculty, and administrators together “with the goal of discussing an important campus issue identified by Posse Scholars.”
While the Sewanee community prepares to ring in a new year, the 2012 Strategic Plan continues to make a world of difference when it comes to supporting the University’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and cohesion.
- Maria Baker, C’18