By Lily Jamaludin
Director of Intercultural Engagement and Leadership Michael Benitez’s upcoming departure adds to recent instability in his department, which has faced several staff changes in recent years and is undergoing a change in mission to a more academic focus under President Raynard Kington. Benitez has concerns about this change away from a more social focus.
The announcement that Benitez will leave at the end of the semester after just one year on the job came last week. He will become Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash.
Benitez said in an interview that he expressed interest in remaining at Grinnell, but felt that it was best for him to leave. He declined to elaborate specifically on his decision to leave.
President Raynard Kington has shifted the philosophy of the Department of Intercultural Engagement and Leadership more directly towards academics. This change was reflected in the restructuring of the department to be under Academic Affairs instead of under Vice President for Diversity and Achievement Elena Bernal ’94. Bernal left in May and her position was discontinued.
“The top priority, bar none, is to have these services support the core mission of the College, and that’s academics,” Kington said. “I want our students, from no matter what background, to be academically successful, and I think we have room for improvement there. That’s unambigiously what it’s about. It’s not about a social function, although that could be part of how we help the students feel comfortable and excel.”
He added that he is responsible for the changes.
“I’ll take the blame for shifting direction,” he said. “I will readily take the blame or credit for saying that these functions need to be tied deeply to our core academic mission, and it’s about making sure every student has the opportunity to succeed.”
Benitez said that while putting the department under Academic Affairs brings it more authority and credibility, he fears this approach is not holistic enough to support students.
“I think without intentionality, without strategy, it’s not a good move,” said Benitez. “If it remains under Academic Affairs, then they should rename the office to the Office of Diversity and Achievement, or Diversity and Student Success. But if that happens, then what happens to the intercultural engagement and leadership piece on the student affairs side?”
He said student affairs issues need to be addressed to achieve academic success.
“Working on social climate and cultivating an environment that is welcoming and that makes students feel like they belong is part of what leads to student success,” he said. “If students don’t feel like the institution is meeting their needs socially, then that also has a very strong connection to academic success. I am not saying anything that scholarship on these issues doesn’t already tell us. You can’t just focus on academic success from an academic angle. The social piece, the environment, the campus climate, is just as important.”
Some students are concerned about the lack of transparency in such decisions.
“As students are the most affected by the changes, I don’t understand why the student body wasn’t consulted about this shift,” said Toulupe Edionwe ’15.
The Department of Intercultural Engagement and Leadership has faced great instability with staffing. May of 2011 saw the departure of Daria “Dotty” Slick as Intercultural Affairs Associate. Then, in May 2012, Bernal left.
At moments during her time at Grinnell, Marlene Jacks, Intercultural Affairs Associate, was the only employee in the department.
“I think some of that reflects just the usual comings and goings of a staff in a function like this. But I think some of it also reflects a decision to change how we’re doing things,” Kington said.
Benitez was recruited when Bernal’s position still existed.
“Michael was recruited under the previous model,” Kington said. “He was in the unfortunate position of having arrived at a place that was different from what he had been recruited to. His boss was no longer his boss; his boss had left, Elena had moved on.”
Throughout this year, the two-person department took on the work of a fully-staffed department.
Benitez has carried out a new initiative in Inclusive Teaching and Advising Discussion groups for faculty and staff, transformed the Peer Connections Pre-Orientation program to be more academically focused and overseen the Posse program as Posse Liaison.
“I don’t think most truly understand the depth of what we’ve been asked to do and the responsibility of what we have to do,” Jacks said. “When you’re asking one individual to take on two different roles, there’s not enough time in the day for either one of us to accomplish all of those things.”
Now, the College will be hiring for the position of Associate Dean and Chief Diversity Officer.
“The search for the Associate Dean has been in progress since December, and should be completed this spring. Having just learned about Michael Benitez’s departure, we haven’t yet organized a search for his replacement, but I still see these two positions at the center of diversity and inclusion efforts,” said Dean of the College Paula Smith.
The open period ends this week. The College has started reviewing applications, including internal applications.
Visions of the Future
The young department will need to make big decisions in the near future.
“The reality is that it was a newly created department a few years ago, but now that we’ve been at this for a few years, it’s really time to reevaluate and to reassess,” Jacks said.
Benitez stated that being adequately resourced and funded is important, in light of the fact that diversity on campus will continue to increase. For Jacks, being fully staffed should be one of the department’s top priorities in order to best serve its students.
“To operate with a really small department when statistically we know that our multicultural numbers have been growing at Grinnell over the past few years consistently, it’s important to have a department that is fully staffed, with full-time colleagues [and] administrative assistants,” she said. “When you look at peer institutions, some of those departments have three, five individuals that make up the full department.”
“In five years, I want to be fully staffed and functional at the very highest level,” Kington said.
He said he wants the College to “be known as a place that is creative, thoughtful, and successful in getting kids of diverse backgrounds to academically succeed between the time they come in and the time they get out.”
Jacks said Benitez will be missed.
“It is a significant loss to know that we will not be able to benefit from somebody with his caliber and his expertise at the college,” she said. “I can absolutely say that he’s the best director I’ve ever worked with in fourteen years. Hands down.”
“I think it’s wonderful that he got a great position at another school and I wish him well,” Kington said.