Recently, members of the Grinnell community have voiced growing concern regarding the College’s role in promoting and supporting diversity on campus. Upset students have put up posters, released an open letter to the campus and met with President Kington, displaying their discontent for the current lack of institutional support concerning diversity in the Grinnell community. After Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Elena Bernal ’94 departed in May 2012 and the Department for Diversity and Inclusion was reorganized into the Office of Intercultural Leadership and Engagement—under the Department of Academic Affairs—the Office has operated with only a two-member staff, composed of Director Michael Benitez and Intercultural Affairs Associate Marlene Jacks. Furthermore, the College has yet to hire a Chief Diversity Officer, a position that has been left open since Bernal’s departure. The announcement that Benitez would not be returning to Grinnell next semester further alarmed students, leading some to believe that the rapid rate of staff turnover reflects the College’s inability to provide adequate support for its Intercultural Leadership and Engagement staff members.
We feel that the behavior of the College over the past year does not represent an adequate commitment to diversity, which is listed alongside high quality education and social justice as one of Grinnell’s core values. The President’s own webpage includes the intention to cultivate a community that includes a “wide diversity of people and perspectives.” Given the key role diversity appears to play in Grinnell’s institutional ideology, the issue deserves more serious attention than it has received in recent semesters. While we understand the essential place academic rigor must play in an institution of Grinnell’s caliber, the pursuit of academic excellence does not have to come at the cost of the College’s other core values.
The S&B would particularly like to draw attention to the issue of administration-student communication. Consistent to recent conversations about College diversity is a call for the President to hold town hall meetings to discuss the matter as a campus community. While members of the administration have acknowledged student concerns and attempted to address it through all-campus emails and meetings between the administration and concerned student leaders, we have seen no steps towards the scale of conversation that we experienced surrounding the issue of financial aid over the last two semesters.
In an interview with the S&B last week, Kington seemed to put the ball in the students’ court, urging them to visit his office hours and calling last week’s meeting at Nollen House “the first meaningful conversation I’ve had.” While we in no way wish to dismiss Kington’s office hours as a viable path for students to discuss a broad range of issues, when it comes to something that is so closely tied to Grinnell’s mission and that will directly affect such a large number of students, a campus-wide, public conversation should be a higher priority. At the same time, we must commend the President’s call for increased student input. While students are consistent in their demand for transparency, their stated agenda—as articulated in their posted literature, as well as in interviews with the S&B—has thus far contained no specific allusions to their actual vision for what the Office of Intercultural Leadership and Engagement should be doing.
While we support the functional existence of such an office, we feel this lack of specificity regarding the ways in which the problems in the Office are affecting students ultimately alienates much of the campus community from the conversation.
The administration must be held publicly accountable for the direction in which they plan to take the College’s commitment to diversity and this is not going to occur through private conversation. With this sentiment in mind, the S&B joins the many voices already making themselves heard around campus in requesting that President Kington schedule town hall meetings for next semester to give students the chance to voice their opinion about a matter that is intimately related to their ability to thrive at Grinnell. In anticipation of this kind of campus-wide conversation, however, we must also encourage students to work to articulate the specific ways in which they wish to see the Office of Intercultural Leadership and Engagement work for them.