Students, faculty speak at forum on diversity


The Appalachian Online

Sammy Hanf

A little over 70 people crowded into room 421 of Belk Library last Friday to discuss diversity initiatives as well as the larger campus climate.

Michael Behrent, associate professor of history, said he was concerned about the anonymous nature of the bias incident reporting system and its possible effects on academic freedom.

“The understanding of bias extends not just to what you might call markers of identity but to opinion,” Behrent said. “For instance, one of the categories for bias is political affiliation and a number of us are concerned that terms like that could be used to limit academic freedom in classroom discussions.”

Jalyn Howard, Student Government Association president, said other attempts to combat bias have been stymied and asked faculty what else can be done to address the issue.

Martha McCaughey, professor of sociology, said anonymity on both ends would still allow for meaningful discussion to take place without turning into a witch hunt.

Amy Dellinger Page, professor of sociology, said that the system won’t be able to work as effectively with full anonymity.

“The purpose of an institution of higher education is to have education and we realized that some folks really do unintentionally say things that are harmful to other people sometimes and the point was to be able to have a conversation and to start a dialogue,” Page said. “[They want] to have education take place and you can’t do that if you have truly anonymous reporting.”

Nicholas Gilliam, SGA chief financial officer, said that bias reports are often not entirely anonymous on the students end because there might be only two or three students of color in a class.

McCaughey said that disciplinary systems without oversight often end up hurting the wrong people.

“Even well intended programs, if they’re not rolled out correctly when they don’t have the buy in and they don’t have the checks and balances for due process end up getting taken advantage of by the very groups that don’t want to see the diversity that we’re finally seeing at Appalachian and other state universities.” McCaughey said.

Recent chalking incidents on campus were still fresh in the crowd’s mind.

Eliana Rodriguez, a junior studio art major, said administration wasn’t clearly drawing the line between freedom of speech and bullying, to the detriment of students.

Yasmin Ayala-Johnson, a sophomore psychology major, said she had to make a point to not look at the chalk messages while walking to class.

Howard said he was concerned that chalking incidents could lead to violence if confrontations like last Wednesday continue to occur, adding that administrators have more power to solve the systemic problems faced by minority students.

“This is a systematic problem that we’re asking to fix here and it’s seen as frustrating I think because you’re asking us to fix a systematic problem and it’s not possible because we’re not the power players at this university whatsoever,” Howard said. “So these constant things we’re doing, it’s like we’re doing it for no reason because we know it’s not going to work.”

Dayton Cole, general counsel to the university, said the university has little leeway in restricting content of speech and can only impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.

“If we say we value freedom of speech to a large degree we have to acknowledge that we will tolerate all kinds of speech from both ends of the political spectrum conservative, liberal [and] everything in between,” Cole said. “Even though we may dislike that speech very much.”

Willie Fleming, chief diversity officer, said that students of color are vulnerable to unfair or inappropriate treatment but he has seen cause to be encouraged by the reaction by the campus community.

“A very wise man said to me and a wise woman said to me ‘the remedy for speech we don’t like is more speech’ and for the last several days I’ve noticed that many of you are now chalking and you have your voice and you’re saying things and that is a very immediate and practical response to this,” Fleming said.

Story by: Sammy Hanf, News Editor