A Note from Dr. Sylvia Spears, May 2016

The end of the spring semester is often a time of great celebration. We have survived yet another academic year. We have watched our seniors and graduate students make their way through their final exams, projects, and capstones. We have congratulated newly promoted faculty. We have thanked staff for their hard work throughout the year. And finally, we have come together at Commencement as a community to officially send our students off into the next phase of their lives. After a few days or weeks, we will settle into a leisurely period of reflection, when we have the space and time to consider what we have accomplished over the course of the spring and fall semesters.

 

This year, while riding the shuttle bus back to campus after a very long day at both the undergraduate and graduate Commencement ceremonies, I was unexpectedly jolted into reflection. A colleague who I greatly admire and respect asked me one very simple question. “Sylvia, please tell me that we have made progress on diversity and inclusion this year,” he said with a mixture of hope and desperation in his voice.

 

Those of you who know me, know it is rare for me to be at a total loss for words. Yet, I was in that moment. The air seemed to thicken as my colleague waited in anticipation of my answer. Time seemed to slow as I searched for the right words, words I could be sure were grounded in truth and not warmed by aspiration or desire. I finally responded, “We have made some progress in some areas, and not made much progress in some other areas.”

 

I further explained that the work many of us have been focusing on this year reaches deeply into the center of the College. Our work has not been about symbolic gestures that mask hollow actions or about the performance of the kind of diversity work that begins and ends with touristy celebrations of cultural differences. Much of our collective diversity work has raised questions about the very core of the College’s educational mission and how we fulfill that mission.

 

As a system, we are in the midst of a seismic organizational effort that seeks to change the culture of the College toward more inclusive practices in all areas. With any effort of this nature comes resistance. This is simply how institutional systems function.

 

No matter how committed members of our Community may be to the ideals of diversity and inclusion, this kind of change produces tension and anxiety. On an individual level, it can create a conflict between the desire for change and the need to maintain personal comfort. Yet without making our way through this discomfort, there will be no change.

 

Despite the presence of well-intended people, some members our community – just like any other community – may lean away from real change and seek comfort in smaller changes that don’t rock the boat. Another way to think about this is to “see change as valuable…as long as it doesn’t mean I have to change or do anything differently.” Embedded in this notion is a belief that change should occur around us but not by us. A commitment to Inclusive Excellence means rolling up our sleeves and facing change head on with the courage and commitment to sit through our own discomfort and still press forward. It means letting go of the very structures we may have helped to create because there may now be a better way to accomplish our goals.

 

All systems are perfectly aligned to obtain the results that they do. Unless we change what we do, the system will continue to perpetuate the status quo. We must press through our own resistance, the resistance of others, and the resistance embedded in the very structures in which we work, learn, and live. We must press forward as if our humanity depends on it because it does.