UNI faculty says ‘yes’ to supporting diversity

NICK FISHER, Executive Editor

Following multiple student-only and open forums on issues of diversity and discrimination, the UNI Faculty Senate endorsed a statement in support of diversity and inclusion on Dec. 14.

“As a community of scholar-teachers we respect all members of the University and community by actively embracing the diversity of people of different ethnicities, colors, cultures, sexual orientations, political affiliations, religious beliefs and abilities,” the statement reads. “We support programs, policies and respectful dialogs [sic] that promote inclusion, equity, mutual understanding and freedom of thought and speech.”

The endorsement of the statement followed what chair of the Faculty Senate and professor of biology, Steve O’Kane, dubbed a “teach-in” on diversity and inclusion practices at UNI and the surrounding Cedar Valley.

Senior philosophy major and NISG director of diversity and student life, Hansen Breitling, spoke on behalf of students facing discriminatory behavior and/or hurtful speech.

“Where do students face issues? It’s everywhere,” Breitling said. “It’s when you’re coming in from Admissions. It’s living in the residence hall. It’s when you go to classes. It’s when you go home. So it’s all the time. It’s constant.”

Breitling devoted much of his time to informing faculty of examples of “ignorant” or hurtful comments made to minority students in the classroom that he said often go unaddressed by faculty.

“Students again and again say that comments are made, things are said, questions are asked and instead of seeing these times as educational opportunities, they just get glossed over and that silence hurts,” Breitling said.

Breitling described an instance in which the class was peer-assessing prospective paper topics and an African American student received feedback on her proposed topic dealing with racial injustice when a student said: “I don’t know why you keep talking about it [racial injustice]. You’re not in the cotton fields anymore, so why do you keep bringing it up?”

O’Kane and other faculty senators said that faculty might not know how to handle every situation and may gloss over the comment not out of apathy, but out of not knowing a nuanced statement to guide the discussion toward a “teachable moment.”

Scott Peters, political science associate professor, said he believed he would recognize that moment as such, but might not know what to say.

“I’d like to think that I know the exact way to cut to, to deal with the situation … but would I actually get in that zone that allows us to make some progress as a class and move the needle a little bit? I’m not sure,” Peters said. “I might be so taken aback or so stunned or something that I can’t guarantee that in the moment I would do that.”

UNI Provost Jim Wohlpart said that he is interested in “finding the leverage points” at the systemic level to create changes. He identified a proposed measure, a New Faculty Colloquium, as one such point. This initiative would provide professional development to incoming assistant professors that would include strategies to address inclusion issues in the classroom and would brief new professors about the current culture at UNI.

Reverend Abraham Funchess, executive director of the Waterloo Human Rights commission, spoke about perceptions of UNI outside of UNI, particularly in Waterloo.

Funchess said many in the Waterloo community see UNI as disconnected, and referred to a UNI professor who writes “Donald Trump-esque” columns for the W-CF Courier without rebuttal by other UNI professors.

Robert Smith, director of the Educational Opportunity Programs and Special Community Services (UNI CUE), spoke about his work with education majors in handling complex diversity issues raised in the classroom, among other things.

Wohlpart concluded by responding to a concern raised by Xavier Escandell about the representation of diverse students in the classroom.

“Let’s make the commitment first, and then let’s work on the recruitment,” Wohlpart said. “Let’s be really honest with those students. Let’s tell them when they come here: ‘We’ve got problems on our campus. This is going to be the hardest place that is going to be for you to be, and the hardest work you’re going to do. I hope you know that you have a partner in that.’”