Diversity at Columbia Part I: Many initiatives but stalled progress


Alexander Aghayere

Diversity at Columbia Part I: Many initiatives but stalled progress

By Campus Editor

Lance Cox, a senior cultural studies major, said he can usually determine a professor’s cultural awareness based on their course syllabus. He said when students do not see things relatable to their life experiences, it can cause deeper issues, citing his “Introduction to Women and Gender Studies” course, in which the professor was knowledgeable on readings including white, cisgendered women, but the only mention of the transgender experience in the original required readings was through the history of gender-affirming surgeries.

“I’m [thinking] ‘cool, if I tell her I’m trans, the only thing I think she knows about are the surgeries available to me and the history behind them,’ which makes my experience reductive,” Cox said. “My experience living in the world as a trans person becomes surgery. My perception of her is that she doesn’t know anything else, so why would I even bring it up?”

There are dangers to limiting curricula to only reflect a majority experience, and teachers need to show they care about students’ overall life and cultural experience, Cox said.

“If I can tell faculty anything, it’s that I am a person before I am your student,” he said.

Cox is one of many students who have felt underrepresented in the classroom at Columbia. Students, faculty and staff have expressed  the feeling that diversity should not only be shown in student, faculty and staff demographics but also understood in classrooms and mirrored in curricula. This conversation has recently found a national stage with other institutions, including Yale University and the University of Missouri. 

At Columbia, curricular concerns have been addressed primarily by departments and individual faculty rather than as a collegewide effort.

So it was for Jasmine Delgado, a senior theatre major, who did not receive instruction from an acting professor who was not white until her sophomore year.

Delgado, president of Columbia’s Latino Alliance, said the professor, Celeste Williams, was not of Hispanic descent, but she allowed Delgado to incorporate aspects of her culture into her assignments through the prominent Latino theater figures she was assigned to research. The assignment opened her eyes to a side of theater that related to her own life, she said.

Williams, an adjunct professor in the Theatre Department, said she tries to “open the door” for students to learn about various cultures so they can connect with their own cultures or learn valuable things about others.

“Everything about the arts has to find its way into a multicultural aspect or it just becomes sort of boring,” Williams said. “It also serves the student population. As our school has become more diverse, you’ve got to offer things to everybody, but in the long run, even those people who are not considered part of a diverse population benefit from learning about everything.”

The college’s Strategic Plan, now in its first year after being approved by the board of trustees in May, embraces diversity as one of its six main goals and lays out a series of steps to realize it. The first step, according to President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim, is forming a search committee to help appoint a vice president of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion as well as create a campus diversity mission statement. The goal of assembling the committee, which is the basis for several other first-year goals, has yet to happen. Cara Birch, spokeswoman for the college, said the committee will be formed “soon.”

Senior Vice President and Provost Stan Wearden said he asked the current Strategic Plan implementation committees to think about the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion section of the plan when doing their work.

“We all need to have our consciousness raised on this,” Wearden said. “We all need to understand the nuances of diversity, equity and inclusion. We all need to understand what it feels like to be from an excluded or historically oppressed group and how that factors into how people see or interact with the world.”

The importance of diversity in higher education has been known for many years. In a 2015 study published in The Journal of Higher Education, researchers examined cross-racial interactions to determine the benefits of diversity on college campuses.

The research, which compiled data from surveys that sampled more than 14,000 college students from freshman to senior year, suggested that while it was commonly known that diversity in the classroom experience has educational effects, positive student interactions and a “perceived acceptance” of diversity on the college campus increased those interactions’ ability to positively affect student academics.

Lack of diversity can affect students on a psychological level. Feeling culturally underrepresented can have “adverse” effects on an individual or group’s mental health or psychological well-being, said Julie Chen, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in cross-cultural psychology.

Sheila Baldwin, an associate professor in the English Department who teaches Columbia’s “African-American Humor” and “Black Women Writers” literature courses, said inclusion in terms of demographics and curricular representation should not be limited to diverse faculty.

“It’s important for teachers of all backgrounds to teach about things like race, racism and injustices,” Baldwin said. “I cannot limit it to faculty of color.”

According to Fall 2014 data from the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, 76 percent of full-time faculty and 86 percent of part-time faculty identify as white, non-Hispanic. 72 percent of full-time staff and 60 percent of part-time staff identified in the same category. 

In terms of gender, full-time faculty are approximately 53 percent male with 47 percent female, part-time faculty is nearly 54 percent male and 46 percent female, 48 percent of full-time staff are male and 52 percent female and part-time staff is 43 percent male and 57 percent female.

Some 58 percent of undergraduate students in the Fall 2014 Semester identified as white non-Hispanic. Forty-four percent of undergraduates were male and 56  percent were female. It is not clear if other gender identity alternatives are given to faculty, staff or students.

Full statistics for 2015 were not compiled, as of press time, and Birch  declined The Chronicle’s requests for the college’s raw data for student, faculty and staff ethnicity

and gender.

While demographic diversity is also important for students to have representation and something to strive for, the likelihood of faculty, staff and student populations always mirroring one another is low because student populations change yearly and faculty and staff stay for longer periods of time, according to Lott Hill, executive director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching Excellence. This makes practicing diversity incredibly important, he said.

The Center for Innovation in Teaching Excellence and the Office of Asian American Cultural Affairs, have been running the college’s Practicing Diversity series, a nonacademic space for students, faculty and staff to discuss diversity-related issues, for the last three years. 

According to  Hill, the center also teaches workshops “Teaching to Transgress” and “Instructional DevelopmentFest,” which

include discussions about diversity in the classroom, throughout the academic year and previously taught a version of “Culture, Race and Media” for faculty in conjunction with members of the Television Department.

Hill said the goal of Practicing Diversity is to make everyone involved in the classroom experience aware and understanding of various cultural backgrounds.

“We often have questions about people or about populations of people that are different than we are,” Hill said. “We seldom get to ask those questions and explore those answers together.”

Cox, a student facilitator for the series, said discussions involving topics of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, mental health and age are all are aspects of diversity the college should address. He added that prioritizing the teaching of practicing diversity could attract faculty who want to engage in those issues.

Birch said there are no mandatory diversity initiatives for faculty and staff from the administration, but such initiatives can be launched on a department-by-department basis.

Onye Ozuzu, interim dean of the School of Fine & Performing Arts, said she arranged for mandatory diversity training while serving as chair of the Dance Department in August 2013 and again in August 2014, including training from the People’s Institute, a national collective that provides training in racial and multicultural competence.

Ozuzu said department-wide conversations about revisiting the curriculum to make it more inclusive of all backgrounds inspired the training, which “electrified” the department’s faculty, students and staff in the way they thought about and discussed race.

“Curriculum is an example of a system where values get decided and expressed through what’s included in the curriculum and what is not included,” Ozuzu said.

Wearden said the college welcomes all independent department initiatives and added that the training the plan calls for is necessary and is being considered.

Susan Imus, chair of the Creative Arts Therapies Department, said in addition to having previously created a cultural diversity task force, several graduate students and professors collaborated in February 2015 to create a workshop called “Deepening our Understanding of Diversity: I Am Not Your Normal” in which faculty and students discussed new classroom objectives for diversifying curricula, bringing up elements like race, gender, ability and sexual orientation.

“All our courses had to examine how they were addressing [cultural diversity],” Imus said. “Each of my faculty then updated their personal syllabus to assure these cultural questions were addressed in the classroom and competencies around that could be the focus of classroom assignments.”

While diversity discussions typically focus on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, many feel religious and age diversity need to be addressed as well.

Onur Öztürk, a lecturer in the Art & Art History Department who created the “Art of Islam” course, said religious diversity is also important to college campuses as it helps people understand different world views and conflicts.

“People love to stereotype about religion, so if you don’t understand the complexity of religion, it may be very challenging,” Öztürk said. “It’s a world that requires that intellectual sensibility to these topics.”

Öztürk, originally from Turkey, said having grown up in a predominantly Muslim environment allows him to represent the subject matter in a more personal way for students by telling them stories from his childhood about the culture.

“It is more satisfying to make those kinds of connections, and students feel them instantaneously and connect with it,” he said.

Lex Lawson, coordinator of LGBTQ Culture & Community, said the office provides collegewide programming and initiatives to promote inclusion for students of all gender and sexual identities.

While representation is important for these students, he said everyone—regardless of background—can be supportive.

“We live in the world—in particular the U.S. culture—where there are privileged identities and experiences and there are underrepresented, marginalized experiences that face discrimination either interpersonally or systemically,” Lawson said. “At Columbia, we’re not immune to that. Just because we don’t want to reinforce that, [it] doesn’t mean we snap our fingers and magically it happens. Because we live in a world where those things exist, we have to be proactive, intentional and conscientious.”

Hill said practicing age diversity is important because it creates cross-generational conversations.

“We as teachers can experience the generation gap in terms of [what] we grew up with or what we were taught,” Hill said. “Students can also experience the generation gap of having their own sense of identity or experience and feeling like the teachers are not understanding where they’re coming from.”

When diversity issues are not discussed, Hill said a phenomenon called “stereotype threat” can occur, in which students in fear of experiencing prejudice because of their differences are in jeopardy of underperforming academically.

While CITE offers the Practicing Diversity series and incorporates diversity in other programming, Ramona Gupta, coordinator of Asian American Cultural Affairs, said there are no other places for faculty and staff on a collegewide level to commune to discuss these issues that are not student-centered.

Gupta said the lack of collegewide diversity training is frustrating for students of diverse populations.

“I know a lot of people know a lot of stuff about other people, but I also know there’s a lot of people who don’t,” she said. “It worries me when there is no institutional commitment to getting those people to learn about diversity and inclusion.”

Raina McKinley, a junior photography major and student facilitator of the Practicing Diversity series, said asking for diversity in curricula typically falls on the students.

“If you were to go up to your teacher and say, ‘I’m not represented in the syllabus,’ they can say ‘what would you like me to put in?’ and you [think], ‘I don’t know, teach me something’ but they don’t know [how to teach it].” McKinley said. “It goes back to teaching them before they teach here.”

Cox said having this responsibility fall on the students is not the worst situation for right now.

“The truth of the matter is, we haven’t already figured it out, so students are going to have to do the work,” he said. “If [people] say students are not supposed to do the work, then the work doesn’t get done.”

While the college promotes an institutional mission of students “authoring the culture of their times,” as well as a commitment to diversity, Cox said if the diversity is not practiced effectively in the classroom setting, it will have dire effects on students’ creative work.

“Do we want to produce students that do not have access to other cultures and have those students produce work that then marginalizes other people?” Cox said. “I think we don’t want to do that and we, as an institution, would be ashamed of that happening.”