Editor’s Note: College tries to give students voice in DEI talks, why won’t they take it?

By Megan Bennett, Editor-In-Chief

Columbia’s leaders in diversity, equity and inclusion are taking steps to try to receive student feedback. This would be an effective strategy to ensure all voices are heard, but students are not taking advantage.

As reported on Page 3, the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee’s Student Advisory Board—a group that aims to help the college’s larger DEI committee take the student experience into consideration—hosted the first of several scheduled town hall meetings Feb. 8 to allow students to speak openly about what changes they want to see at the college.

Administrators and DEI Committee members did not attend the town hall meeting—and are not scheduled to attend future ones—in order to create a safe space. The topics ranged from race issues to inequities within advising and student health services, however, fewer than 10 students attended this meeting.

Whether it was insufficiently advertised or students were unable to take time on a Wednesday afternoon to attend a two-hour session, it is unclear why the turnout was so abysmal. Of the approximately 7,000 diverse students Columbia currently enrolls, it is an easy assumption that a majority of them have experienced some issue related to diversity, equity or inclusion and should care about improving the campus environment. To get even a fraction of them to talk—or to even attend future meetings—the advisory board must show other students that these meetings hold weight with top decision-makers and things will only change if they contribute to the conversation.

Though the event was posted on the college event page and sent in the “In the Loop” emails, it’s likely most students didn’t know of the town hall’s existence. Increasing awareness either through an individual email to students signed from the DEI Committee or President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim would likely garner better results.

Evening meetings held in past years have yielded better attendance—whether this was for student center open feedback meetings in the Fall 2015 Semester or for the biannual open forum with Kim. The college should provide students a space like the Conaway Center instead of the Dance Center, Columbia’s building farthest from campus at 1306 S. Michigan Ave., and at a time when most students are not in class.

In addition to changing the logistics to get students to attend, how students view their voice at the school needs to change as well. Because Kim  and Vice President and Provost Stan Wearden will not be there, which is a positive aspect about these town halls so attendees’ voices are not diluted, the advisory board needs to make its power known to the students.

It needs to be clear that the board’s voice has clout with people who are actively trying to create effective changes to both curriculum and the campus environment like Kim and the rest of the DEI Committee.

This may be a difficult mindset to change, but students need to feel like a valued part of this discussion, and it can be done through using clear language about how these messages will get back to Kim before the end of the semester when it may be too late. The board should also develop objectives and timelines on how the student issues can be improved. Following up with specific students about their complaints could also show that the advisory board is serious about improving experiences or even creating petitions based for necessary changes that students are able to reach a consensus on.

Instead of their experience being talked about by faculty and staff, students need to be advocating for themselves. Students who attended the town hall said this type of meeting is long overdue, and it is, but it won’t be effective to reach top campus leaders unless students show that it matters to them.