Student Meetings: Key Takeaways and Immediate Action Steps
Dear Skidmore Community,
As I announced earlier this month, I have been engaged in an intensive effort to listen with compassion, empathy and as much understanding as possible to the perspectives, experiences, concerns and suggestions of our students of color. Over the past two weeks I have held 16 separate meetings with individual students, small groups of students and larger gatherings, including with representatives from all the clubs under the Office of Student Diversity Programs (OSDP) and a listening session to which the entire student body was invited. I have also met with the Committee on Intercultural and Global Understanding (CIGU) and the Institutional Policy and Planning Committee (IPPC).
As I said in each of the meetings, I have not sufficiently listened to our students of color during this fall semester, and I am determined to do better in this crucial work. I am grateful to all the students who so generously gave their time and perspectives. In this message, in an effort at full transparency and accountability in this listening work, I share with our community what I have heard. Although it would be presumptuous of me to leap to "solutions" or action steps, particularly because all these issues will require the work of many hands to make meaningful change, I do state at the end three action steps we will take immediately in response to the concerns and experiences that were raised.
Of great importance, I do not see this listening effort as a "one and done" or task accomplished — quite the contrary. I have already spoken with our Skidmore Student Government Association (SGA) leadership about setting up regular meetings for me with the Student Senate, which I would definitely welcome. And I very much want to continue my meetings with the OSDP clubs. These are wonderful opportunities for me to get to know our students better and hear their perspectives on life at Skidmore.
What follows is my sense of all the major and repeated issues I have heard consistently in the listening sessions. Some of the issues will be difficult for our community to hear. Some of them suggest action steps we can take now. Some of them will require long and difficult conversations and additional steps by our entire community. But, as this community has demonstrated many times before, the difficulty of the task does not tamp down our willingness to undertake it. A huge takeaway for me in all of this is how much our entire community genuinely cares about Skidmore, and about the thousands of individuals who collectively make up Skidmore and all of whom we value. I am confident that we have what it takes to work together to continue to affirm and employ that spirit.
Key concerns raised by our students
A major concern I heard was an overarching crisis of trust. A number of students do not feel heard, supported by, or trusting of key areas of
the college and the local community. In many ways, all the issues I have heard about
resolve into this general challenge for our community.
Anti-racism and anti-bias training: Students voiced a powerful sense that mandatory training for all faculty and staff is needed. Although they recognize that studies show mandatory training is often ineffective, they feel the need for everyone to gain a basic understanding of current issues, and the need for greater fluency and competency in diversity work is so acute that this training is necessary. The need for ongoing and evolving training, not just one-time training, was voiced. Incorporating such training into first-year orientation and the first-year experience program was suggested by several students and groups.
Safety concerns on our campus and in town were voiced by several students. This is focused primarily in two areas: Skidmore’s own Campus Safety staff and function, and Saratoga Springs as a whole. Student concerns with Campus Safety ranged from the perception of inconsistent enforcing of COVID-19 regulations, to insensitivity to student identities and privacy, to inequitable treatment of students, all of which contribute to a lack of trust in their support for all students. Regarding Saratoga Springs, there was some concern about the local police and about how residents and shop owners respond to our students of color, and concerns about how welcoming Saratoga County at large is or is not to students from diverse backgrounds. Also, how to ensure the safety of our open campus given such circumstances is a concern for some of our students.
Resources for our students of color have been a frequent area of concern. Support in the Counseling Center for students with non-majority experiences came up many times, as did the need for staffing support for the OSDP clubs and organizations. In this period of isolation and anxiety due to the pandemic, these needs are especially strong, and more presence on campus of support staff would be welcomed by our students.
Accountability and transparency among the faculty was a recurring issue. Almost every student with whom I spoke is highly critical of the faculty decision not to extend course evaluations to broader audiences and processes. The students expressed that they are subject to evaluation and felt frustration that the faculty were not willing to do the same. Student concerns about bias in the classroom, microaggressions from faculty, and insensitive statements and dynamics from faculty were frequent. Here, too, training is seen by our students as a necessity. I heard about disappointment that the Racial Justice Initiative urged and recommended such training but did not require it of the whole community.
Increasing the diversity of our community — students, staff and faculty — was voiced many times. At the same time, the need to make our current community more welcoming to all students is another priority voiced by our students. The need for consistent and equitable practices for all was a recurring theme. Some expressed dismay at how all student athletes seemed to be blamed for the actions of one person on Halloween; some were concerned that any views that dissented from the most vocal students and student leaders would be met with being canceled and ostracized; and some reported frustration that the concept of "students of color" was too general and that their individual cultures and identities were being erased under a general "BIPOC" category. These issues were subtle and nuanced and students recognized the complexity of these challenges of identity, culture, allyship and affinity.
Social media is definitely a dominant concern. The "fox-eyes incident" came up repeatedly. While students recognized that there is no way for the College to monitor, supervise and respond to the wide array of social media expressions, a number of them expressed frustration that the College does not quickly call out postings that in the students' view are clearly racist. The importance of freedom of expression is well understood, but at the same time the border between "free speech" and "hate speech" seems more clear to some than to others. This is a very challenging area and I did not hear a clear direction here that would resolve the challenges, but it is quite clear to me that Skidmore as a community needs to do better in our commitments to civil and affirming discourse (not unlike the country as a whole, of course).
Finally, the need to find ways to communicate to faculty the concerns of students, especially when incidents such as the one on Halloween night occur, was voiced by several students. Faculty, they said, need to know what is happening if they are to support students in their endeavors. Yet it is difficult to find ways to communicate with fact and full information in a timely way, particularly when social media runs ahead of even preliminary investigations and fact-finding efforts.
This is what I have heard from my listening with our students of color, along with
many other incidents, cultural concerns, and specific requests. I find these to be extremely serious concerns. Our students feel isolated and anxious, and although COVID-19 is a major factor here
it is clearly not the only factor, as students identified many of these concerns as
long-standing and building over time. Yet although the concerns are very serious,
I do not think they are insurmountable. Students consistently talked about our ability
to make progress on these issues, and I think through partnership, commitment and
collaboration we can indeed make Skidmore better.
These challenges reside in many areas of the College, and easy solutions are hard to find. But I do think there are three areas where we are called upon to apply ourselves immediately in direct response to these student concerns.
Immediate action steps
First, I have charged Donna Ng, vice president of finance and administration, in collaboration
with the director of Campus Safety, to work closely with the Campus Safety Advisory
Committee to help us engage with students and identify where and how Campus Safety
can be the support and safety element on our campus that our students seek. In addition,
a major step in this effort will be to explore engaging with an external firm to assist
Campus Safety in identifying areas where they should consider change to improve service
and trust at all levels within the campus safety organization, including training.
Second, we will work together to form a Speech and Expression task force, with representation from every element in our community, to review our policies and expectations regarding public discourse, social media, and inter-campus communications, to help us develop community expectations and guidance for public discourse. This will not be a speech code nor will it inhibit freedom of expression. Rather, it will help us articulate how we want to uphold our values in the many avenues of communication that the world offers.
Third, I expect every unit on campus to undergo anti-racism and anti-bias training as soon as possible. The resources for this training, as announced in the Racial Justice Initiative, are available from the President’s Office and I will charge CIGU to coordinate and support such training for the entire campus.
Although these are important steps, they do not come close to exhausting the steps necessary for us to make significant structural progress on these many issues. In all these efforts, the involvement of our entire community — students, staff, faculty, administration, alumni, Board of Trustees — is essential. None of these projects falls obviously into any single area. Rather, they belong to us all, and that is how we will make real progress here — by, in Ralph Ellison’s words, "taking responsibility for all of it" and working together to make Skidmore the environment in which everyone can thrive and everyone can feel at home. That is the community of trust for which we aim.
Once again, I am grateful to the many students who gave so freely of their time and thought. The listening will continue, and the collaborative work awaits us all. I am eager to continue this work with all of you.
Marc C. Conner