For any campus diversity plan to succeed, there needs to be substantial involvement at all levels – from the students to the upper administration.
That was the consensus Thursday, Jan. 19, at the first in a series of "Courageous Conversations," which will seek to engage everyone at the University of South Dakota in defining diversity-related campus issues.
The panel consisted of members of the Campus Diversity Enhancement Group's (CDEG) diversity committee.
"Leadership is key," said panelist and psychology professor Barb Yutrzenka. "We've often had the conversation that, we can run our tails off trying to do grassroots diversity activities, but if … it's not also being embraced by the high political leadership where a lot of very significant decisions are being made on the campus, we can only go so far."
For some, the first "conversation" should have gone farther.
"I think the fact that you don't have the president of the university … to help launch the discussion tells people of color that you're not very serious about it," said audience member Edward Valandra.
Valandra is the former chair of USD's Department of American Indian Studies, who said he knew "a lot about racism at this institution" and that it led to his resignation.
"The institutional message you're giving people right now is that (the administration) doesn't care," he said.
Tom Sorensen, panelist and associate dean of the USD School of Law, said that when the event was being planned, input from university higher-ups was a part of the agenda.
"We started with, 'Let's have a panel, and let's include the president and the provost,'" Sorensen said. "We talked more and more about it, and we decided, 'Let's get this started first, and we're going to see where things go.' I think that at some point that is in the plan for a future panel."
Sorensen added that there will be a renewed emphasis on diversity issues as they relate to USD President Jim Abbott.
"In the search for the new chief diversity officer, it's been determined … that that person should report directly to the president of the university," Sorensen said.
Panelist and psychology professor Beth Boyd said Valandra raised a good point.
"I don't know how as an institution we can go forward if we don't have leadership that says, 'This is important,'" she said. "What we know about diversity science at this point in time is that we need to have leadership at the very top in order to give that push to institutions, to put ourselves outside of our comfort zones and do those things that really, truly make an environment inclusive and welcoming to everyone."
Last week's event was held in part due to the findings noted in the Higher Learning Commission's (HLC) accreditation report, which was finalized this past fall.
CDEG chair Jerry Yutrzenka explained, "Part of it was how we do on diversity, and they kind of came back and said, 'Not too well.' There are pockets of activity, but not the whole university. It's just not really there yet.
"In every area, diversity is a hugely important part of the accreditation process, and we get held to that. There are times when we do some things well, but not across the whole university," he said.
Kurt Hackemer, panelist and history professor, said the report found little evidence for a "rigorous, systematic and effective approach" to addressing institutional diversity.
Hackemer quoted the report as saying, "'Although many people at USD are engaged in adhoc and meaningful efforts to serve and learn from diverse communities, and although those highly-localized efforts serve the community's needs in important ways, USD does not have an overarching plan to increase diversity.
"'Discussions with faculty and staff reveal that USD has the expertise, interest and passion to engage in powerful and distinctive ways with diverse communities, yet leadership's attention is essential to resolve the ongoing and challenging absence of ethnic and racial diversity in the curriculum, the student body and employees,'" he read.
Two concerns outlined in the report was a lack of planning in regard to recruiting, the curriculum and the staff, and "'little evidence the students truly understood the need for and importance of a diversity mission.
"'There seems to be silent mentality that diversity occurs in a specific or designated office, course or person,'" Hackemer read.
The university needs to give the HLC an update in 2014, he added.
Approximately 10 years ago, the previous HLC report led to the formation of a diversity plan and committee, Barb Yutrzenka said.
Boyd added that the Office of Diversity also was created, and a diversity officer was hired, along with outlining a list of goals.
"I think the only thing that really was realized out of that plan was the creation of an office of diversity. I think the rest of the plan kind of got lost after that," Boyd said.
Sorensen pointed out that there have been a lot of individual efforts over the years with organizations, committees and groups that started through the students, as opposed to the school.
From the audience, English professor Emily Haddad said the efforts could not start and stop with the students, that the university faculty was the "missing link in the equation."
"Students graduate, that's the point," Haddad said. "They come and then they go."
Some audience members said all kinds of student groups – social and ethnic – might not feels as welcome as they should, and hence stay in their own groups.
Other members of the audience said they want to see the university play a more active role in encouraging these various groups to interact with each other.
Boyd said she hoped last week's conversation would be a starting point for that kind of activity.
"We need to become allies for each other. We need to work together," she said. "I know looking at it from an ethnic minority perspective, there's not enough of any one minority group on this campus that can stand up and make something happen. And there's not enough of any of the other groups on campus that have a shared interest even to say, 'We're going to make things happen.' …
"We have to join forces, to lend our energy to each other, to come to a shared, unified idea and expectation," she said.
Courageous Conversations was sponsored by the USD Office of Diversity and hosted by the Campus Diversity Enhancement Group.