New diversity initiatives strive to improve the Black student experience
Community responds to Franklin College's new diversity and inclusion plan
By Isaac Gleitz
Franklin College’s new diversity and inclusion initiatives — part of a comprehensive plan shared by President Kerry Prather in late August — outline what steps the institution will be taking to create a better home for Black students, faculty and staff.
The email discussed a house newly adapted to serve as a living and congregating space for Black students and the recruitment and retention of Black students. It also mentioned a new presidential advisory group tasked with integrating student feedback, additional funds for the Black Student Union (BSU), anti-racism training on campus, and the diversification of the board of trustees.
But Terri Roberts-Leonard, director of the college’s center for diversity and inclusion, or CDI, said the community needs to be reminded that is shouldn’t just be her office doing anti-racist work.
“Diversity, equity and inclusion does need to be infused into the fabric of the institution,” Roberts-Leonard said.
In a recent interview, Prather echoed this point and said that cooperation among different departments is at the core of the college’s new diversity plan.
“Until we get to a point where every experience here is equally successful, equally fulfilling, equally enjoyable, we’re not living up to our mission,” Prather said.
In a joint statement, the executive board of the BSU—who informed college administrators about the current Black student experience during their writing of the plan—applauded the college’s approach.
“Overall, the plan sent by the college is multi-faceted, which is necessary to do the work which is needed to make Franklin College its idealized self,” the board said.
But they also have critiques. They said the college administration doesn’t prioritize offering leadership positions regarding diversity and inclusion.
“If the Center of Diversity and Inclusion was appropriately staffed and if senior leadership at the college included a chief diversity officer at the cabinet level, the college would not have quite as hard of a time putting a focus on these issues and coming up with a streamlined plan to address them,” the board said.
They also regret that Roberts-Leonard is the only full-time staff member in the CDI, aside from the newly hired program coordinator, Kalyn Johnson, who splits her time with residence life duties.
On a similar note, Roberts-Leonard said the CDI has been underfunded since its inception. In response, an additional $10,000 from student involvement is being channeled to the CDI. The BSU is also slated to receive a higher allocation of student activity fees in coming years. Taylor Dwyer, director of student involvement and Greek Life, didn’t respond to a request for that amount.
Roberts-Leonard said the funds will help promote diversity, but the other initiatives seem more like a collection of ideas than a plan. She said it appears to be a reactionary move, taken because of mounting social pressure. If the college wanted these changes, they could have taken action years ago, she explained.
“All of the things that are coming to the surface now are not new things,” Roberts-Leonard said. “I’ve been saying these things for years—since I walked on campus in June of 2012.”
Prather and Dean of Students Andrew Jones said that recent action is just part of an ongoing process.
“This is not something we dreamed up in reaction to anything,” Prather said. “Everybody is being reactionary right now, but it’s not as if you’re starting from scratch.”
Building on the President’s Council for Diversity and Inclusion, which will have a few more student members this year and focus on Black issues, Prather formed a presidential advisory group to better hear students’ concerns. He said that students of color now have a chance to project their thoughts to campus policy makers. In their statement, BSU leaders agreed that Black students have a better platform from which they can speak, which is an important step toward change.
Black students can also take advantage of the Arthur Wilson Black Experience Living/Learning Center for the fi rst time this year. The house, located just off campus on Maple Street, is a response to Black students’ appeal for a gathering place of their own.
In reflection, both Prather and Jones said that Black spaces are essential for a welcoming environment.
“That’s a relatively small thing for us to do that makes a big difference,” Prather said.
To further accomplish goals for Black students, Prather’s email called for the increased engagement of Black employees. Yet Roberts-Leonard, a Black staff member, is concerned since there are only 11 others at the college, and those people already have to deal with racism in their daily lives.
“You also have to be careful when it comes to trying to utilize those individuals, so that they’re not overutilized,” Roberts-Leonard said. “You don’t want to ‘Black tax’ them.”
Prather agreed that caution is needed, although he said that most Black employees are eager to speak about issues faced by African Americans. Their participation is valued but should be voluntary, he said, continuing that the diversification of the college’s Board of Trustees could further help the college consider Black perspectives. He expects to see progress on this matter soon.
Overall, Prather said these goals will lead to a healthier college because the student body will become more diverse and grow in volume. BSU leaders said they feel that they have been given the chance to influence the future direction of diversity at Franklin, but they will continue to call for more staffing in the CDI and a diversity leader in the president’s cabinet, while Roberts-Leonard will continue advocating for the causes she took up when she started her job in 2012.