Listening to Students

How the Saint Mary’s community is building inclusive community.

Read alumni insights as to why inclusion matters at Saint Mary's.

It started out as just another warm day on campus. But instead of the studious calm that usually precedes spring finals, agitation and shouting echoed across the quad. Scores of students marched and held rallies. United under the call of End the Silence, the protesters, many of whom were students of color, raised their voices and fists to express their concerns about being marginalized and targeted on campus. The demonstrations included an all-day walkout, sit-ins, and open-mic sessions, and they ended with a list of demands for the administration.

Among other things, students called for curriculum changes, mandatory diversity workshops for faculty and staff, and in First Year Advising Cohorts (FYACs) and Collegiate Seminar. They also called for more help with college affordability, support for undocumented students, and more faculty diversity.

The student unrest echoed similar student actions nationwide. Many of the demonstrations were held in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and, most notably, the student protest at the University of Missouri, which garnered national media coverage and led to the resignation of its president.

The May 5th demonstration was in the wake of high-profile incidents of bias on campus a month earlier, including vandalism, with political graffiti on campus sidewalks and the egging of the Intercultural Center (IC) during a Black Student Union sleepover there. The IC incident was investigated by Moraga police and SMC’s Public Safety Department, which categorized it as a hate crime.

In addition to reviewing the student demands and acknowledging where the College can improve, President James Donahue collaborated with the College Committee on Inclusive Excellence (CCIE) and the Intercultural Center in a series of town hall, campus climate conversations. They included a solutions-oriented gathering of students, faculty, and staff and two brown bag lunch discussions with the president, provost, and concerned students.

Desmond Hatter ’18 attended both brown bag sessions. His initial takeaway was one of appreciation for Donahue, for taking the time to listen to students and explore their concerns. But he added that it’s one thing for administrators to “talk the talk” and another to actually walk it. The 21-year-old business major said, “Things will change when the administration is proactively seeking to help students. Being an administration that supports marginalized peoples isn’t trying to solve instances after the fact.” If administrators focus only on the protest, he said, without examining its root causes, they’ll have missed the opportunity to live up to their Catholic and Lasallian principles.

While May began with students questioning the College’s commitment to inclusion, the month ended on an inspirational note, with actor Mahershala Ali ’96 delivering a moving commencement address about finding his calling as an artist at Saint Mary’s. It was in his senior year, while working with Theatre Professor Rebecca Engle in the production of Spunk. “In terms of college productions, the play was a huge success, standing room only,” he said. “It was a brave undertaking on Rebecca’s part because for the first time in the theatrical history of the school they produced a black play. So in some regards it was groundbreaking and I had the time of my life. I felt alive with a sense of purpose that I hadn’t yet experienced up to that point.” Ali would go on to challenge the graduating class to pursue their destinies with patience, perseverance, and prayer. His message and personal success story resonated across the College.

Over the summer, members of the End the Silence group and administrators gathered to talk about inclusive community at SMC. “We’ve made real progress on addressing key concerns in the student demands,” said Chief Diversity Officer and Professor of Marketing Tomás Gómez-Arias. “Those areas included improved mandatory diversity training for all staff, in particular staff in the business and financial aid offices. Many student critiques were borne out of the lack of intervention by professors when inappropriate language surfaced in Seminar discussions. As a result, there is an expansion of diversity training and workshops for faculty on handling difficult dialogues.”

Gómez-Arias added that Saint Mary’s has also made notable gains in hiring faculty of color, in particular tenure-track black and African American professors. “Black students have repeatedly asked why there weren’t more professors ‘who looked like them’ at the College,” he said. “At the end of spring term, we had six tenure-track faculty of African descent, out of 183 ranked faculty members. That was a real pain point for students. However, since then that number has climbed to 11 for the new academic year; that’s an 83 percent increase in a tight academic labor market.”

The College further advanced its commitment to a faculty that mirrors its student body with the hiring of additional diverse professors, including four new professors of Asian ethnicity, eight of Caucasian, and five of Latino ancestry.

Provost Bethami Dobkin, who co-chairs the CCIE with Gómez-Arias, says a major reason for the encouraging progress the College has made in a short time is that the actions requested by students were consistent with the College’s mission and goals and with many of the items already under consideration or in motion. “The President’s Office, CCIE, and others across this campus are deeply committed to inclusive excellence, which requires a high-quality academic experience that draws from and is deepened by the strengths of all of our students and the diversity they bring, based on things like their religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or class,” she said. Dobkin believes Saint Mary’s response to the student demands and its overall inclusion efforts will help distinguish the College as a best practices institution within the higher education landscape. “We are Lasallian educators who revere human dignity and understand that building a more inclusive community, one based on respect and equity, is essential for student success,” she said. “When we actively employ those values, we foster life-changing academic opportunities for all Saint Mary’s students.”

Regent Song Woo MBA ’05 thinks the College’s approach to pursuing inclusion and diversity initiatives across the campus shows that it recognizes the needs of both its current and future student population. “I think the long-term benefit is that SMC will be looked upon as an institution that is out on the forefront, ahead of the curve and making sure it is evolving with the times.” Woo, president of Lighthouse Management Group, a recruiting and consulting company, said actively promoting inclusion and diversity in the business arena, including the business of education, is fundamental to success, whether that success is measured in product market share or by enrollment growth. “Aside from being morally and ethically right, from a business standpoint, it’s going to impact you negatively if you are losing a pipeline of the best young minds. That’s true whether you are in business or higher education.”

Ines Sosa ’17, a double major in politics and Spanish, and part of the protest planning team, said she was encouraged by the College’s efforts so far. “We’ve taken the demands and they have sat down with us and we’ve talked through them. Like, ‘This is the first demand and this is what we are doing about it, and this is what we can’t do.’ So, being clear about what they can do and what they are unable to do has been really helpful to us, to keep things at a much more realistic level,” she said.

Sosa noted several areas of progress with the administration, including establishing standardized diversity sessions for first-year advisers and advisees. The initiative is intended to set expectations for appropriate campus behavior, including helping to reduce microaggressions and create awareness of how unconscious biases can affect campus life. “Right now every FYAC professor does their own thing. Now, hopefully, with the new curriculum that will be implemented … once you get all the first-years from the very beginning, they all can get this training and they are all on the same page.”

As part of the College’s effort toward transparency with its work on inclusion, Sosa and End the Silence co-member and psychology major Daniela Santana ’18 were invited by Dobkin to participate in a summer workshop on building inclusive excellence with Saint Mary’s academic leadership team, which included the president, provost, cabinet members, Brothers, deans, senior staff members, and CCIE faculty representatives. They were also invited to join the CCIE to ensure student perspectives were heard.

While Sosa and Santana believe Saint Mary’s initial inclusion efforts were earnest, by late fall they were apprehensive. “Students cannot be certain any change is being made when they can’t see them in action,” said Sosa. However, CDO Gomez-Arias said the College is committed to addressing the student demands and has scheduled a student, faculty, and staff gathering to continue those efforts. Sosa added that implementing change soon is important, noting the victory of the Republican presidential candidate has increased campus anxiety. “Saint Mary’s has a much bigger responsibility now than before. How can it ensure that this campus is a welcoming space, when the rest of the country isn’t?” Santana reflected that the election results could spark opportunities for campus unity. “All I can say is that we must remain strong and we have to be there for each other, more than ever.”

The toll of the White House battle wasn’t lost on Donahue. “Regardless of the election’s contentious nature, and its impact outside of the College, we will continue to uphold the values of the Christian Brothers and Saint Mary’s mission. We’ve made genuine progress in our pursuit of inclusive excellence,” he said. “Respect for all persons and inclusive community is part of our mission and embedded in our strategies for making SMC the leading Catholic comprehensive university in the West,” he said. “We will always be committed to these fundamental Lasallian principles. And, everyone on the campus is expected to adhere to those principles—everyone.”

On Nov. 30, students, faculty, and staff gathered in a town hall format to talk about the next steps related to the #EndTheSilence demands. The group primarily discussed issues such as faculty diversity training, the Ethnic Studies major, and hiring more diverse faculty. Students asked administrators and faculty to move more quickly towards making diversity training mandatory for all faculty members. Provost Beth Dobkin said she would bring up the issue soon at an Academic Senate meeting. Students also talked about the possibility of hiring more professors for the Ethnic Studies major, and perhaps introducing a general education requirement for all students to take one Ethnic Studies class. The 90-minute exchange of ideas gave students and administrators a chance to delve further into issues of diversity and inclusion on campus.

Students and administrators agreed to continue their discussions and work on #EndTheSilence demands during Jan Term and in the spring term. In addition, Dobkin offered students the opportunity to meet with her and will hold office hours every other Wednesday during Community Time, 12:30-2 p.m., beginning Jan. 11.