Saint Mary’s Journey to Inclusion: A Snapshot

Calls for a university to deal directly with issues of inequality can come from an accrediting body or federal agency. They can also come from young voices on campus. One brisk afternoon last December, a call came from within Saint Mary’s College. Hundreds of students walked out of class just days before finals week, and met on Dante Quad to hear black classmates express their pain and frustration with campus life.

The walkout paralleled other Black Lives Matter protests unfolding at the University of Missouri and other U.S. campuses last winter. But the call for changes at the College was Gael-centric. Speakers told personal stories about racial slights, incidents termed “microaggressions.” Addressing listeners—a large and diverse crowd that included President James Donahue and Professor Tomas Gomez-Arias, the school’s new chief diversity officer—the student-activists read from a statement that demanded more black faculty, called for “a campus where black lives truly matter,” and was safe and secure from bias.

“I love Saint Mary’s College,” said Rachel Hartley, president of the Black Student Union, a junior, and one of the architects of the demonstration. “If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be critiquing it. That’s when you show it the most love.”

This liberal arts Catholic college is itself one-of-a-kind. The student body, at just 4,100 Gaels, could fit into a large concert venue. Saint Mary’s is located in the nation’s most racially diverse state, and 44 percent of the overall campus identifies as students of color. The university also has a unique president: The first non-Christian Brother leader in the College’s history, President Donahue is a theologian and scholar focused on the ethical growth of institutions.

“As an ethicist, as a Catholic, I take these issues very seriously,” Donahue said. “We have to deal with a world that has developed profound dimensions of racism, inequalities, and marginalization.” Advancing social progress on campus not only helps students personally flourish; in his eyes it’s a powerful contribution to creating a better world.

“Inclusion is the heartbeat of our Catholic and Lasallian mission to respect all individuals,” Donahue said. It is invoked in his 2015-2020 Strategic Plan, a big picture document titled “Distinctive Excellence: Defining the Future of Saint Mary’s College.” It says faculty must closely mirror student demographics; that the school must “advance an inclusive community grounded in love, respect, support, and dialogue” in order to create a campus where all students feel welcome, 24/7. But he allowed that there was still work to be done at Saint Mary’s to translate inclusion promises into practices. 

“We’re known by what we do, and actions will demonstrate we are serious,” Donahue said. “I think we have made significant strides in our cultural competency and developing a culture of inclusivity.”

At a time when campuses large and small were debating whether to hire a go-to person for concerns about racism and cultural bias, Saint Mary’s appointed its first chief diversity officer. Enlisted in November 2015 to be a force for a wide range of activities around inclusion, Tomas Gomez-Arias, a long-time marketing professor and self-described white male “with a funny accent,” describes his new job as part cheerleader, part strategist, and part resource.

When asked about the walkout, Gomez-Arias said he was very proud of the students. “Many of the steps we are already taking have to do with the concerns those students expressed,” he said. For instance, acting on Donahue’s mandate, Gomez-Arias is helping search committees recruit for diversity, and for black faculty in particular. “Numbers tell a story,” said Gomez-Arias. “It’s one of the pain points when you talk to students, especially students of color, that at this point on the tenure track you have seven black faculty members out of 183 tenure-track faculty.” Gomez-Arias is also helping to rewrite faculty employment announcements campus-wide—the language in job descriptions can be an early barrier to recruiting a broader group of candidates.

Saint Mary’s was founded in 1863, the same year Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Not long after, the De La Salle Christian Brothers took over the College, which was then exclusively male. Fast-forward 150 years and the student body is 60 percent female. There are places and courses of study that reflect the needs and concerns of women—the Women’s & Gender Studies Program has been in existence since 1993, and the Women’s Resource Center was created in 1999. It could also be argued that Saint Mary’s has been welcoming to the LGBT community in a way that’s not always apparent in Catholic institutions.

SMC also has long-established examples of class and racial inclusiveness. Consider the High Potential Program (HP), in place at Saint Mary’s since 1973. HP has supported first-generation college students throughout their freshman year and a recent Department of Education TRIO grant of $1.1 million will expand the program to the entire four-year academic career of HP’s scholars. Broadening this program means retaining more students from underrepresented groups, like junior Janelle Atienza `17, who calls herself a Mexipina, “My dad is from the Philippines and my mother is from Mexico," she said.

An HP success story and current student mentor for the program, Atienza has embraced many leadership development opportunities in her time at Saint Mary’s. She has even facilitated diversity trainings at off-campus conferences. But, her successful experience in one part of the College hasn’t translated into a sense of comfort in other areas, reflecting larger challenges related to the campus climate that HP wasn’t designed to address. “I’ve really put myself in bubbles of people who are like-minded,” Atienza said. “I keep myself in those safe spaces. I really like that Saint Mary’s has classes in areas like ethnic studies, but people don’t always take these classes.”

Bringing minorities to campus and offering them cultural centers and supportive programming is not the same as weaving them into the fabric of an institution, the administration acknowledges. “We’ve done really well and have places they know they can go,” Provost Bethami Dobkin said. “But to have a whole campus that welcomes and values everyone is the goal. We need to create more than safe spaces, we need to have an inclusive community.”

In 2008 Saint Mary’s received a notice of concern from the Western Association of College Schools, a regional accrediting commission. The WASC notice said the College must do more to become a welcoming, diverse campus for people of all races. (Little known fact: Donahue was a WASC commissioner at that time.) 

“That notice of concern came about two weeks after I arrived,” said Dobkin. “That was my introduction to Saint Mary’s. It was an opportunity to educate the community and created external pressure to address those concerns.” 

Though initially externally motivated, the university launched into cultural and policy changes. In 2008 the College Committee for Inclusive Excellence was created; consultants for the Organizational Development Model of Inclusion were brought onboard, and mandated Campus of Difference Workshops for staff and faculty soon followed. WASC subsequently removed its notice of concern in 2010, and in 2015 WASC commended the College for its efforts to address inclusion, particularly highlighting SMC’s formation of a Bias Incident Response Team, a means for tracking and reacting to bias-related offenses.

Other inclusion advances have been internally motivated: a diversity requirement and a new Core Curriculum were introduced to students. Additionally, workshops have been established to provide training for SMC faculty to engage in difficult classroom conversations involving diversity—training for these kinds of discussions was a concern of students at the December walkout.

It was a cool March evening when Black Student Union leaders met with Donahue, Dobkin, Gomez-Arias and other administrators at the Intercultural Center, in the Delphine Lounge. They talked about the walkout and Saint Mary’s inclusion challenges, but also about times when the school has lived up to its commitment.

Afterward, Donahue said their dialogue was extremely valuable. “These public conversations have been helpful; it’s important to the life of this university. My job is to create institutional conversations to look at where we are in this journey.” Donahue took a resolute tone when he added: “I hear the concerns loud and clear, and we will translate our commitment to actual actions. I do not want to shy away from dealing with the challenges that are out there.”

BSU’s president also said it was a good first meeting. “I say first meeting because it won’t be the last one,” she said. The young activist also offered up her take on Saint Mary’s journey to inclusion. “It takes constant work. The work is self work, inner work, administration work, classroom work,” Hartley said. “You see progress, but work never ends.” But she added that black students at SMC, as well those demonstrating across the nation, are tired of talk and want results. And if students come away dissatisfied, then SMC might “reap what it sows,” she said.

That common idiom comes from a biblical passage, from Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians that begins, “As you sow, so shall you reap.” While initially foreboding, the rest of the passage follows with affirmations of encouragement, to not give up on any just cause: “Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up.”

And with the many efforts of the College in mind—the latest being the recent creation of an academic senate task force on the hiring of black faculty—there is considerable proof that Saint Mary’s has in no way grown tired, and is far from giving up on its journey to inclusion.