Diversity at CU is a work in progress

Films shown in Dr. Talbott’s Black Cinema class

This past June, President Jonathan Spiro sent out a pledge to combat bias, privilege and systemic racism at Castleton, following nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. His pledge was greatly appreciated by many in the Castleton community, and has sparked action.

“It didn’t read like a canned response from a university administrator,” said Michael Talbott, professor and chair of the media and communication department. “President Spiro’s felt earnest and real. It contained real emotion and a real call to action.”

Unfortunately, this year was full of many changes, and Spiro was unable to prioritize diversity to the extent he would’ve liked to.

“In a normal year, the pledge would have been the main focus of my administration. This year, it has necessarily had to take a back seat to the multiple crises that beset us,” said Spiro, referencing the pandemic, the conversion to online learning and the Vermont State Colleges merger. “Nonetheless, all thing considered, we’re making good progress.”

One step Castleton has made is expanding the membership of the University’s Access & Equity Committee and renaming it the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, which has begun working toward fulfilling Spiro’s pledge.

According to Gillian Galle, associate academic dean and chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, the committee currently has four main projects in the works. It is working to get perspectives about diversity from students, surveying what is being done well and not so well, ensuring students know how to report incidents and that the incidents are handled better and sending out more detailed information about diversity in admissions documents.

Spiro said representatives from the admissions office attended a DEI meeting to discuss diversifying Castleton’s admissions policies, and the use of standardized testing has been eliminated from the admissions process.

“Make no mistake, this is not enough movement. But we’re starting the hard work of being where we need to be, so our students have a safe space and they feel like this is their campus too,” Galle said.

And, although the Vermont State College system merger has impacted the progress made toward the pledge, it may also play a part in diversifying Castleton’s curriculum.

According to Galle, the Vermont State Colleges are working toward creating a unified general education experience.

“But why stop there?” asks Galle. “If we’re going to find these commonalities that we want all the schools to use, we should also talk about what DEI should mean in all of our schools and that should be a part of our general education.”

In fact, the VSC Committee on Racial Justice that was formed this school year, is already working on examining the colleges’ curriculums and, according to sociology professor Linda Olson, is attempting to add more classes that focus on central issues such as racism and sexism. Olson has since had to leave the committee due to other responsibilities, but media and communication professor Sam Davis-Boyd has taken a position on it.

Another course of action Spiro took this year was appointing dance professor Maya Kraus to the role of Student of Color Advocate.

“What I am hearing, and what I heard last year before I was in this position, was students bringing up issues of race, social issues, in class organically… and some faculty and staff are not addressing them in the moment for the sake of trying to stick to the material, the lecture for that day, whatever the lesson plan is,” Kraus said.

Kraus made clear that, as a professor, she understands the need to stick to a lesson plan, particularly with the struggles of online learning. However, she noted the importance of confronting these issues.

“We should be proactive about, okay, let’s just stop what we were just talking about, and address this conversation piece that just came up because this is important to one person, perhaps it’s important to many people in this class, and college should be that place where you are throwing out questions,” Kraus said.

Kraus wants to address this problem directly. She is planning on hosting a conversation with faculty and staff this semester, to shed light on these awkward conversations and help faculty with handling these situations.

Senior Ray Awusi, president of the student chapter of the NAACP at Castleton and member of the DEI Committee and the Student Government Association, has experienced moments like this, where professors have shied away from addressing certain conversations, which can put the onus on the students.

“Sometimes in classes when topics come up that might be related to [diversity] I just try not to say anything. The ignorance in the room just skyrockets. I feel uncomfortable sometimes and I basically just shake it off,” said Awusi.

When asked if he feels that Castleton’s curriculum reflects the desire from students for more diversity, Awusi was direct.

“Honestly, the answer to that question would be no,” said Awusi.

Aris Sherwood, a junior media and communication student, agrees.

“I think we could do better at providing classes on specific groups of people of color and their history … There’s always room for improvement when it comes to talking about inclusivity and diversity on campus,” Sherwood said.

Part of the problem is the fact that Castleton’s faculty is not very diverse, something echoed by Awusi, Sherwood, and Olson.

“We don’t have a good representation of people of color especially in our faculty. We never have, not in my 26 years,” said Olson.

According to Olson, there have been recent layoffs or instances where a faculty member has retired and not been replaced, and some of those faculty members were people of color. The loss of a faculty member of color is much more impactful at a predominantly white school like Castleton.

Sherwood said that, while white people should be taking the initiative to teach themselves about diversity, learning from people of color can give students a deeper level of understanding.

“It’s hard to have that sort of understanding, especially as a white student being taught by a white professor,” said Sherwood.

However, she pointed out that perspectives from people like Kraus, who grew up in Vermont as a woman of color, and from Spiro, who has taught about race and slavery and written a book about eugenics, do help Castleton students, especially those who were raised in Vermont and have not been exposed to as much diversity as students in other parts of the country.

But there is a desire from students to take classes that deal with topics of diversity. Talbott is teaching a Black American Cinema course this semester, and spoke to the popularity of this course, mentioning that he received over 10 emails from students looking to join after it filled up. But Vermont still has a lot of work to do.

“I’ve been in Vermont for four years, so at this point in my life I kind of know what to expect – which is the bare minimum,” said Awusi.

Many, however, feel Castleton not only has a responsibility to its students, but to the community as well.

“Castleton as a cultural institution is a major component of this push to diversify what people are exposed to around here,” Talbott said. “That’s the role of a university, to be a cultural hub, and to invite difference and different ideas.”

When asked what he’d like to see from Castleton in the future, Awusi made it clear that he wants Castleton to do better.

“An environment where everybody can feel welcomed. The Castleton Way, that gets preached so often. I truly want to see what the Castleton Way is all about,” Awusi said. “That flag raising was just one thing to symbolize what we want, and the change we want, but now the real work begins.”

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