SIU Diversity Advisory Council discusses how to counteract systemic racism in higher education

The SIU Diversity Advisory Council recently hosted a meeting to propose new mandates in an effort to subvert institutionalized racism, citing ideas that included system-wide racial awareness training and minimizing the importance of standardized testing when considering incoming freshmen.

The council held the first in a series of conferences, titled Conversations of Understanding, last Monday, June 29. The aim of the conversation was to discuss solutions in eradicating systemic racism throughout the SIU system. Before the meeting, they sent out a statement as to the intent of these discussions:

“Conversations of Understanding will become an ongoing fixture across the SIU System and on our individual campuses,” the statement read. “We want to be a model for others in higher education and be recognized as a leader in our region and beyond for our work in fostering understanding of relevant contemporary issues.”

Todd Bryson, Southern Illinois University Carbondale associate chancellor for diversity, acted as moderator and put forth the first question, and asked each person participating in the call for examples of systemic racism they had experienced or witnessed.

Dan Mahony, SIU system president, was the first person to answer. Mahony brought up the ineffectiveness of standardized testing scores when determining the success of a student.

“Research has long indicated that they are biased, and they particularly have a disproportionate negative impact on students of color, and also not great predictors of college success,” Mahony said.

Mahony said that while he was president of Winthrop University, he received pushback from members of their Board of Trustees on abolishing this way of thinking. According to Mahony, one member remarked that the school needed to reach out to more male caucasians who were upper middle class, a sentiment that shocked Mahony.

Later, SIUE Chancellor Randy Pembrook brought up the low retention rate of Black students at SIUE. According to Pembrook, though the school has raised retention rates by five points since he has taken over as chancellor, their graduation rates of Black students are still 14 percent lower than the national average. One program Pembrook proposed implementing is the Rise Program, a plan of action Pembrook said he believed would help address these deficiencies.

“So we’re considering additional programs such as The Rise Program, which specifically is for Black male students at SIUE. It’s a cohort model so students can go through together, take classes together and build relationships that hopefully will help students be retained,” Pembrook said.

Maddy McKenzie, a graduate student and diversity officer for Student Government, was called upon by Bryson to give a prepared address and talk about her experiences as a student pertaining to the topics at hand.

McKenzie, a biracial woman, recounted how she has been on the receiving end of systemic racism and simultaneously benefits from her lighter complexion. She explained the commonality of her situation, adding a layer of historical context.

“So historically, it was common for schools to have references for the admission of light-skinned African American students over dark tones African Americans regardless of their academic abilities,” McKenzie said. “And colorism was, and arguably is still today, used as a tool of oppression by denying equal educational access and career opportunities based on skin tone within a community of people of the same racial background.”

McKenzie brought up one idea that would borrow from the Not Anymore program, which is the obligatory sexual harassment and assualt training all students most complete each fall semester in order to take classes. McKenzie suggested the system could create a similar sort of training for racial awareness.

Howard Rambsy, professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and sub-committee member of the Anti-Racism Task Force, said in previous meetings with students, this subject has come up frequently.

According to Rambsy, though he respects McKenzie’s idea, he is uncertain if students give the Not Anymore training sufficient attention as is and is concerned students would treat any mandatory racial awareness training with the same amount of apathy.

“Rayshard Brooks, the guy who was killed in Atlanta … the police officer who did that had actually had diversity training,” Rambsy said. “So, I’m not sure that’s the route.”

Rambsy also raised concern for the sustainability of the current talks for reform, saying the school had the same talks as far back as 2016 with no substantial change to date.

Future Conversations of Understanding are planned to take place on the SIU Board of Trustees YouTube page.

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