Before you read my letter, please read this—
I write this letter on a Monday morning in February. In a couple of hours I will be joining about a dozen faculty and staff colleagues in a weekly conversation in which we will try very hard to have a candid and authentic conversation about how we experience and manage the intersections of race, power, and privilege differently. This conversation is part of a larger initiative we have adopted at Beloit called Sustained Dialogue. Our group comes together on Mondays to learn, reflect, and develop as members of the same community. Other groups of students, faculty, and staff meet at other times during the week.
I am pretty comfortable learning, reflecting, and developing in most circumstances, but these Monday conversations are really hard and deeply uncomfortable. There is little that we talk about that does not make me cringe in one way or another. And, I believe that when I cringe (and I don’t think I am good about hiding this) I am pretty sure that my cringing makes other people in our group cringe. And, their cringing at my cringing makes me cringe again. To add to my discomfort, I interpret nearly everything anyone in our group says as, “So why haven’t you fixed that yet, Scott? What are you doing with your presidency anyway?”
I think it is pretty rare (if ever) that anyone means to convey that, but I know I become defensive in a heartbeat. And, I worry, how are my friends and colleagues interpreting the things I say? No doubt, they are parsing my words very carefully. What are the chances that what I meant is what was heard?
Hold on to this thought for a moment.
The campus was buffeted a few weeks ago when a picture of Angela Davis—a black, female political activist—was anonymously defaced. We don’t know who did it, nor, despite aggressive efforts, are we likely to find out. Appalling. Intolerable. Unworthy of your college. A violation of college policy. All true. But it happened. Here.
It is easy for me to be angry about this. But, it is also easy for me to go about my day pretty normally while still being angry. That is not the case if you are black, or black and female, or identify yourself with any group in which being threatened has real meaning because those threats, too often, are real. How you traverse the campus, how you look at other students or faculty or staff when they pass you on the sidewalk, how you interact in classes and the library and on athletic teams, is different and diminished, and often harder.
A lot harder. And, lest you think the Angela Davis incident is a rare event, nearly any non-majority student can tell you story after story of how they experience small, less visible, deface-Angela-Davis-like wounds on an agonizingly regular basis. Beloit is a lot harder for some than for others. (And this, I admit, is just a local example. Think of how national incidents—like Trayvon Martin’s death—might also affect members of this community.)
Back to the college’s emphasis on Sustained Dialogue.
So far, I have avoided using the word “diversity” in this letter. I have done so because the word, at this point in higher education, has become so vastly overused that it is now barely heard; barely read. Diversity and programming that celebrates it can be (or at least can be seen as) façade or stagecraft—a distraction from deeper understanding and dialogue. It is easy to dismiss programs like Sustained Dialogue in the same way that we dismiss sentences with the word “diversity.”
But, at Beloit College, we are newly recommitted to making ours a school where programs like Sustained Dialogue are at the center of what it means to be liberally educated. It does not sit alone. For example, we have recast the First-Year Initiatives courses to feature the essential qualities of social identity in navigating the world toward a life of purposeful consequence.
First-year student or facilities staff member, professor or president: All are beginning to be engaged in this important—if sometimes uncomfortable—dialogue. If we are to fulfill our mission, if we are to improve our college, our community, and our country, if we are to fully deliver on the promise of a Beloit education (and higher education in general), we must do this. Hard as it may be.
From here at Chapin’s desk, on the cusp of even greater days to be a Beloiter,
-President Scott Bierman