April 26, 2004

Diversity questions lead
to new campus conversations         

By Eric Rangus

In response to the often divisive diatribes concerning race on campus over the past academic year, Emory faculty, staff and students have taken a proactive approach to the subject in an attempt not only to air some long-unspoken feelings but also to find some common ground.

Faculty, for instance, have met recently in small groups to discuss diversity. The subject itself isn’t as important as the fact they have gotten together at all—meeting face to face instead of delivering a monologue from some sterile podium or beneath a boldface headline.

“Black and white faculty were not talking to each other,” said Daryll Neill, professor of psychology, who along with Richard Doner (political science), Eugene Emory (psychology) and Carole Hahn (educational studies) organized a series of small-group faculty meetings centering on race. “But there was a lot of public posturing in the newspapers.”

Shortly after the administration imposed sanctions on Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology Carol Worthman after she spoke a racial epithet at a departmental meeting last Sept. 15, 28 African American faculty and staff wrote an open letter to President Jim Wagner describing a “hostile racial environment” at Emory and offering several recommendations to address it—not posturing really, but not dialogue, either.

One of the Doner group’s first tasks was to contact each of the Emory College faculty members who signed that letter and invite them to racial discussions. About a dozen accepted. In all more than 20 faculty members, black and white, attended the first meeting, which opened with a simple listening session. Whoever wanted to could speak uninterrupted and air whatever thoughts they wished. The first one lasted two hours.

“There is a tendency for like-minded folks to preach to each other,” said Doner, associate professor of political science. “This is dangerous for several reasons. It leads to polarization; it allows all sides to avoid confronting complex issues and tradeoffs; and it often reinforces stereotypes.”

Emory, professor of psychology, took things one step further. He invited Worthman and Tracy Rone, assistant professor of anthropology and the faculty member who filed the discriminatory harassment complaint against Worthman with the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, to separate sessions of his “Stereotypes, Prejudice and Discrimination” seminar, and each gave a powerful presentation. The class wrote an essay about it (see story).

Two full meetings, led by Emory as well, were held on campus along with a couple of dinner meetings involving the four principles. Doner and Neill have prepared a report and soon will present it to Wagner.

Neill said he hopes discussions like these can continue, perhaps on a departmental level, adding he learned a great deal from his African American colleagues. “African American faculty on the issues of race have different expectations of Emory than white faculty,” he said. “Much of this has to do with the rich history of Atlanta’s black community. But in Atlanta and Georgia, you cannot ignore black and white.”

Faculty lobbying for more discussion manifested itself in interesting ways. At a college faculty meeting earlier this semester, Doner was discussing the college faculty groups and said their scope should be widened to include staff, students and other faculty. Beverly Schaffer, professor of economics and director of the violence studies program, volunteered to help. Violence studies had been working on issues of conflict, and Schaffer felt the program could contribute to the discussion.

Schaffer asked David Hooker, a third-year graduate student in the Candler School of Theology, to mediate the dialogues. Hooker also holds a law degree and a master’s in public health and owns his own mediation company, so he was a good choice.

Around 220 faculty, staff and students attended the five meetings in March and April (the first four were for faculty and staff; the April 15 event was an invitation-only event geared toward students). First they met in small groups, then those groups produced thoughts for discussion on index cards. All comments were anonymous, which Schaffer hoped would make everyone more comfortable and open.

“I sought to keep the atmosphere positive,” Schaffer said. “I didn’t want the focus to be only on the problems, but to focus importantly on solutions.”

“I thought the fact that these discussions took place at all, in and of itself, was positive,” Hooker said. “The range of opinion about the quality of the racial climate at Emory varies significantly. Even among those who are well-informed, there is a difference of opinion as to what the climate looks like, what it should look like, and how much attention should be paid to it.”

Schaffer also will meet with Wagner to provide both a summary of the five meetings and an archive of the comments attendees provided—50 pages’ worth.

“Our goal is to show not only what the concerns are, but the depth of those concerns and how people express them,” Schaffer said.

Students, too, have taken action. According to Donna Wong, associate director of Multicultural Programs and Services (her office assisted both the Doner and Schaffer groups), one of students’ biggest concerns is self-segregation on campus—Emory is diverse, but students often congregate with peers of their own race or ethnicity, she said.

To combat this self-segregation, the Multicultural Council, made up of 45 campus cultural and ethnic organizations, has encouraged clubs to co-sponsor at least two events a semester during the 2004–05 academic year. Wong added that next year more than 50 freshmen will have the opportunity to attend a “diversity crossroads retreat,” which will include peer leaders and counselors from Harmony, a freshman diversity organization.