One year ago, approximately 200 students walked out of their classes and gathered in front of Central Library as part of a “Call to Action,” modeled after various other student protests springing up around the country, to address racial inclusion and systemic discrimination at Vanderbilt. Organized by the Vanderbilt Hidden Dores and led by now senior Akaninyene Ruffin, the group marched silently to Kirkland Hall, where each student presented a signed list of demands to a waiting Chancellor Zeppos.
“I KNOW SIMULTANEOUSLY, THERE ARE PIECES OF THE ADMINISTRATION THAT ARE LOOKING TO CRAMP DOWN ON THIS SET OF REVOLUTIONARY MINDS.”
The demands, according to the event organizers, were their way of including the student voice in conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion and addressing the need for changes in mental health support, curriculum, staffing, accountability and policy. Now, one year later, the Hustler investigates, in the order and in the organization of how the demands were presented, how those demands are being addressed by the administration.
In the three years she has been at Vanderbilt, Ruffin has seen students become more comfortable using the words “diversity and inclusion” and having discussions about these words.
“Whether we are prepared to address [these words] wholeheartedly, don’t know yet,” Ruffin said. “But the class of 2020 is very encouraging. I love them, they’re a radical bunch. But I know simultaneously, there are pieces of the administration that are looking to cramp down on this set of revolutionary minds who are going to come, and they have big plans and big goals and aspirations.”
The first demands made by Hidden Dores were for greater support for mental health on campus. They cited the long wait times at the Psychological Counseling Center and the disproportionate mental stress on students of color as evidence that more staff was needed at the PCC. Further, the list of demands said mental health and crises professionals were needed in the KC Potter Center, BCC, ISSS and Residential Education as well.
To address these demands, the university hired an Access and Inclusion Coordinator, Marcy Melvin, for the PCC in January and spent the summer training PCC staff in cultural competency. According to Ruffin, although the university has expanded the PCC in these ways, they haven’t done enough yet.
“[Melvin] can only cater to so much and be in so many places at one time, and [the university’s expectation that] the addition of her and maybe two or three other people to fulfill this need … I don’t think we realize what our students of color are dealing with,” Ruffin said.
A third demand made was for the removal of the “Confederate” inscription on Memorial Hall. That demand was met this summer, when an anonymous $1.2 million was donated to relieve Vanderbilt from their obligation to the Daughters of the Confederacy to keep the name.
“That was a really really big step that should have been done ages ago,” Ruffin said. “I recognize that it was something that was difficult to do.”
According to the protest mission statement, the demands were meant to address systems of institutionalized racism and discrimination present in the university. One means of addressing this, according to the list of demands, is to include diverse perspectives in the classroom.
One of the ways in which Vanderbilt is working towards greater diversity in classroom topics is through the University Courses program. The program, currently in its pilot year, provides funds to professors from different schools on Vanderbilt’s campus to collaborate and teach courses that interests them. This year, there are five courses, three of which are considered “multicultural”: Tackling Big Questions with Mobile Cloud Computing, Social Entrepreneurship, Historic Black Nashville, Justice, Mercy and Mass Incarceration and The Nation’s Health: From Policy to Practice.
The courses were chosen by two committees made up of a diverse group of Vanderbilt faculty members. Both committees were charged with reviewing proposals to ensure that courses advance innovation, big questions and synergy. One of the two, the Multicultural University Courses committee, was tasked with choosing proposed courses that addressed issues of diversity. Dr. Muktar Aliyu, an associate professor in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and a member of the Multicultural University Courses committee, said he thinks the courses are a step in the right direction for the university and that the committee was dedicated to picking courses that further that initiative.
“There were certain criteria that we were looking at when evaluating those classes; these included things like the clarity of the topic, whether it adds new knowledge or expands existing knowledge, and to what extent it will benefit our students, the university, and the community,” Aliyu said. “Those are the major criteria that we considered, but I think these first three classes, these new classes, are really going to set the tone in terms of the contributions these changes, this approach to learning will have, the impact it will have on our student population.”
Another curriculum demand asked that a core curriculum requirement dealing with diversity, equity and inclusion be added to degree plans. Dr. George Hill, Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion said that he would like to see required courses in diverse areas specific to each college at Vanderbilt.
“I believe that it will provide students with the opportunity to have an experience in the classroom that would be a learning one that would also introduce them to conversation and perspectives that might be different than their own,” Hill said.
Chancellor Zeppos agreed that required diversity courses would be great, but it’s a slow and painful process to change curriculum. Instead, he said he tries to practice a top down system of increasing diversity.
“One of the most schlerotic, slow, ossified, and I’m taking this on, but it’s hard, is curriculum,” Zeppos said. “The last time the A&S curriculum was redone I think was 2002. And then before that was 1985…I try to create programs that are diversity courses, I try to hire more diverse faculty, so that at the end of the day, the curriculum is more saturated.”
One way in which the university is attempting to incorporate lessons on diversity is through Visions sessions for first years. As a VUCeptor, however, Ruffin says this is a difficult task.
“Fifteen to eighteen students and you have to get through their highs and lows for the week and have an actual conversation about race in 50 minutes?” Ruffin said. “No, that’s disrespectful, it’s just not possible.”
Prior to the Hidden Dores protest, Vanderbilt administration decided to address diversity concerns by hiring a chief diversity officer. Dr. Hill, a biomedical researcher and diversity advocate, was brought out of retirement to fill the position, running the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. The office serves as a means of tracking accountability for diversity and inclusion throughout the school and asking important questions about these issues
“For example, are we admitting a significant number of students that will, when you go to class, create an environment where people from different backgrounds, people who think differently than yourself, people who may be from different socioeconomic backgrounds, are we admitting students who fit that pattern?” Hill said. “Are faculty members who we hire who end up teaching you coming from different backgrounds, experiences, universities, different trainings so that they will bring different perspectives to the classroom? Are the staff who we have here being treated equitably?”
Efforts to increase the diversity of Vanderbilt’s staff have been ongoing since 2014 through strategies such as cluster and opportunity hiring. Cluster hiring involves hiring multiple scholars with shared interdisciplinary interests into one department, and opportunity hiring allows a university to hire faculty where there is a unique opportunity to add diversity. According to the university, 35 percent of new hires in 2016 were underrepresented minorities and 49 percent were women.
In addition to these hiring practices, the university is also working to promote underrepresented minorities in professoriate positions through a new pipeline project, funded in part by the National Science Foundation. The program has a particular focus on increasing the number of women of color in STEM fields.
“In a week like last week, the assistant director for the BCC was at the BCC until 3 in the morning comforting students, and expected to be there at 8 (the next day).”
“We started this new pipeline project where we’re bringing in new Ph.D.’s from underrepresented minorities, and that way you can kind of bring 5 or 6 a year in really quickly, you can kind of get to critical mass and it would be to place them at Vanderbilt or other universities for teaching jobs, so they would clearly want to teach a course [concerning diversity],” Zeppos said.
One of the most important issues going forward, according to Ruffin, is staffing for offices that support equity, diversity and inclusion on campus. Peabody was the first to appoint a dean of diversity, but Ruffin says that she doesn’t have any support staff. Many other offices on campus, such as the Black Cultural Center, are understaffed as well, she said.
“In a week like last week, the assistant director for the BCC was at the BCC until 3 in the morning comforting students, and expected to be there at 8 (the next day),” Ruffin said.
According to Ruffin, the BCC full time staff are the administrative assistant, Jackie Grant, the associate director, Jeff King, and the assistant director, Nicole Malveaux, because Dobson shares his time between the Dean of Students and the BCC.
“So that’s three folks, two directors, three graduate students,” Ruffin said. “That’s not enough to keep anybody going.”
Ruffin says the Inclusion Initiatives and Cultural Competence office is also not fully staffed.
“None of these places have enough human capital to get the stuff done that they’re expected to do,” Ruffin said. “I think we are going to see massive amounts of turnover because they’re going to be burned out, plus a lot of these folks are getting paid an hourly rate now.”
Within the duties of the CDO, the Hidden Dores also requested a Diversity Committee be established, with the responsibility of creating action plans for each semester to address faculty and student concerns. The chancellor has established a Diversity, Inclusion and Community committee that is advised by a Student Advisory Perspectives Group. However, the committee does not at the moment create semesterly action plans subject to student and faculty ratification, nor does it have an operating budget.
The list given to Zeppos also requested that a bias response team be created for the purpose of receiving, investigating and correcting reports of discrimination and releasing comprehensive reports on discrimination related findings. Presently, the Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disability Services Department handles this type of data; a separate office has not been created.
According to Ruffin, incidents that have occurred on campus, especially since the presidential election, have been difficult to track because Vanderbilt does not have a system in place for reporting these incidents.
“If we had a bias incident reporting system, students would be already in the practice of reporting things that happen, so when Donald Trump is elected president, and demagogues all across campus are emboldened to be racist and bigoted, [these students] would know exactly where to go and they would report that,” Ruffin said. “It would be almost second nature. And since we’ve done nothing to get that done, now we are struggling.”
The final demand was to eliminate the first bullet point in the University Policy, which states that “students are subject to corrective action when, individually or as members of a group, they violate University policy, rules, or regulations, including but not limited to the following: obstruction or disruption of teaching, administration, and University procedures and activities, or other authorized activities on University premises including programs, events, meetings, or speakers hosted by student organizations, departments, offices, or other entities.”
The university has chosen not to address this demand, citing in their response to student demands that they have the right to prevent disruption to education.
Ruffin is not satisfied with the university’s response on this issue, saying that this rule creates a community of fear for students on campus who want to speak out.
“The only day off at Vanderbilt is the day celebrating Martin Luther King, who disrupted and who marched, and the first thing in your university policy is that you could receive disciplinary conduct,” Ruffin said. “And talking to a lot of younger students, that’s one of the reasons a lot of things have gone undone, because students are scared.”
How long will it take to meet these demands?
Ruffin believes Vanderbilt is behind other institutions in our progress on issues of diversity and inclusion.
“I don’t think it’s time to celebrate just yet,” Ruffin said. “I don’t think it’s time to rejoice and give Vanderbilt brownie points for living up to its basic institutional duty to protect the students who have chosen for four years to call this home.”
“I know (Chancellor Zeppos) supports a lot of these endeavors, but does everybody underneath him support these things?”
Until our university undergoes a paradigm shift that says diversity is something that pushes us toward justice, according to Ruffin, these changes might take some time.
“Will we have an administration that says, ‘Black lives matter’ ‘Queer lives matter’ ‘Muslim lives matter’ all the intersectional identities, all these lives matter?” Ruffin said. “I think until we have someone who is prepped to say that and deal with the backlash, it’ll take a lot longer than we are ready to say, and I recognize the chancellor has a lot of conundrums to work through as the face of this institution, and I know he supports a lot of these endeavors, but does everybody underneath him support these things?”
Even with all that Ruffin believes Vanderbilt has yet to do, she believes the student protest one year ago motivated student activists on campus.
“I am immensely proud of the team I worked with, and I don’t think people understand how much we sacrificed, and how much the students who walked with us sacrificed and how emotional those moments were,” she said. “I’m forever proud that we did that, regardless of how everything else will turn out. The people who stood with us, those faces, I see them all the time.”
Akaninyene believes the protest was constructive but that Vanderbilt as an institution was not ready for it.
“No one was prepared for what happened … ” Ruffin said. “If nothing else, the moments, however long they lasted … that moment is forever engrained as something that has to be protected. I don’t know if it made it all worth it because it gave a lot more work to a lot more people, but it was something that was very, very impactful in the lives of a lot of different college students who experienced that moment with us.”