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GSA members discuss Univ. failings to address diversity

By Jess Linde

Section: News

May 6, 2016

A group of graduate students insisted Brandeis had failed to properly address diversity and inclusion in the graduate student population, and discussed the toxicity they felt in the environments at schools such as the Heller School and International Business School at a public forum held by the Brandeis Graduate Student Association (GSA) on April 21. Though no fully-formed solutions to the students’ “host of concerns” were expected from the forum, the panel and the Q&A did reveal a disconnect between students of color and Brandeis leadership in terms of how issues of diversity and inclusion should be approached in the context of events like the Ford Hall 2015 movement.

The disconnect was first brought up in comments by Callie Watkins Liu (HSSPM), a fifth-year doctoral candidate at Heller and the only non-white member of the panel. Watkins Liu introduced herself and her perspective at the panel as that of a black woman who had “survived the Heller School.” She described the Heller School as “an immensely toxic place,” to snaps and noises of agreement from the crowd. “These are systemic issues that need to be addressed, not anecdotal ones,” she said, adding that it was common for students of color to have their research “devalued and called ‘niche’ and ‘unimportant.’” Watkins Liu also highlighted environmental toxicity as a reason for the lack of minority retainment in graduate programs. “It doesn’t do anything to bring students in if they’re going to be experiencing violence and trauma that makes them leave,” she said.

The event featured a panel of senior Brandeis leadership as well as other graduate students and was was moderated by GSA President Stephen Alkins. In his opening remarks, Alkins described the panel as a means to “examining the role the administration plays in the process of supporting diversity and inclusion and, further, outlining specific actions that we as graduate students can undertake to ensure that the changes we want to see are actually occurring.” The panel was made up of Interim President Lisa Lynch, Interim Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Irving Epstein, Dean of Arts and Sciences (SAS) Susan J. Birren, Dean of the International Business School (IBS) Bruce Magid and Interim Heller School Dean Marty Krauss.

Along with Watkins Liu, graduate student Tomer Goldstein (IBS) was the sole graduate student on the panel. Goldstein, who is originally from Israel, felt not enough was being done for international students planning on staying in the United States to help them gain an “American experience,” elaborating later that he hopes to see more American students of “many races, economic backgrounds and genders” at IBS.

Alkins’ questions focused on ways to promote graduate student involvement in building a diverse and inclusive graduate population. He first asked the panel how graduate students would be involved in the search for the announced position of Chief Diversity Officer at Brandeis. Alkins then asked what resources were being put towards diversity and how students could be involved with minority recruitment. Panelists were also asked to suggest ways the three graduate schools could work in tandem to provide more staff and funding for the Intercultural Center (ICC), the Psychological Counseling Center (PCC) and other understaffed services used mostly by students of color and members of LGBTQ+ communities.

After describing the ideal candidate for a diversity officer as “someone who can understand multiple viewpoints and reach the community,” Epstein noted there are two students on the search committee and that the committee has held open meetings. “There is a lot of talent out there,” Krauss added, expressing support for an experienced candidate who could represent various groups of people.

Administrators’ answers to all the questions were similar, admitting more could be done while also pointing to advancements made by the three graduate schools. Lynch, Krauss and Epstein all supported the idea of hiring graduate students to assist in these fields, and “community days” to encourage a sense of community and family were also brought up several times. Birren stressed the importance of “engaging graduate students across the schools” and creating panels and positions which “reflect those most affected by lack of diversity.” Magid supported the idea of increasing student engagement and communication with administrators as well. Goldstein also supported the necessity of allowing students who have had “disturbing experiences” to voice their concerns.

During the Q&A, graduate students, some of whom had participated in Ford Hall 2015, expressed skepticism towards the administration’s intentions. “When the Ford Hall demands were released, we experienced so much defensiveness,” said one student. “[Administrators] went home in November for Thanksgiving while we were sleeping on the floor, fighting for a school we love and believe in the principles of and believe can change.”

Magid was “concerned and appalled” by the specific concerns, in particular a female IBS student’s “having doors shut in [her] face” after bringing up her concerns that IBS was too focused on the international Asian community to an administrator. Magid encouraged students to speak to him personally in order to ensure concerns are widely known.

Watkins Liu continued to hold her ground, expressing exasperation “that there is a conflation between ‘minority’ and ‘poverty.’ When I came to Heller it was because of the program, not the money … There have been letters and discussions spelling out exactly what problems there are; I think we need to focus on that and then extend to the future to build a community that is actually excited about being here.” Watkins Liu and other students also said they were “only [at the panel] out of courtesy,” and asked administrators to simply “read and address what we have given them.”

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