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Update Diversity and Inclusion 01-15-2021

Diversity and Inclusion

Update on the College’s Diversity and Inclusion Activities

 

MEMORANDUM TO THE MARIST COLLEGE COMMUNITY

FROM: STAN HARRIS, CHAIR OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES’ DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION COMMITTEE        

DENNIS J. MURRAY, PRESIDENT

DATE: JANUARY 15, 2021

With the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday being observed this Monday, we thought it was an opportune time to provide the Marist community with an update on the College’s diversity and inclusion activities over the past several months.  As we have previously stated, Marist’s Board, administration, and faculty are all strongly committed to ensuring that our institution is a more diverse and inclusive place at all levels.  In July, the Board of Trustees issued an institutional statement condemning the systemic racism experienced by Black people in this country.  This statement served to underscore the Board’s commitment to creating an educational experience at Marist that embraces diversity and inclusion, and prepares students to lead and function effectively in the complex world they will enter.  As our nation prepares to honor the legacy of Dr. King, we hope the College’s work in this area honors the memory of this great civil rights leader.  More than 50 years after Dr. King’s death, his vision of a just society for all is as relevant today as it was during his lifetime.

The College’s efforts to make Marist a more welcoming place are being overseen by senior administrators working in concert with the Board’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, chaired by Dr. Stan Harris.  Under Dr. Harris’ leadership, the Committee is focused on three main goals: 1) using data to understand and assess the status quo at Marist; 2) listening to a wide variety of constituencies to understand their lived experiences and hear suggestions for how Marist can do better; and 3) using this feedback to formulate a comprehensive set of short- and long-term actions that will help to improve the educational experience, the way we think about each other, and the way we will function going forward.

Our outreach to stakeholders has been both extensive and extremely worthwhile.  During the summer and fall, the Diversity & Inclusion Committee engaged in productive dialogue with a number of different groups.  Listening sessions were held with faculty, staff, students, and alumni, including the Alumni Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Board, Black Student Union, Diversity Council, Black Student-Athlete Alliance, Student Government Association, Marist Ambassador alumni, and Fox Pride.  Additional listening sessions will include the Marist Alumni Association, student veterans, resident assistants, maintenance and housekeeping staff, security officers, food service workers, and any others who would like to contribute their perspectives.  The Committee has also received feedback via Marist’s diversity website and through individual conversations. 

The thoughtful comments and creative suggestions we have received from members of the Marist community have proved extremely helpful.  Following is a summary of what we have heard and the initiatives we are pursuing, broken down by category.  We are grateful for the efforts of the Marist community to move these diversity and inclusion initiatives forward, even as the College has been responding to the urgent and ongoing COVID crisis and operating under our current budget constraints.

Curriculum

One of the most common recommendations we have heard from stakeholders is that Marist put in place a required diversity-related course for all students.  We strongly support this recommendation.  Vice President for Academic Affairs Thom Wermuth has convened an ad hoc faculty committee to develop options for a course, courses, or other academic experience(s) that would be required for all Marist students.  This group, which also includes student representation, will submit a proposal for the full faculty’s consideration in spring 2021, and we expect that implementation would occur during the 2021-22 academic year. 

Many individual academic programs and departments require diversity-related courses, but not all do.  The Vice President for Academic Affairs is overseeing efforts to expand our course offerings that address the diversity issues unique to each academic discipline, as well as to the careers students ultimately pursue.  All of these efforts will help ensure that Marist’s curriculum appropriately addresses issues of racism, bias, and discrimination, and includes the perspectives of underrepresented groups.  The Vice President for Academic Affairs will also explore implementing a campus common read focused on issues of racism and social injustice.  (It is worth noting that four of the seven freshman common reads between 2013 and 2019 centered on racial justice issues.)  Finally, Academic Affairs will be issuing a call for faculty-led projects to engage students in research on racism, bias, and diversity.

Training for staff, faculty, and students

Another common recommendation from College stakeholders was that mandatory training on implicit and explicit bias and microaggressions be put in place for faculty, staff, and students.  We are moving forward with this recommendation.  Vice President for Human Resources Christina Daniele has been reviewing a number of programs, and our plan is to implement one in the spring semester. 

In addition, the College has funded an innovative program called the Marist Diversity Leadership Institute (MCDLI), created by Associate Professor of Psychology Stacy Williams.  Launched in fall 2020, MCDLI is an interdepartmental collaborative training program that builds cultural capacity in faculty and staff members.  The training consists of online modules covering Race & Culture, Disability & Accessibility, and Sexuality & Gender.  The material is delivered asynchronously by Marist faculty and staff members through a combination of webinars, readings, and online forums.  We’re pleased to report that the first group of 16 participants is currently completing the first two modules, and will finish the third over the winter intersession and spring semester. 

Based on feedback from our various listening sessions, the College is also strengthening anti-bias programming in student and new employee orientation, strengthening diversity-related programming in the Emerging Leaders Program, and continuing ongoing training for security officers.  We are also working with Marist’s Diversity Council to define and facilitate its active engagement in diversity and inclusion initiatives at the College.

Reporting, investigation, adjudication, and follow-up communication regarding discrimination complaints

Marist has longstanding procedures and policies in place to investigate incidents of discrimination, bias, and harassment, but the process is of necessity decentralized: faculty issues are handled by Vice President for Academic Affairs Thom Wermuth; staff issues by Vice President for Human Resources Christina Daniele; and student conduct issues by Vice President for Student Affairs Deb DiCaprio.  A number of our stakeholders have raised concerns about these processes, including their accessibility and transparency, as well as the level of support for those who bring forward complaints.  Therefore, the College has committed to conducting a thorough review of our investigative processes as they relate to various groups (e.g., students, faculty, and staff) and types of complaints (e.g., Title IX, racial bias, ADA-related, etc.). 

It’s a complex undertaking, as our procedures are governed by both federal and state laws, which limit the specific information we can publicly disclose about individuals and incidents like sexual assaults or hate crimes.  However, in addition to the reporting we do for the Clery Act and New York State Education Law 129 a & b, we plan to expand our communications to reassure community members that each complaint is being reviewed and adjudicated in accordance with applicable laws.  (The good suggestion that we should report aggregate data was made to us by a group of alumni concerned about diversity issues.)  We want members of the Marist community to understand that all complaints are taken seriously and investigated appropriately. 

If there are ways in which we can improve how we handle any aspect of the complaint process, we are open to reviewing them.  We will endeavor to enhance student awareness about how to access the process, create a “reporting culture,” and improve support for victims of discrimination.  Based on feedback from an alumni listening session, we are also exploring a “restorative justice” approach to some of these cases.  Offensive social media posts have been another area of concern among members of the Marist community, and we will continue to take appropriate disciplinary action against any students found responsible for such behavior.

Hiring and retention of diverse members of the faculty and academic administration

We understand that representation matters, and we are currently undertaking a comprehensive review of diversity among faculty and academic administration by school and department.  The aim is to review pipelines, hiring, support, and retention practices, and to use the data to make improvements.  Data from 2018 show that 20 percent of Marist faculty members are people of color (the highest percentage in our US News comparator group of 30 private colleges and universities), but only four percent are Black, an average number among our comparator schools.  Because of our efforts, the percentage of Black faculty has recently increased to five percent, but we clearly have an opportunity do better in this regard.

The Vice President for Academic Affairs and the Deans of the academic schools are being held responsible for improving diversity across departments and schools.  We are also seeking to create opportunities for doctoral candidates and postdoctoral scholars of color to come to Marist.  Director for Academic Diversity and Inclusion Addrain Conyers, who reports directly to the President, will work closely with President Murray, Vice President for Academic Affairs Thom Wermuth, and all academic search committees to ensure that the search process is handled in an inclusive and equitable manner and that they make every effort to recruit from a diverse candidate pool.  Finally, we applaud recent faculty discussions about the best ways to support faculty of color.  We are pleased that this conversation is taking place and back efforts to enhance collegial support and respect.

Hiring and retention of diverse members of the administration and staff

Similarly, we are also undertaking a comprehensive review of administration and staff diversity by department, as well as where and when we have the opportunity to make improvements.  The aim is to review pipelines, hiring, support, and retention practices, and to use the data to make improvements.  As part of this effort, the various Vice Presidents are being held responsible for improving diversity across their operational areas.  In addition, Vice President for Human Resources Christina Daniele will work closely with all administrative search committees to ensure that they are comprised of diverse members and that they make every effort to recruit from a diverse candidate pool.

We are committed to creating professional opportunities for people of color at all levels of the organization.  With this in mind, we re-instituted the Presidential Fellow program over the summer; the Presidential Fellow position serves on Cabinet, and Mark Palmer ’20 is currently in the role.  We have also begun the process to recruit for a Cabinet-level position focusing on diversity, inclusion, and community engagement, and our hope is to have someone in place in the spring semester.  In addition to an existing internship with the Vice President for Human Resources, we are establishing student internship opportunities in the offices of Vice President for Information Technology Mike Caputo and Director of Physical Plant Justin Butwell. 

Compensation study

Marist has long prided itself on being one of the best employers in the Hudson River Valley, and we know it is a great place to work.  However, we want to ensure that our mission is continually reflected in the best practices of compensation.  In order to continue to recruit and maintain a diverse workforce, organizations must commit to equity in compensation regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability.  To assure that this goal is being met at Marist, Vice President for Human Resources Christina Daniele will conduct a comprehensive analysis of the College’s pay practices for both faculty and administrators.  By committing to these best practices, Marist will continue to ensure an equitable workplace for all members of its community.  The study will be led by the Office of Human Resources in collaboration with legal counsel and external expertise.  It is clear that now more than ever, fair compensation policies and practices are essential to employee recruitment and retention efforts.

Student admissions and recruitment

Over the past decade, Marist has made great strides in the number of students of color who apply to and attend Marist.  The number of Black applicants has doubled, while the number of multiracial applicants has tripled, with students of color representing 35 percent of our applicant pool in 2019.  Freshman deposits have followed a similar pattern of increase.  Students of color make up 25 percent of the freshman class, and Black students represent seven percent. 

Nonetheless, we can do better.  Vice President for Enrollment, Marketing, and Communication Sean Kaylor is currently developing comprehensive baseline data on the diversity of Marist applicants, accepted students, and enrolled students, including comparisons to peer institutions.  Guided by this data, Marist will develop strategies to improve the diversity of the student body, including increasing the involvement of staff, students, and alumni of color at student recruitment events (this suggestion was made by a member of the Alumni Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Board).  Similarly, we will continue to increase the diversity of our tour guides and ambassadors, who are often the first people with whom prospective Marist students interact.  We are also committed to enhancing the diversity of our sports teams, particularly women’s sports.

The College will also continue its longstanding commitment to creating and strengthening pipelines for students of color to attend Marist.  The College has long supported successful programs such as the Liberty Partnerships Program and Upward Bound, both of which provide academic and other services to underserved youths here in the Hudson River Valley.  We will strengthen these programs and expand targeted outreach to students of color, including sponsoring additional visits for high school students to Marist.

Student retention and graduation rates

While it’s important to recruit diverse students, it’s equally important to retain them and ensure that they succeed at Marist.  Overall, Marist’s graduation rate for students of color is excellent and substantially above the national average: the most recent six-year cohort graduation rate for this population is 78 percent.  Many are clearly succeeding – one-third of Marist Fulbright award winners are students of color – but we must ensure that this is the case for all underrepresented students.  We will continue to review baseline data on retention and graduation rates by gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status to identify areas for improvement; track the College’s performance against peer institutions and national averages; and, where outcomes lag, develop targeted student support initiatives.  There is one area in particular where we are not satisfied, and that is the rate of graduation for Black men.  This is a nationwide problem that requires urgent attention, and Marist is committed to developing strategies to address it.  Other areas we believe are worth examining include course failure rates, job placement rates, and graduate school acceptances.

Campus life

In our discussions with members of the Marist community, we heard a great deal of feedback regarding campus life and creating a culture in which all feel welcome.  One concept we are exploring is the establishment of affinity spaces on campus where students with shared interests and identities can come together for discussion, activity, and reflection.  Currently, first-year residential students are allowed to choose their own roommates (previously, they were randomly assigned), and the College continues to provide a “multicultural floor” option to residential students.  As per a request from LGBTQ students, we are actively considering creating a gender-neutral housing option.  In addition, the College is actively supporting the establishment of historically Black fraternities and sororities on campus, as well as the formation of Black academic clubs within each school.  Most recently, the School of Computer Science and Mathematics established the National Society of Black Engineers student club.  Computer science major Kaylin Moss ’22 and Professor of Computer Science Ron Coleman were both instrumental in making this happen.

Any vibrant campus has a wide array of diverse cultural programming, and Marist is fortunate to have annual events like Mon Afrique, the Cultural Dinner Dance, and the Lavender Ball, as well as multiple activities in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month.  The College will continue to support and promote all of these activities.  Exposure to different traditions is key to helping all Marist students develop their cultural literacy and competence.  In September, we held our second annual Explorations in Social Justice conference, which featured family members of George Floyd.  In terms of hosting distinguished guest speakers of color, Marist had an extremely successful fall semester.  We welcomed José Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International; sports journalists Jemele Hill and Rhiannon Walker; and immigration activist Pamela Chomba.  This follows a residency by veteran sports journalist and studio executive Michael Smith with the Center for Sports Communication in spring 2020.  The College will also continue to host the “Race in America” lecture series, which has over the past several years hosted scholars, public intellectuals, and community leaders such as Cornel West, Michelle Alexander, Michael Eric Dyson, Ibram X. Kendi, and many others.

The Marist Athletics Department has been particularly active around issues of diversity and inclusion.  In August, Athletics announced the formation of the IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Action) Committee, comprised of 14 administrators and coaches.  The group meets weekly to discuss diversity and inclusion topics while implementing action items designed to enhance the department’s culture of inclusivity.  Through the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), Marist is participating in the MAAC’s multiyear United for Justice campaign.  One aspect of this campaign, the Time Out for Black Lives reading initiative, featured a video of women’s basketball player Julianna Bonilla ’22 reading the children’s book Good Night, Martin Luther King, Jr.  The program is intended to help children develop reading and writing skills while recognizing the outstanding contributions and achievements of Black leaders.  The Black Student-Athlete Alliance also hosted a “March Against Racial Injustice” on campus on September 2.  The College fully supported their efforts, and several members of the Marist community marched alongside our students.  Finally, we’re pleased to note that Harrison Baker, a Marist alumnus, joined the College over the summer as Associate Athletics Director & Director of External Affairs.  This position serves as the second in command in Athletics. 

Student support

As a result of a comment made in a listening session, Vice President for Academic Affairs Thom Wermuth is conducting a review of academic advisement and academic support services to ensure that students are being served effectively and appropriately, particularly those from diverse backgrounds and first-generation college students.  It is important that advisement at the College is free of bias and that it addresses the specific challenges these students face.  Additionally, we are considering targeted support programs for first-generation college students.  Marist will also continue its support for programs that assist students from underrepresented groups, including HEOP, ACES, Foster Youth College Success Initiative, and the Hearst Scholarship.  It’s a point of pride that Marist was one of 24 institutions that started the HEOP program.  Fifty years later, nearly 500 HEOP students have graduated from Marist, and they have a five-year graduation rate of 87 percent, when the national average for all graduating seniors at four-year degree-granting institutions is 62 percent.  We’d like to recognize Iris Ruiz-Grech, Director of the Center for Multicultural Affairs, and her staff for their good work supporting our students.

In another listening session, a student noted that our Counseling Center should be better equipped to understand the impact that experiences of marginalization, inequity, and discrimination can have.  With this in mind, we are actively searching for a counselor with specialized clinical experience working with students who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and other underrepresented students.  We heard another suggestion that the College should have a “preferred name system” to accommodate students who have transitioned and no longer use their given name.  The College is currently studying the feasibility of such a system and developing a set of recommendations.

Mentoring is another key part of student support, and Vice President for College Advancement Chris DelGiorno is implementing an alumni mentoring program for students of color to connect them with graduates of the College from similar backgrounds.  In fact, the various Vice Presidents have all been tasked with creating mentorship programs at all levels, including possible outreach to the Poughkeepsie community.

Presidential search

In September, we announced the formation of a diverse Presidential Search Committee, which is committed to considering a diverse pool of qualified candidates.  This committee is now in place and actively working toward its goal.  Committee members are listed here.  Special sessions have been held with a number of constituencies, including faculty of color, to solicit feedback about the qualities most desired in a new president.  Two of the qualities we are seeking are cultural competence and a commitment to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Fundraising and grants

There are a number of initiatives related to fundraising and grants that the Vice President for College Advancement and his team are pursuing.  First, the strong emphasis of Marist’s development efforts continues to be funding for endowed scholarships that will make a Marist education accessible to more students.  We are also seeking out opportunities for both academic and non-academic grants in the areas of diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism.  Finally, we are considering the creation of an alumni fund to support diversity-related activities on campus.

Commitment to communities in the Hudson River Valley

Marist has long strived to be a good neighbor and a good citizen of the Hudson River Valley.  While Poughkeepsie is our main focus, the College is also committed to serving low-income populations in Kingston and Newburgh.  Most recently, Marist has provided financial and personnel support to the City of Poughkeepsie’s Children’s Cabinet, an initiative that brings together school districts, government agencies, child-serving community organizations, and other local stakeholders to improve their ability to coordinate youth supports and services.  Deborah Gatins, Dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, is a member of the Children’s Cabinet and has been representing Marist in the group’s work.  Specifically, the Marist Center for Social Justice Research is conducting research for the Children’s Cabinet; the work is being carried out in part by Marist BIPOC students who attended Poughkeepsie High School and who are invested in finding ways to give back to their community. 

The College also continues to help local youth through the Liberty Partnerships Program in Poughkeepsie and Kingston, Upward Bound in Poughkeepsie and Newburgh, and the Early College High School Program in Newburgh.  In addition, Campus Ministry and the Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership do an excellent job responding to the needs of the local community, whether through fundraising, volunteer work, or student internships at local nonprofits. 

There are other ways in which Marist can help our local community.  Vice President for Business Affairs/CFO John Pecchia is currently conducting a review of the College’s contracting and purchasing practices to ensure that local businesses, particularly those owned by women and minorities, are well represented among our vendors.  Under the leadership of Executive Vice President Geoff Brackett, the College will look for ways to incentivize Marist faculty and staff to live in the City of Poughkeepsie.  And Marist will continue to lend financial support to local anti-racism causes and other urban initiatives. 

Conclusion

Our focus is deeply aligned with the Marist College mission and the values handed down from our founders, whose vision of education was inextricable from the commitment to community and service.  Ensuring that Marist is a community in which everyone feels valued and heard is a top priority for Board of Trustees, administration, and faculty, and we are working hard to achieve this goal.  In some cases, results from our efforts will be visible over the short term (e.g., anti-bias training).  In other cases, it will take time for them to come to full fruition (e.g., adding more people of color to the faculty and staff).  We are deeply committed to this process and consider it to be an ongoing one.  We are extremely gratified and encouraged by the many student leaders, faculty, administrators, Cabinet members, and alumni who have become actively engaged in this process, and we look forward to providing the Marist community with continued updates on our progress during the spring semester.  In the meantime, please keep your suggestions coming.  You can submit your feedback and ideas directly to the Board’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee by emailing President@marist.edu or by going to marist.edu/diversity/committee.  We also encourage you to review Marist’s new diversity and inclusion website, which includes a host of resources, institutional data, and other information. 

Thank you for your continued engagement and support and best wishes to all for a happy and healthy 2021.