As a white, female heterosexual from the Athens community who cares deeply about people who are marginalized by mainstream society, I have had the pleasure of extended contact with students through auditing classes and participating in campus events. Currently, I am alarmed about the direction of Ohio University’s Diversity and Inclusion Program due to the recent actions taken, and precedents set, by the vice president for diversity and inclusion with the support of the university president.
Though 70-plus tenured professors wrote a letter to both of them asking for clarification of the new strategic goals and overall vision for diversity and inclusion, so far there has been no public response.
President Duane Nellis has made diversity and inclusion a serious priority, and invested over $200,000 into the salary of Dr. Gigi Secuban, hired in July 2018. Last September, OU was one of 96 schools to be given the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award. This was based on “level of achievement and intensity of commitment in regard to broadening diversity and inclusion... and hiring practices for faculty and staff.”
The president’s diversity and inclusion mission statement, written years ago, is laudable. It reads, “...seeks to facilitate an infusion of diversity embedded into the fabric of the institution with inclusive practices... leading to a supportive and affirming environment that welcomes and respects all persons, specifically those individuals and groups who have historically been excluded, not represented and or rendered voiceless in society” (my italics).
Not only have questions gone unanswered about a $20,000 differential between the two directors of color for the LGBT Center and Multicultural Center, and the white director of the Women’s Center, but since October three employees of color within Diversity and Inclusion have been dismissed without warning. The only explanation offered at the time to the last one, bautista, director of the LGBT center was “we are going in a different direction.”
If Dr. Secuban felt confident about these dismissals, she could have provided strong transparent explanations, leading to an open dialogue that might have continued to build trust and confidence in her leadership. Since then, students’ calls for clarity and respect have not been answered, and when brought appropriately to the Student Senate, led to direct reprisals against the student speaking.
Being most familiar with the LGBT Center, I wonder what was “wrong” with the previous direction. Was there too much support and empowerment of participating students? Was there too much inclusion of people who identify as trans (and whose presence is sometimes believed to make more mainstream gay people uncomfortable)? Was there too much creativity, play, and self-care organized to support students who are among the most at-risk individuals on the OU campus? Was the Center too proactive in reaching across the persistent “town/gown divide” by educating both the campus and community about pronouns, gender differences, micro-aggressions, and intersectional systems of discrimination?
All marginalized groups are worthy of advocacy, as well as places where they can feel safe, discuss problems, and celebrate differences especially within a predominantly white, cis-gendered, heterosexual student body and town. Notably, people who identify as trans have the highest death rate from suicide and violence of any group in the United States except Native Americans, because of their rejection by the dominant culture and their isolation.
Many people are uncomfortable with honoring their chosen pronouns, including Dr. Secuban, and with their expressing themselves through styles in dress and behavior. Trans and non-binary people are challenging others and the system to see new possibilities. In addition, many of these students experience an intersection of discrimination by belonging to both gender and racial minorities. The LGBT Center, under the guidance of delfin bautista, was offering a large tent that welcomed and nourished some of the most marginalized and at-risk groups under Dr. Secuban’s charge.
So where might this “different direction” be headed? Will it be away from supporting advocacy and activism, power and pride, to a more conservative position where the programs are more conventional? Will it be less student-centered and more image-centered? Is “new direction” actually a kind of dog-whistle or code for prioritizing services for those trying to join mainstream culture rather than challenge it? Does it mean not seriously considering including students’ input in decisions that clearly impact them? Or maybe combining the offices of the Multicultural, LGBT and Women’s Center under one roof, which has been done elsewhere, and though possibly fiscally responsible, would water down the individual needs of the different groups. I certainly hope not.
An assistant director for the LGBT Center has just been hired. He is a friendly, energetic person who identifies as gay. He is not of color, is a European, is male, and interacts in the world as the gender he was assigned at birth. Just as they were fully within their rights to fire three people under the Diversity and Inclusion umbrella, Vice President Secuban and President Nellis are in charge of shaping the inclusiveness and direction of a Center that has been serving precisely those people “who have historically been excluded, not represented and/or rendered voiceless in society.”
The power lies with them – let’s hope they use it wisely, transparently, and inclusively as they hire the new director.
(On Tuesday open forums to meet each candidate were somewhat belatedly announced. The first occurred on Wednesday, and more are scheduled for March 29, April 3 and April 4. Please attend and let your voices be heard.)
Editor’s note: Amoriya (whose first name is Beth but who prefers going by her surname alone) has lived in southeast Ohio for 40 years, is a retired school psychologist, currently resides in Athens, and participates in several community activist groups.