Living the Diversity Mission: Curriculum still lags in minority issues

Kristina Bugante
Online Editor

In 2005, a minor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies was added to the University of La Verne’s academic catalog. University Chaplain Zandra Wagoner, who was the director of general education, was facilitator among a large committee of faculty members from several departments who were pushing for the program since discussion of a women’s studies major — and why this University didn’t have one — first began in 2003.

“We always envisioned (the program) working within very different interdisciplinaries, so students can look at gender from very different perspectives,” Wagoner said.

There was great enthusiasm at the program’s conception, Wagoner said. It would be housed within the College of Arts and Sciences. Wagoner would be chairwoman. And faculty from across all colleges started envisioning and developing classes for the program that would intersect with other issues and identities. In the program, students would have the option to minor in gender studies or, ultimately, major.

Over a decade later, however, while the gender studies minor is still listed in the University’s academic catalog, it is essentially there in name only. Before Wagoner stepped down as chairwoman, she had been advising only two-to-three students in the program per year.

“It’s not been seen as an institutional priority,” Wagoner said. “That’s the reality.”

That is an understatement, say many on campus. Programs that focus on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion and socioeconomic class are either difficult to find — buried deep in the curriculum of more standard arts and sciences disciplines — or nonexistent, making the University’s curriculum nonreflective of its diversity-driven mission and out of sync with its Hispanic-serving institution status.

At the end of fall semester 2015, in an effort to address in earnest the increasingly blaring omissions, administration met with more than 50 students who were part of multicultural clubs and the Coalition for Diversity and identified several areas where the University could improve to better serve the needs of its students of color — one of the areas was the lack of diversity in the curriculum. “Students have been saying very clearly that we want these programs — we want African American studies, we want Latino studies, we want gender studies,” Wagoner said.

Bradlee Johnson, senior speech communications major and president of the Black Student Union, was one of the students who expressed their concerns in these series of conversations with the Provost’s Office and Academic and Student Affairs. “It’s 2016, so to not have an African American studies minor — just a minor — it’s a little disheartening,” she said. “You definitely need to go out of your way to look at resources. If I wasn’t so involved with my club, I don’t know what I would do as a student of color on campus.”

The University is, however, ramping up toward revamping its curriculum to uphold its mission of diversity and HSI designation. By the 2016-17 school year, the University hopes to develop its Latino studies and other ethnic studies programs, and implement diversity into the general education program, said Provost Jonathan Reed.

Upholding its distinctions

In 2014, the University was named a Hispanic-serving Institution, or HSI, which is a designation granted by the U.S. Department of Education meant to serve colleges and universities that have a significant percentage of first-generation college students, mainly from low-income Hispanic households. Schools designated as an HSI gain access to additional Title V funding to expand its educational opportunities.

The University’s undergraduate Hispanic population reached 49.3 percent in fall 2015, a percentage that was well above the 25 percent needed to earn the designation. While this designation reflects only the University’s high enrollment of Hispanic students, the HSI designation has triggered a school-wide conversation about what being a Hispanic-serving institution really means beyond the numbers and statistics.

“The University needs to step up its game in terms of serving Hispanics because of its designation,” said Carlos Yanes, senior English major. “We need more than a banner saying, ‘Happy Hispanic Heritage Month.’”

Similar to the gender studies program, the Latino studies minor has been listed in the University’s catalog for quite some time. However, there is no faculty member who was listed as the chair, and the classes that it promised were not taught on a regular basis — therefore, it’s hard to gauge whether the minor is even feasible.

“It isn’t something that students see as a cohesive connection between these classes and an academic program,” said Marisol Morales, director of civic and community engagement.

In the 2013-14 academic year, the University held an HSI awareness week, which was designed for the campus community to discuss and evaluate what it means for be a Hispanic-serving institution. During that time, the University held numerous focus groups with students and asked whether they felt a sense of belonging at La Verne.

From there, Morales said she saw a common theme among students’ concerns: Almost all classes offered here focused on issues and events that were largely Eurocentric. As these conversations progressed among more faculty members, Morales and Adonay Montes, assistant professor of education, applied for a La Verne Experience Fellows grant, which allows faculty to apply for funding and resources to support their teaching and research.  The grant allowed them to begin the development of the program’s revival.

“There were quite a few faculty that were excited about this and with the idea of making this an interdisciplinary, intercollege program,” said Morales, whose job is to facilitate the Latino Studies program. “It’s really blending off the expertise of faculty across the University, from each college, and really looking at a space for students to explore this content not only in an academic way, but also one that fits in with this idea of a sense of belonging and understanding.”

Starting next fall, the Latino Studies minor should be a more realistic option with specific guidelines and classes. It will be led by new chairman, Assistant Professor of Political Science Juli Minoves Triquell.

“Having a variety of programs like that helps to foster greater understanding and knowledge and appreciation. This is one step to doing that, and I think it falls in line with the University’s mission,” Morales said.

The general education

Since his appointment as dean of the college of arts and sciences in 2015,  Dean Lawrence Potter, has begun to implement substantial changes. Potter previously served as the chief diversity officer at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania and is a scholar of African-American literature. A self-described “champion for diversity,” Potter was hired with the hope that he would properly serve the school’s multicultural student population.

By fall 2016, the University is looking into standardizing a diversity course in its general education offerings. To ensure that students get an early exposure to diversity, the University faculty is currently considering a proposal for a two-unit diversity course that would accompany FLEX, or the Freshman La Verne Experience, and is reviewing a diversity component for SoLVE, or the Sophomore La Verne Experience.

“When students are in their first or second year, they’re trying to work through the general education,” Potter said. “Even when you’re looking in the GE, there are probably not very many courses that just jump off the page that say, ‘Hey, I’m a diversity course, I’m a course on gender, socioeconomic background or poverty, on internationalization.’ Students don’t know. They look at the catalog and figure, maybe I’ll take this down the row — right now I need to get the GE’s out of the way.”

All freshmen entering the 2016-17 school year will be required to read Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric” as part of the University’s common reading program “One Book, One University.” “Citizen” is a collection of poetry that delves into socio-historical issues of race and racial microaggressions.

“How do you really take what I consider the entry point of students who come into the University and expose them to diversity broadly defined?” Potter said. “This particular text is heavily grounded in race and ethnic relations and history. Every first year student will have the opportunity to engage.”

Preventing dissipation

These programs need concrete leadership to help it stay alive and grow, said Provost Jonathan Reed. Wagoner, as a University administrator, was asked to step down as chair of the gender studies program by the provost at the time so that a full-time, tenure-track faculty member could take over. There was no full time or tenured faculty member who wanted to take it on because they already had big responsibilities in their own departments, she said.

“It got taken out of my hands and there was really no one to nurture it and help it grow,” she said. That was the real issue behind the program’s slump, Wagoner said, was the fact that it was not securely housed within a department.

“If there’s no single person who’s a primary director of the program, it kind of falls apart,” said Provost Jonathan Reed. “If we’re going to do it right, eventually we need for Latino Studies one person that’s the director who can be responsible and held accountable for making sure classes get on the schedule, for making sure there’s coordination with advising the students.”

This issue goes hand-in-hand with the University’s initiative to adopt new hiring protocols for diverse candidates. “

We’re trying to cast a wider net across the board to attract more faculty who are diverse,” Reed said.

As more students have started to demand for more ethnic, gender and sexuality studies at the University, Wagoner said she hopes to see a revival of the Gender Studies program within the coming years. “Once upward administration says this is a priority, then it becomes something that then faculty can see that it’s a priority and start thinking about what classes might we want to reshape or create that really would feed into the Gender Studies program,” she said.

Marketing diversity

“By and large, the University has not had a concentrated effort in publicizing diversity,” Potter said. “And I think that we have to do a lot better.”

Wagoner said reaching out to the cultural clubs on campus and to other departments to let them know that these programs exist and that it is something to consider. “There has to be an intentional effort to let current students know so that there becomes a buzz about it and (it) becomes an opportunity,” she said. “The other thing to help make it thrive is that, in very succinct and quick ways, have to be able to say, ‘How would this be an advantage to you?’ Why would this minor be an added benefit to students?”

Despite its action plan, the University still has a long way to go. Potter said reviving a Latino Studies program is first on the list because of the University’s HSI designation and large Latino enrollment. Reed said the Latino Studies minor could eventually lead to the creation of a Latino Studies major and other ethnic, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic studies and programs — but initiatives like these do not happen overnight.

“It is one battle at a time,” Johnson said. “It is funding for programs, it is hiring new faculty and staff for these majors we’re trying to input. It’s not gonna happen overnight. As advocates, as students of color, whoever, we have to understand that side, that they’re not trying to just put it off — it’s literally, it can’t be done overnight.”

Potter said the University is positioned to start making some inroads toward diversity, “It has to happen because we say this is the kind of student we want to graduate: a globally-minded, competent person who can thrive in a diverse and international world,” he said. “And if you don’t provide those opportunities in the development of a student over four years, then we’ve cheated the students.”

Kristina Bugante can be reached at kristina.bugante@laverne.edu and on Twitter @bugants.

Special Report: Living the Diversity Mission
ULV works to serve students of color
Curriculum still lags in minority issues

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