Protests by African-American students at the University of Missouri sparked a trend of student led protests pressuring universities into difficult conversations on race and diversity, while ultimately breaking the barrier of disconnect between the administration and the students.
However, this was nothing new for the students at Southeast Missouri State University who recently held their own protest in support of the students at MU. But this protest came with a twist. The president protested, too.
“I felt that it was my responsibility to show the students here that my actions and my words are consistent,” Southeast Missouri State University President Dr. Carlos Vargas said.
Vargas said he went to the protest, because it was important to show his support to the students.
“I am for making people feel welcome,” Vargas said. “And making everybody feel welcome at the institution. And that also, this institution stands for giving people an opportunity to express their views if they are not necessarily in agreement with those from other individuals or other groups.”
But those views were heard long before the protests at MU said the university’s Coordinator of Institutional Equity and Diversity Sonia Rucker. The remnants of the Ferguson protest last August led to a trickle-down effect of change at Southeast Missouri State University when a few minority students voiced their concerns about race to former President Dr. Kenneth Dobbins.
“They actually had led a student protest on campus in relation to the incident at Ferguson,” Rucker said. “And they were invited to speak with the president. He listened to some of their concerns, and talked about their experience here at Southeast Missouri.”
As a result of that conversation, Dr. Dobbins created the President’s Task Force on Diversity Education, which is made up of 34 faculty, staff and students. Rucker said the task force is actively creating plans to increase diversity education and awareness in and outside of the classroom.
“I think that when we are requesting for our faculty to be culturally competent and to incorporate a culturally responsive teaching method, I think we’re actually giving them the opportunity to be even more open and even more interested in having healthy civil discourse in the classroom environment,” Rucker said.
But that’s where it gets tricky. In recent years, the university’s number of minority and international students has grown, but as Southeast Missouri State University student Myiah Mackins said it wasn’t always that way.
“From recent history what I learned about this campus is that it, there wasn’t a lot of black people here initially,” Mackins said.
And she’s right. In the fall of 2008, there were only 1,020 minority students on campus, and by the fall of 2015 that number shot up to more than 1,400 minority students. Rucker said while the number of African-American students has increased, there is still a push to recruit more minorities to the university.
“Our enrollment and our admissions divisions really did make concerted effort and were very proactive in making sure that they were recruiting students of color,” Rucker said. “In particular, African-American students a number of which came from the St. Louis metropolitan area. So, we’ve had a huge increase in that population. We do have some work to do as far as having Hispanic, Native American, other underrepresented domestic minority populations.”
But Criminal Justice and Sociology Department Chair Jeremy Ball said open discussions about race and diversity in his classroom allow students to form their own opinions.
“I come in and say, ‘okay what do you think? Well, I think what my mom thinks, or I think what my brother thinks or my friend thinks. But no, no, no what do you think?,’” Ball said. “And so, take the whole world all these diversity of thoughts, and bring it to how you really view the world.”
The President’s Task Force on Diversity Education wraps up in December and will issue a final report with a list of recommendations on how to make the campus more diverse. Rucker said the Equity and Inclusion Committee will take the task force’s place.
In the meantime, Vargas is currently in the works to meet with groups of students to get the conversation on race and diversity going.