OPEN Letter/RESPONSE TO CHSS EQUITY PLAN
December 18, 2020
Dear CHSS Community:
While the Three-Year-Equity-Plan proposed by CHSS is an important and necessary step to address systemic racism in the program—and we appreciate the work that has gone into this proposal and the fact that Dr. Lannutti commenced her job as director of CHSS just as the letters of protest came out—CHSS is still failing to meet the needs of its current students. We are writing a public response to the plan in the hopes of increasing the possibility of students organizing together across race, ability, gender, class, sexual orientation, and citizenship to advocate for much needed change not just in the future, but now when we are currently enrolled at CHSS. We are calling in students, alum, and faculty to lend support to this letter by signing on. You can become a signatory by sending an e-mail to email@example.com that says ADD ME in the subject heading or request that your name be added via Facebook.
Though this letter references specific incidents in particular classes, we want to make clear that we are not writing it as an attack on anyone’s character or personhood. Rather, we are pointing to a persistent pattern and culture that adversely affects students and undermines the integrity of CHSS’s and Widener University’s expressed commitment to racial equity. We want—and need—CHSS to do better because we believe that our community—and the communities we serve—can only stand to benefit from such efforts.
In spite of the national conversation about structural racism and the spate of letters CHSS received this past summer chronicling the pain and harm experienced by Black faculty and BIPOC students, many students came into the Fall semester only to encounter more of the same. In one class, an instructor claiming to teach decolonization offered a syllabus that relegated all articles written by BIPOC/Global South Scholars to optional reading while making mandatory only the texts by white/US based authors. In another class, a BIPOC student with clinical experience reported that their white instructor consistently bypassed them and their potential contributions in favor of hearing from white students with clinical experience. Some of us had an instructor who admitted to not having read any of the articles by the BIPOC/Global South scholars on their syllabus while others of us discovered faculty writings that raised questions about how certain faculty view slavery and its legacy in the US. BIPOC students also reported being in classes where white instructors promised to delve into conversations about racial/cultural literacy only to avoid them altogether while others noted their instructors responding with hostility when students attempted to raise the subject of addressing inequity at CHSS. When a recent letter was sent to the Director of CHSS outlining some of these incidents, students were met with defensiveness, deflection, and an unwillingness to acknowledge the impact that such experiences are having on student morale.
Indeed, in our brief tenure here, we have encountered both BIPOC and white students who came into this program with a sense of pride and excitement at having been accepted here, only to find themselves feeling disillusioned by CHSS and waiting to graduate quickly so they can “get out of here.” Many students who want to learn cultural competency and racial/transnational literacy feel like they are learning nothing of the sort here. Some students have described CHSS as “a white supremacist sham.” Others (who were planning to pursue their PhD’s here) have decided that CHSS cannot possibly offer the kind of intellectual environment, rigor, and support needed to pursue a study of BIPOC or global sexualities while many feel like there continues to be no one to turn to when encountering various forms of aggression in the classroom. Several of us continue to consider dropping out of the program only to hold back because we have already made a considerable financial investment here. Throughout the year, younger students have continued to note the need for a mentor or model, someone who can offer not only an intellectual understanding of being Indigenous, Black, or Brown, but also an experiential and embodied one.
We recognize that many of our faculty and peers share our desire for equity and justice. However, even the most earnest good intentions and goals do not necessarily translate into the skills and knowledge required to teach racial/transnational literacy and practice cultural competency in the classroom. We also recognize that developing cultural/racial competency can be a learning curve that requires humility, transparency, and openness. When those qualities are not practiced and modeled for students, learning and teaching will continue to happen at the expense of BIPOC students. Though some of us have found colleagues and/or an instructor that consistently and competently addresses race/culture in the classroom (and we cherish these findings), they ought not to be exceptions at CHSS but the rule.
We appreciate that implementing new curriculum and ongoing DEI trainings along with hiring racially/transnationally literate faculty takes time and requires due consideration. However, the leadership of CHSS needs to recognize that addressing interpersonal harms as a result of racism—and efforts to create community, listen to student concerns, create conversation, repair, and trust—need not wait another year to begin. Those efforts must begin now. To that end, we offer some initial feedback to the proposed Equity Plan and a suggestion for a virtual community gathering.
One strength of this plan lies in its acknowledgement that the entire curriculum needs to be overhauled and reviewed with an eye towards promoting equity and plurality. What remains unclear, however, is the question of Who will be reviewing the curriculum and through what lens? It is not lost on students that the EIDSJ committee (with the exception of one faculty member) is comprised of all white faculty and students, many of whom have been at CHSS for some time. Given the make-up of most of this committee, we want to know what expertise or lived experience this committee will be drawing from to review and change its curriculum. Since these courses have long been acceptable to this department, what assurances do students have that the same old biases and gaps in understanding are still not there?
The integrity of a process matters just as much as the end product, and we ask that CHSS grapple not only with the question of why the equity committee is almost all white, but also with the question of why having primarily white decision makers at the table continues to be an acceptable practice. If this committee believes that BIPOC students may not have wanted to join its ranks because we do not wish to offer continued intellectual and emotional labor/teaching for free (and often at considerable personal cost), then what efforts did/can CHSS make to incentivize BIPOC students to join this effort? Going forward, possibilities could include reduced tuition, stipends for books, or credits in exchange for intellectual/emotional labor. If BIPOC students still do not wish to join when offered compensation (due to any number of reasons including exhaustion, low morale, overextension, mistrust etc.), what specific efforts will this committee make in order to solicit feedback and input from BIPOC students, faculty, and alum? What efforts is CHSS making to search for and fairly compensate an advisory committee comprised of BIPOC experts in decoloniality, global sexualities, and racial equity?
We have been disappointed by the sparse communication regarding this plan and its unfolding. Most recently, students were informed that only 5 people on the committee supported this plan while 3 did not support it—and one person abstained. This breakdown with regard to voting suggests there was disagreement about the process or the proposal itself, yet none of this context has been made available to CHSS students. Why did this plan go forward with only five people voting for it? On what basis did people vote against this plan going forward at this time and on what basis was there an abstention?
ACCOUNTABILITY TO CHSS STUDENTS: HIRES / OUTREACH / FUNDING
Though CHSS students pay a hefty tuition to attend this program, it appears that our tuition is not being funneled back into our program. Rather, it is being directed to Widener, which reallocates funds. This is outrageous to us, as we expect our tuition dollars to go towards our own edification. Considering that many CHSS students want to learn how to be culturally competent and racially/transnationally literate, we demand that our tuition dollars to support these specific and stated needs.
The insufficient funds allocated to CHSS by Widener University seems to have resulted in CHSS hiring adjuncts that are often last minute recruits from the program to teach classes, a practice that can set up both adjuncts and students to fail, particularly if adjuncts have been in classes where cultural competency was not adequately taught. Since CHSS now appears to recognize that the curriculum needs to change because it was not adequately preparing to students to become racially/transnationally literate and culturally competent—this cycle (which invariably repeats itself) of hiring graduates from the program needs to be interrupted. CHSS would benefit from looking outside the Widener bubble so that new decolonial perspectives, views, and pedagogy can be introduced into the CHSS community.
Though BIPOC adjuncts at CHSS (who have brought with them lived experience and the ability to navigate conversations about race/culture) have been frequently tapped to provide emotional support to BIPOC students, they have been poorly compensated as compared to other schools in the Philadelphia area. This form of ongoing exploitation is unacceptable for all adjuncts.
What steps are being taken to ensure that CHSS is making every effort to not only recruit from a pool of incentivized BIPOC faculty, but also offer them financial and emotional incentives to stay at Widener? Given the expressed needs of students to have faculty with expertise in decoloniality, global sexualities, and racial/cultural literacy, what efforts are being made to recruit beyond the traditional (and likely white) Widener networks and within related fields? In what ways can the job description be made more attractive to prospective candidates of color?
CHSS has a history of not paying speakers for their time/labor. Though it appears that CHSS will now be offering speakers a nominal fee, the proposed fee of $100 remains far from sufficient. Since CHSS is considered one of Widener’s signature programs (and is internationally renowned), offering such a low fee to speakers (many of whom have been/should be Indigenous, Black, and Brown), ought to be an embarrassment to Widener and the students/faculty/administrators of CHSS who profess to care about racial equity and non-exploitative practices.
Considering that most students will be taught by adjuncts during their tenure in the program, we are glad to see that DEI training will not be offered to full-time faculty only. Any faculty member that teaches CHSS students surely needs—and would benefit from—DEI training. If CHSS is serious about preventing further harm to BIPOC students, then it must ensure that no faculty member is teaching CHSS students without first having undergone training in cultural competency—and continuing that training in an ongoing way. Students—and especially BIPOC students and faculty—deserve no less.
OMBUDSPERSON / INTEGRITY
BIPOC students and any student who experiences marginalization/harm needs to know that they can approach the ombudsperson without fear of retaliation and with the expectation that the ombudsperson will provide confidential, independent, and impartial conflict resolution. Since ombudspersons ought to be impartial, they should not be current/former members of the faculty. What efforts is CHSS going to make to ensure that the ombudsperson is an impartial individual? What efforts is CHSS going to make to ensure that the ombudsperson is culturally/racially competent?
While the Fall has been busy for many of us, receiving e-mails from CHSS leadership about CHSS’s plan to address racial inequity—and soliciting individual feedback—occurs to many of us as an impersonal and ineffectual way to build and strengthen community, resilience, and accountability. We ask that CHSS call in students for a virtual meeting in January 2021 to discuss the contents of the plan and any letters that have followed, including this one. Current, past, and future students have a vested interest in ensuring that the field of Human Sexuality—and all those who work in it—promotes justice and equity. The integrity of our work and the CHSS community depends on it.
Natasha Singh along with
The BIPOC Student Action Committee
Dr. Tracie Gilbert
Ashley D. White
Rachel Jamison Bryan
Kelley J. Quinn
Bette E. King
Kierson M Romero
Kelly Kowan Burns
Robert J Kreisinger Denk
Shannon Lawton O'boyle
Sarah E Simon
Brooke N Madden
Megan R Healy
Ashley Edwards Martin
Angie Foster Lawson
Maria L. Pedraza
Jenn Litner Mueller
Sarah A. Rammos
Megan R. Healy
Eli R Green
Martha A Stany
Sarah E Hoffert
Laura C Hyde