President’s Task Force on Diversity Education Unveils Preliminary Recommendations

Graduation spring 2014

Southeast students celebrate during commencement festivities.

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., June 19, 2015 – Faculty and staff at Southeast Missouri State University are working hand-in-hand with students to devise strategies to strengthen diversity education, according to a report released today on the President’s Task Force on Diversity Education.

The Task Force was formed to consider underlying issues that led to the protest events in Ferguson, and the aftermath of protests nationwide; and to make recommendations regarding ways to improve diversity education at Southeast.

“One of our goals,” said Kenneth W. Dobbins, president of Southeast Missouri State University, “is that we want the diversity of our student population to reflect the diversity of the state of Missouri.  We have basically accomplished that.  However, it is important for all to feel comfortable on our campus and in our community.  As a campus, we are discussing perceptions, differences, and stereotypes as a means of elevating the cultural competence within our community.”

The Task Force is led by Co-Chairs Dr. Debbie Below, vice president for enrollment management and student success and dean of students, and Dr. Morris Jenkins, dean of the College of Health and Human Services, who presented a progress report on the Task Force’s work to the Southeast Board of Regents.

“Working with this group of students, faculty and staff has been an extraordinary learning experience,” Below said. “This group has put forth a set of recommendations that, if embraced, will improve the living and learning experience of all students.”

A small group of students laid the groundwork for the formation of the task force last spring, meeting with several groups on campus, including the Student Government Association, the Department of Public Safety and University staff members. These meetings followed a peaceful protest held in November at Southeast after a grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, who shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen last August.

The students’ initiative led to the formation of the Task Force, which has now met six times since its inception in March.

“I was very pleased that the protest awakened the elephant in the room that everyone kept ignoring,” said Kimisha Robinson, a Southeast senior mass communications major from Ferguson, Missouri, who organized the protest. “Having the protest, which was just a method used for students to channel their anger and frustration into a peaceful and productive demonstration, turned into an actual movement that is going to help everyone in some way.”

"2014_stu_Graduation"

President Ken Dobbins congratulates a graduate during commencement exercises.

The task force was charged with discussing the underlying issues that led to the protests in Ferguson and that have continued nationwide. A portion of each of their meetings has been dedicated to an educational topic to develop a better understanding of the variety of historical, cultural and societal influences on this movement.

“Educating others on issues that are related to race, ethnicity and national origin are topics that students need to be literate on,” said Robinson, a National Pan-Hellenic Council member. “Southeast Missouri State is a place we come to learn, and a lot of our coursework, especially in mass media, exposes us to issues that are occurring every day around the world. We not only discuss these topics, but we also talk about solutions and different methods they could practice in order to stop the incidents from happening again. Job markets also drive that interest. You never know who your boss may be or where you may find a career. I think that people respect those who educate themselves on other cultures besides their own.”

Preliminary recommendations of the task force, according to Below, include developing college-level diversity action plans focusing on: recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty; establishing measurable student learning objectives for courses and academic programs to help develop the cultural competency of students; and providing training opportunities that advance faculty ability to encourage and manage cross-cultural classroom discussions.

Additional preliminary recommendations focus on adopting culturally responsive teaching methods to prepare all students to meet the needs of the population they will work with and serve after college; improving career development, mentorship and networking opportunities for underserved student populations; and increasing awareness and encouraging participation in undergraduate research opportunities among underserved student populations.

“Faculty and staff participating in diversity training is essential to not only their professional development, but to the education of their students as well,” Robinson said.  “Even if the study topic may not be about diversity, you have a diverse student body. So being trained on how to communicate effectively, understanding other points of views from other cultures and being literate on issues that may be affecting their students will help produce a well-rounded faculty and staff as well.”

Robinson said her work with the task force has been a valuable experience thus far and has connected her to a student research position in the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity to assist in developing plans and events to connect current and new Southeast students with the University’s minority alumni, Robinson said.

“Listening and partaking in the dialogue in our meetings and discussing all of the opportunities we have to grow and really make our campus thrive has inspired me to get even more involved with our plans and initiatives,” she said.

Below says the task force also is recommending using existing programs – Show Me Day, First Step, Camp Redhawk, Opening Week and Engage in 8 events — to build the cultural competence of new students. Likewise, the task force is recommending using current organizations – campus departments and diversity initiatives to raise the cultural competence of the campus community.

As a result of their work thus far, the task force co-chairs this summer are working to create a public Web page and working with the Southeast coordinator for Institutional Equity and Diversity, Human Resources, and Training and Development to improve access to and promote diversity awareness educational materials for faculty and staff. Below said she and Jenkins, along with the coordinator for Institutional Equity and Diversity, also plan to meet with the Law Enforcement Academy director, University Police chief, and members of the Cape Girardeau community to explore curriculum and training modifications to address the need for racial and ethnic appreciation and acceptance.

When the fall 2015 semester begins, the task force plans to invite representatives from the University Police and Law Enforcement Academy to begin attending their meetings. In addition, student members of the task force who also are members of the Student Government Association, have committed to including diversity education in their initiatives in 2015-2016.

Task Force subcommittees, Below said, will complete their work and forward recommendations to the Task Force for consideration in a final report in December.

The task force invites anyone with an interest in this topic to contact a member of the group for more information.