CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., Nov. 11, 2015 – As a result of recent racial tension at the University of Missouri-Columbia this week sparking national media coverage and the resignations of its system president and chancellor, Southeast Missouri State University President Carlos Vargas today underscored ongoing efforts at Southeast over the past few years to strengthen diversity education and bolster a diverse and welcoming campus climate.
A group of students laid the groundwork for the formation of the President’s Task Force on Diversity Education 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 2014 at Southeast after a grand jury decision not to indict a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, who shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen in August 2014.
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 a discussion of a variety of historical, cultural and societal influences on this movement.
“I am very proud of the efforts the task force is making to improve the living and learning experience for all of our students,” Vargas said. “It is important that every one of our students feels comfortable and a part of our campus community. Discussing perceptions, differences and stereotypes has been very beneficial, has promoted dialogue and we hope will ultimately raise the cultural competence of everyone associated with Southeast – our students, faculty, staff and alumni.”
Preliminary recommendations of the task force released in June 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.
The task force also has invited members of the Student Government Association to their meetings as Student Government continues its efforts to include diversity education in their initiatives this year.
Vargas noted that Southeast hired Sonia Rucker as the coordinator of Institutional Equity and Diversity last April. While Southeast has employed an equity officer for many years, the responsibilities of the position have now been expanded to include serving as the institution’s Title IX coordinator. Rucker recently announced the launching of a new Institutional Equity and Diversity website at http://www.semo.edu/diversity which provides resources and current information on the work of the task force. Additionally, the website supports a new bias incident reporting system which University community members can utilize if they witness or experience any bias-related incidents or activities within the Southeast community. A bias incident is an action directed at a person or group because of an actual or perceived aspect of diversity, such as age, color, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity or expression, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, or veteran status. The report can be submitted anonymously.
In 1996, only 316 African American students were enrolled at Southeast Missouri State University. Southeast now has more than 1,000 African American students enrolled, the vast majority from the St. Louis area. Additionally, international student enrollment has grown from 176 in 2005 to more than 1,000 students.
While racial issues have been at the forefront in Missouri, additional inclusionary efforts at Southeast this fall included the University hosting a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) networking event, National Hispanic Heritage Month, and the annual international Carpe Diem Festival, among others.
Vargas, who became the 18th president on July 1, 2015, is Southeast’s first Hispanic president, and is bringing his experiences to the campus discussions on diversity.
“My experience as an international student, my work experience at a minority-serving institution, and, of course, my upbringing, have been valuable parts of my life that shaped my appreciation of, and support for, diversity and inclusion,” Vargas said. “I believe that today’s students, more than ever before, need to be able to function effectively in a society that includes people from groups with distinct characteristics. Diversity, in all its manifestations, enriches students’ educational experience, enhances their personal lives, and prepares them for successful careers in the domestic and global economy.”
Vargas encourages all students at Southeast who experience verbal abuse, threats or intimidation to report those incidents to the Department of Public Safety (DPS) or campus administrators.