The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion holds town hall
The town hall included remarks from the ODEI's five constituent offices and shared initial insights from the climate survey conducted last semester.
On Friday, April 21, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion held its first-ever Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Town Hall in the International Lounge where it detailed the University’s commitment to furthering DEI.
The event began with remarks from Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lee Bitsóí, who explained Brandeis’ history as an institution devoted to the inclusion of marginalized identities and the ODEI’s commitment to expanding DEI “in its visible and invisible dimensions.”
Bitsóí’s remarks were followed by short presentations from representatives in the ODEI’s five constituent offices — the Intercultural Center, the Gender and Sexuality Center, University Ombuds, the Office of DEI Education and Learning Initiatives, and the Office of Equal Opportunity. Each office provided updates on its accomplishments and highlights from the past few years, as well as outlined opportunities for improvement.
ICC Program Administrator Tara Whitehurst identified the ICC’s formation of the ICC Coalition — a group made up of representatives from all 16 cultural clubs at Brandeis — and space renovations facilitating greater levels of community engagement as the ICC’s highlights from the past year. She also discussed the challenges of having limited personnel to carry out the ICC’s initiatives and concerns about accessibility and visibility resulting from the ICC’s location.
Julián Cancino, inaugural director of the GSC, shared statistics about LGBTQ+ life at Brandeis and explained that while the University exhibits diversity in gender identity and sexual orientation, it falls short in the equity and inclusion part of the work. He also highlighted the GSC’s recent accomplishments, which included the implementation of an inclusive data collection process on Workday and the formation of the Pride Reps Program, a peer-to-peer mentorship program “designed to help undergraduate students develop the skills and knowledge necessary to be effective peer mentors on matters of gender and sexuality.” The GSC was also involved in the creation and approval of an inclusive policy for transgender athletes in 2021. The policy differs from NCAA policies in allowing trans students to participate in athletic programs in accordance with their gender identity, regardless of any medical treatment they may be receiving.
Don Greenstein of University Ombuds described his office’s role as the “place to go when you don’t know where to go.” He emphasized that Ombuds seeks to empower people to solve problems in a way that works for them. The support that Ombuds can provide includes addressing concerns about harassment and discrimination, providing career coaching, and working through academic difficulties.
Charles Chip McNeal, director of the Office of DEI Education and Learning Initiatives, emphasized his office’s work in helping Brandeis become an anti-racist institution by providing optional training to student club leaders, assisting professors in revamping syllabi and becoming trauma-sensitive educators, collaborating with the Office of Human Resources to improve practices in inclusive hiring, and more. McNeal emphasized the importance of continued DEI education beyond one-time trainings and programs. “Learning to be anti-racist, learning to be conscious, and learning to be a contributor to building a cooperative atmosphere of belonging is an ongoing process,” he said.
Finally, Jacob Tabor from the OEO shared information about their role in investigative processes and providing forms of support like no-contact orders and housing changes. Tabor stressed that anyone who experiences discrimination and harassment based on membership in a protected category can come to OEO. Protected categories include race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and caste, among others. Brandeis is the first higher education institution in the U.S. to list caste as a protected category, largely resulting from the efforts of staff and students at the Heller School.
Following updates from the five offices, Cecilia Sirigos, a representative and institutional research analyst from the Office of Institutional Research, shared initial highlights from the climate survey conducted last semester about the Brandeis community’s attitudes towards and experiences with DEI.
In terms of general attitudes around campus climate satisfaction, Sirigos shared that the survey found a generally high level of satisfaction, indicated by a mean score of 3.74 on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 indicates that a respondent is “very dissatisfied” with the campus climate and 5 indicates that the respondent is “very satisfied.” Sirigos also pointed out that, interestingly, respondents seemed to “feel better about their own sense of belonging than the extent to which they believe all members experience a sense of belonging,” something she said the Office w would explore further in its full analysis of the survey results.
However, the survey also found that many students felt challenged by the campus climate at Brandeis. In particular, Sirigos noted from responses to the open-ended questions in the survey that respondents across many demographics and identities felt that a sense of community on campus was “somewhat, if not fully, conditional.”
A response from an undergraduate student who identifies as Black and nonbinary exemplified this idea. “I feel that this school wears a self-righteous veil of equity and progress while still functioning as a white institution that doesn’t value non-white, disabled, or queer students and faculty,” the student wrote.
The survey also asked questions about areas of interest for future programming to improve DEI on campus. Respondents provided suggestions like continuing support for ICC club events, facilitating discussion panels and teach-ins, creating compulsory DEI courses, and improving inclusive hiring and recruitment efforts. A complete report of the survey with recommendations for further practices will be released in the near future.
The town hall concluded with a brief Q&A session, which discussed questions about how the five constituent offices planned to work together to ensure cohesive planning and implementation, as well as evaluating metrics for DEI and critical work for the upcoming academic year.
One attendee posed a question suggesting that DEI initiatives may cause white cisgender male students to feel uncomfortable from experiencing a loss of opportunity and asked how ODEI planned to address this possibility.
Representatives from each constituent office took different approaches to answering the question. Tabor from OEO emphasized that everyone belongs to some protected category and can come to OEO if they believe they have experienced discrimination and harassment. Cancino provided a similar response, suggesting that while the GSC centers marginalized communities like LGBTQ+ students and staff, they welcome conversations with anyone, including people who may be encountering these diverse identities for the first time. Greenstein emphasized that Ombuds values differences and the understanding that everyone has something to contribute. “DEI would love to work itself out of a job. That day will come when we all accept each other, and [when] our differences are welcomed here,” he said.
McNeal from the Office of DEI Education and Learning Initiatives clarified the misconceptions in the attendee’s question. “The notion that focusing on DEI empowers people of color or those at the margins at the expense of those who are part of the dominant culture is an illusion,” he said. “Diversity does not mean eliminating white cisgender men. They are included in that picture. What we are doing … is making sure those groups of people who have been on the margin, who have been disempowered, who have been oppressed, and who are experiencing unnoticed and unnamed aggressions on a regular basis, have an opportunity to have that remedied.”
Bitsóí concluded the event by emphasizing the importance of DEI at Brandeis and in the larger community, stating: “When you create an environment for the most underserved, for the most underrepresented … if you create a successful and supportive environment for those people, then you create a successful environment for all.”