Daily Egyptian

Opinion: All but one of the USG presidential candidates failed to answer questions on diversity at sociology club presidential debate

By Johnathan Flowers, Ph.D Candidate, Department of Philosophy, GPSC President

The Sociology Club’s question on diversity was rooted in the mission statement of the university. Specifically, the Sociology Club asked if the methodology that the university was using aligned with the mission statement of SIU and with the mission of USG. Further, the Sociology Club wished to know what each candidate planned to do to achieve diversity.

All but one of the candidates failed to answer the question actually asked.

Candidate Henderson

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Candidate Henderson’s answer focused on including students who “aren’t in the majority” in decision making processes. That is, if these students embody “inclusive excellence,” as stated in the mission statement, Candidate Henderson saw no reason not to include them in the conversation. However, like Candidate Newlin, Candidate Henderson seemed to miss the thrust of the question: his definition of “inclusive excellence,” which was barely a definition, did not mirror the university definition provided on the Office of the Associate Chancellor for Institutional Diversity website, nor did he answer the question.

Candidate Henderson repeated his definition of diversity, which would be a focus on who is not represented by the majority, while stating that he would also seek to include the “majority” in decision making processes so that no one is left out. He emphasized the need to use the social media platforms and USG’s existing communications platforms to reach out to the students who may not feel represented in USG as a means to achieve objectives of diversity. To be blunt: this is a promising answer to a question that was not asked by the moderator, and is thus inconsequential to addressing whether or not Candidate Henderson believed that the university’s actions where diversity is concerned aligned with the university’s mission statement.

Moreover, Candidate Henderson emphasized as his goal of shifting USG back to being “student administrators,” through the development of new committees, to the university mission of innovation and ingenuity. Neither innovation nor ingenuity were part of the question asked, except insofar as the moderator read the SIU mission statement at the outset of her question. Putting the failure to actually answer the question aside, Candidate Henderson’s reference to ingenuity and innovation did not actually articulate how these “new committees” would address issues of diversity on campus, nor what these “new committees” are.

Cynically, we could assume that he means additional ad-hoc committees, however, this betrays Candidate Henderson’s understanding of the organization he seeks to run. Last year, President Jared Stern established the Diversity and Equity Advisory Committee (DEAC), the mirror to the GPSC Diversity and Inclusion Policy Committee, to address issues of diversity and inclusion at the policy level. Last semester, former President Joshua Bowens put that committee to work engaging with issues of diversity and, confusingly enough, issues facing the reorganization.

DEAC, while not formally articulated in the constitution, has been a presence in USG for as long as Candidate Henderson has been a senator. As such, I fail to see why he would reinvent the wheel, so to speak, rather than simply use the mechanisms in place. Moreover, Candidate Henderson’s failure to recognize the mechanisms in place to address issues of diversity and inclusion, a mechanism whose charge, as drafted by President Stern, includes tackling the problems addressed by this question, indicates his deep ignorance about the organization he seeks to run.

Candidate Newlin

Like Candidates Henderson and Mitchell, Candidate Newlin failed to answer the question. Instead, Candidate Newlin focused on connecting the local community with USG and the campus through the Umbrella RSOs and community service events modeled on The Big Event. Additionally, Candidate Newlin then sought to address what he called “academic excellence,” a phrase which is not found in the SIU Mission Statement.

Through addressing “academic excellence,” Candidate Newlin pointed to SIU’s low graduation rates as a problem for which the university, through USG, should be held accountable. To do this, Candidate Newlin referenced the HLC, which he defined as the “Higher Learning Council,” whose responsibility, Newlin explained, is to hold the administration and faculty accountable, to make sure that they are supporting the students. Moreover, Candidate Newlin makes reference to USG participation on this “Higher Learning Council,” as the means whereby students participate in this accountability.

Nothing in the above paragraph is accurate, and this is problematic as the USG President will serve on the HLC Reaccreditation Steering Committee. The HLC, or Higher Learning Commission, is a not-for-profit body that seeks to ensure the quality of an institution through peer reviewed assessment according to five criteria. HLC reaccreditation occurs on a ten year cycle and involves the development of an assurance argument as part of the university’s comprehensive evaluation, which is verified by an HLC site visit, and followed up with action-steps in line with a response from the HLC.

While HLC does have complaint processes, which are outlined on its website, the HLC is not responsible for the evaluation of faculty and administration: it reviews only complaints related to the five evaluation criteria as they relate to the institution as a whole. Put simply, the HLC does not engage in the functions outlined by Candidate Newlin above, nor does the HLC Reaccreditation Steering Committee or its Criterion Sub-Committees exist to perform the functions Candidate Newlin explained.

This point is important as it indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of a collection of committees whose purpose has been explained to Candidate Newlin, and the rest of the USG Senate, repeatedly. Moreover, this point is additionally problematic given the fact that SIUC is currently undergoing its reaccreditation process, a process which initially would have excluded all but the most marginal of student participation had GPSC not advocated for full inclusion of student representatives, undergraduate and graduate, on both the Steering Committee and the Criterion Sub-Committees.

Candidate Newlin appeals to the “honor code” under development by USG at the behest of the Chancellor which he claims will hold students accountable and enable the creation of a climate that supports diversity. As I have not seen a draft of the honor code, I will take his word for it, however, Candidate Newlin also recommends that an honor code be developed for faculty. To be clear: neither USG nor GPSC has the authority to develop such an honor code and, if we did, abiding by it would be something that would have to be developed through the Faculty Senate and the Faculty Association in conjunction with the administration, and not the student government bodies.

Additionally, cursory google search through the SIUC webpage would produce a document that accomplishes what Candidate Newlin wants out of a Faculty Honor Code: the Faculty Code of Ethics. I fault Candidate Newlin for not knowing that faculty have a Code of Ethics they need to abide by, specifically as finding this information is not hard. Moreover, were I in Candidate Newlin’s place, I might recommend that USG develop mechanisms whereby students can raise concerns about faculty violations of the Code of Ethics through USG, in order to hold faculty accountable. No such mechanism currently exists.

That being said: nothing in Candidate Newlin’s response to the rearticulated diversity question actually addresses diversity in a substantial way.

Candidate Mitchell

Candidate Mitchell offered an aggressive, albeit incomplete, response to the question as asked. To be clear, Candidate Mitchell answered, unambiguously, “no, I do not believe that the university lives up to its mission statement.” He went on to state that the mission statement is “an interesting tactic to get more students here, but when they get here and see they’re not supported here… that’s why the enrollment’s going down.”

Candidate Mitchell further elaborated that the failure of the administration to listen to student needs is the core of why our retention and enrollment rates have declined. He stated “(students) have invested so much money here, to enroll here, and experience college life, and it’s not what we expected… It’s getting worse.” Moreover, Candidate Mitchell pointed out that this fact is not just limited to administration, but students are also implicated in the failure to listen which, he implied, set the ground for the declining campus retention.

To this end, Candidate Mitchell positioned USG as the mechanism whereby the university can be held accountable to student concerns. Indeed, Candidate Mitchell stated that “(his) sole purpose is to make the administration listens to what we have to say. They’re going to listen, one way or another.” However, this is where Candidate Mitchell’s answer lacks completeness: the second half of the question posed by the moderator asks how USG would address diversity issues, and Candidate Mitchell did not provide a response beyond “they’re going to listen, one way or another.”

This is of concern as the current administration has indicated a willingness to ignore student input in decisions that affect our education, as evidenced by USG’s vote of no confidence in Chancellor Montemagno. Candidate Mitchell did, to his credit, indicate that students would leave or protest should the administration continue not to listen to student concerns, Candidate Mitchell did not provide a mechanism whereby USG can hold the administration accountable when the administration has indicated that it is ready, and willing, to ignore student input that it disagrees with.

Thus while I generally agree with Candidate Mitchell’s brief assessment of the situation, and admire his passion, it is possible that Candidate Mitchell’s determination to get administration to listen will fall upon deaf ears without actionable mechanisms to force them to do so.

Johnathan Flowers. Ph.D Candidate, Department of Philosophy, and president of the Graduate and Professional Student Council can be reached at [email protected] 

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