Continuing the discussion of diversity with President Kurt Schmoke

Before the end of the last semester a petition was sent to the President of University of Baltimore challenging aspects of diversity on the UB campus. The petition focused heavily on racial diversity, encouraging opportunity for students and faculty of color.

With the start a new semester the issue of diversity continues to be on the forefront, and it seems the petition and ideas are still in the air. The UB Post was able to speak with President Kurt Schmoke about his perspective on diversity and the petition. President Schmoke wants the campus to be aware the diversity is a broad spectrum. “Diversity means more than black and white,” said Schmoke. “If we can all agree to that then we can have a better conversation about diversity. There are a lot of groups underrepresented in the academy, and we should be sensitive to that.” Below are the questions provided by the UB Post and the answers from President Schmoke.

How do you feel about conversations surrounding diversity before the PoC coalition’s petition?

KS: There were many conversations about diversity. From students, faculty, staff and alumni prior to the drafting of the petition.

Do you think this petition grew from the conversations already happening, or more so grew from the events happening in Baltimore and Mizzou?

KS: You’d have to ask the people that drafted the petition. But I think people who have been around a while recognize there was a Culture and Diversity Committee created at UB four years ago because the UB community recognized the need to focus in more clearly on the issue of diversity.

What does diversity mean to you or University of Baltimore?

KS: For me, diversity is broader than just the concept of race. It involves creating a welcoming environment on campus for people of different backgrounds, different gender orientation, different races, and ethnicities and points of view. So diversity is a broad concept but primarily the goal is to make this a welcoming environment for people who have differences—whatever those differences may be.

Do you feel the conversation in regards to diversity have differed since the petition has come from the students, or is it about the same?

KS: There has been some in- creased focus on issues, not only because of the petition, but what happened in Baltimore last April.

And then following other issues at other universities, like Missouri. But I thought the petition raised some important issues that needed further investigation, that’s why I responded to it the way that I did, in writing, saying that I thought points that they raised needed further investigation. I promised that I would take an initial step in meeting with the cultural and diversity committee, and I did that last Monday morning.

When you say further investigation, you mean points in the petition need further investigation?

KS: Yes. For example, one of the points they raised in the petition was that there was a disproportionate discipline of African-American students rather than white students for similar offenses. They didn’t provide details. They made the allegations but they didn’t provide any evidence to support it. I didn’t dismiss the allegation, but I said we need to find out whether it’s true or not and the only way to do that is through further investigation. That’s just an example, but there were some others that were in the petition. As I said it raised questions but there was a need for further work to determine the answer to those questions.

So should students put more work into investigating?

KS: No. I thought the best way of doing it [was] for the community together. That’s why I wanted to meet with the Culture and Diversity Committee because it has as its members: students, faculty, and staff. I thought that would be the appropriate group to begin this process of investigation. I’ve asked them to have more regular meetings and to raise their profile a bit so people who were interested in diversity issues at UB would know of them, and know about their work, and would find an easy way to raise their concerns.

I know the Culture and Diversity Committee’s goal is to increase diversity and make known diversity issues on campus. That is their mission right?

KS: It’s to make sure the issue of diversity is viewed as an important priority.

 

How did you feel when you received the petition from the student? Would it have been different coming from faculty?

KS: No, as I said I think the petition raised important questions. Had it come from faculty, I would have reacted the same way. I didn’t dismiss the petition. I just, in my response, said “you raised some important issues.” We need to do further work.

Did you feel the need to meet with the people of color coalition?

KS: I didn’t feel compelled. What I felt was compelled to respond to the petition. And I also wanted the petition to be public, so that I could get input from all aspects of the community because initially it just came to me and nobody heard about it, except a few other students. I wanted the petition to be public so that I could get input from those with knowledge about the issues that are raised. I want to hear from faculty members about their response. I wanted to hear from other students, and I must say the responses that I got from other students vary widely. They were not all supportive of the petition. So it was important for me to get input from those who might be affected by what the petition said.

When you made it public, and you were hearing responses from faculty and students, how did you respond to that?

KS: It confirmed my view that there needed to be more investigation

of what was alleged in the petition.

I have sat in on an SGA meeting in which the PoC Coalition mentioned racial diversity in faculty and staff. Many people on campus, pose the question, “what if there aren’t any qualified candidates?” “What if we can’t find people of color who qualify?” How do you feel about people raising the question, “What if there are not enough qualified candidates of color?” More so, your response to that statement.

KS: Well… first of all, I have to look, in the sense I have only been here a year and a couple of months, I have to find out whether in fact what they said was correct. I know, for example, in our Dean’s search for College of Public Affairs there were people of color in that pool of candidates. And that in the search for the provost there was not a person but there was gender diversity, so I had to go back and find out whether we had a history recently of no persons of color being in the pools of candidates.

So that requires further inquiry. I’ve encouraged the consultants that we use in the search committees to make sure they search broadly for qualified people. To the best of my knowledge nobody has been discouraged from pulling in people of color in the pool. So the bottom line is you can’t disagree with what they are suggesting. It’s just that, they may not have known that indeed there were people of color in some of these searches. They may not have been selected but they were in some of the searches. Again, it’s the type of general statement that needs further inquiry.

Do you think statements as mentioned previously are in the back of people’s minds and effect the hiring process? Not specifically at UB but in academia in general, that the pre-conceived notion that there may not be enough qualified people of color, do you think that effect the hiring process in academia?

KS: Some places yes and some places no. I mean I think academia knows that we need more PhDs of color in the academy generally. The numbers are pretty low. I’ll just give you a point- the president of University of Maryland, Eastern Shore which is a historically black college, [at our] last president’s meeting noted even at her school, the majority of her faculty are not African-American. They are white and people of color from overseas. So even at an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) there is a concern about getting African-American PhDs on campus.

So just to your point, I think there is a need to encourage more people of color to get PhDs and to pursue careers in the academy. I don’t think that it [has] been the mindset at UB that we can’t find any qualified people of color. In my review of things, I haven’t seen any evidence of that. So that is all I can say. The person who is occupying the College of Arts and Sciences, our interim Dean is a woman. In the academy in terms of higher education leadership women are still underrepresented. So, I feel proud of the fact that we have as our interim Dean a female PhD. No, the petition may not say that is diversity, but in my view, in the academy at least, that is diversity.

In the petition and your response, you mention cultural competency training. Is this recent?

KS: It’s interesting you should mention that because the folks in each of our departments said there is already a certain amount of cultural competency that goes on, but there has not been a single plan, like in our Title IX. There are individual issues going on, on cultural competency, but what the Culture and Diversity Committee committed to do is to review hiring procedures of our human resources department and various hiring procedures in our individual colleges and schools. They want to do a campus climate survey to get a sense from students, faculty, and staff of their concerns about diversity, and then following that develop a more…a broader cultural competency training program. They didn’t want to start doing that before they did the campus climate survey. The review of the hiring procedure is going to start, then the campus climate survey, then upgrade our cultural competency training.

One thing that I have heard from students is that they feel that they encountered microagressions in their classes and they don’t exactly know who they should talk to about that.

Do you know who they should talk to?

KS: They should go to the deans first. I would go to the teacher themselves. *Brian, for example gave us an interesting example where he felt that he was a victim of insensitivity by a professor and he actually went to that professor and said ‘Do you

realize what you are doing? How you are impacting me?’ The professor apologized, said he didn’t realize that and made a change that lead to an improvement in the class. That was one student that went directly to the professor. My view is that, the students, if they don’t feel comfortable, that they should go to the dean. If it is something that is so egregious—multiple students are having the same problem—then it’s through the Title IX coordinator, the provost, or they could email me and say ‘we got a serious problem here.’ But it [should] be at the individual school level first. I believe that is one of the things the Dean is prepared to do, is to be responsive when students feel they are being victimized.

The PoC Coalition sent another response in response to your response. Are you going to respond to that one? Have you received it yet?

KS: I am not sure if I received it yet. Was it after their town hall meeting they had? Oh! After upgrading the cultural competency training, I did commit to having a town hall meeting on diversity in the spring semester. That was the other thing… (after being provided a copy of the response mentioned) I did see [the response] and I just encouraged our Vice President of Student Affairs to continue to work with the drafters. I asked her to respond to this. I did, I remember seeing this. And she did respond. She met with them. I remember this issue of tenure/non-tenure, which lead me to meet with some faculty to members without disclosing confidential information that the issue about African-American faculty members being tenured is more complicated then set forth here.

African-American faculty being tenured is much more complicated? How so?

KS: Well that’s why I am telling you, it would involve me getting into the private business of individual faculty members and I can’t do that.

Do you think tenure effects diversity in academia?

KS: Some places yes. Some places no.

Do you think there are certain disparities that discourage people of color from certain opportunities when comes to working in academia?

KS: Again I won’t generalize but it depends. [Henry Louis ‘Skip’ Gates] was a class behind me, we were in college together. He didn’t get tenure at Yale. But he got tenured at Harvard. So what was the issue there? Well the Yale faculty viewed him as being involved more in popular culture than serious academic enterprise. Harvard on the other hand says of course this guy, he’s published some great stuff, so it’s hard to generalize about things like that. What I do know is that the decision on tenure is generally left to faculty committees. They make the primary recommendation. If there is bias on a faculty committee, yes, a person of color is likely to feel the brunt of that discrimination. If the committee is fair minded and opened to good scholarship then a person of color is not going to be discriminated against. There was a professor of classics at Yale, named Eric Segal, who wrote a book called “Love Story.” It became a movie. “Love Story,” because a great book, a popular selling book and then a movie about these two who fall in love and one of them dies, like Romeo and Juliet. This is one of the most popular books around. Yale denies him tenure because he didn’t pursue classical studies. Getting tenure is a unique process and it is not something the president does by him/herself. It has to come from recommendation from faculty. If you have bias at the faculty level you’re going to have problems.

Would the same answer you gave for the process of tenure be able to answer the question of including selected cultural studies programs (African-American studies, Asian studies, etc…) here at UB?

KS: If you don’t have the persons to teach it. Well the one thing about UB is that it doesn’t offer as broad a mix of programs as some other universities. At this point if we were to offer new programs, one we would have to have the money to fund it. Second, we would have to make sure we had enough students in it year after year to justify it as opposed to having a lecturer come in and do it one time. The third thing is we’d have to figure out whether there is a way of offering that course electronically with other schools in the system. For example: if Coppin or UMES offered that program could we use the computers, could [we] have synchronous teaching of that and have a professor at UMES give the course. I am willing to explore those courses if I see there is really a demonstrated interest sustained over time. I don’t want to go out and hire a person and find out that ten people are going to take the course. I am open to looking at that along with faculty. Because of the concept of shared governance, if we are going to create new courses, that has got to come out of discussion at the faculty of each school level. I can’t just impose a new course on them. Again, hopefully the petitioners understand they raised some important issues that need further discussion in the whole community and that’s what I’ve been trying to encourage rather than me giving some definitive answer when I know that I’d have to go back to the faculty anyway.

What is UB’s hope for the future when it comes to diversity?

KS: Right now we are viewed as the most diverse, in terms of our student population, we’re the most diverse university in the state university system. I’d like to see us produce from our student body more students who are going to pursue more careers in academia. And maybe come back here and teach.

 

University of Baltimore is making strides to provide a welcoming for various groups of people. Both students and faculty are making effort to increase diversity to avoid students feeling there is a lack of diversity, opportunity, and sensitivity in the future.

*indicates name change

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