Course reductions unite LGBTQ community

Course reductions unite LGBTQ community

Following weeks of outrage from the LGBTQ community and its allies on campus over the planned reduction in section offerings of the Gay and Lesbian Studies I and II classes, the college administration hosted an LGBTQ Cultural Competency Forum Nov. 18 to discuss the issue.

The college triggered the outcry when it informed Victoria Shannon, founder of the GALS programs and an adjunct professor in the Humanities, History & Social Sciences Department, that only one section of GALS I & II instead of two would each be offered in Spring 2015. The move effectively cut in half the number of seat available even though all the sections have had full enrollment each semester. As of press time, both classes remain at one section.

Senior Vice President and Provost Stan Wearden said he believed that the angry response reflected larger concerns in the college community and he wanted to explore them via the forum.

A crowd of students, staff, alumni and supporters spilled out of Stage Two in the 618 S. Michigan Ave. Building and into the hall. Other members of the administration also attended, including President Kwang-Wu Kim and Vice President of Student Success Mark Kelly. Lott Hill, executive director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching Excellence, and Precious Davis, assistant director of diversity recruitment initiatives in the Office of Admissions, led the discussion.

The crowd at the forum did not let a single moment of the 90-minute time slot fall silent. Attendees were timed for 60 seconds as they aired grievances about LGBTQ issues on campus, course selections and support for faculty, such as Shannon.
Hill said the forum was intended to be an opportunity for the administration to listen so it can hear from the community rather than just give answers.

“We hope that there is a sense of dialogue in the room,” Hill said. “We have the provost and the president and several vice presidents in the room, and we’re going to ask that they’re really here to listen to the community. The student voice and the voice of the community really does need to be heard.”

Wearden opened the discussion, giving the audience the reasoning behind it and topics he hoped to be covered by those in attendance, including institutional culture, co-curricular and extracurricular offerings, hiring processes, student recruitment, resources and other concerns of the LGBTQ community. He said he did not, however, want the discussion to focus on the college’s scheduling practices, specific course sections or faculty members.

“We have a commitment to diversity at this institution,” Wearden said. “Are we living up to it fully? Probably not. Will we ever get there? Absolutely not. But we need to continue working on getting there. There will always be an open road ahead of us. You can help us figure out how to get down that road.”

Throughout, he seemed interested in hearing the discussion between members of the college community rather than dialogue between himself and attendees, and he sat back and listened.

Taylor Williams, a senior music major, said this forum proves that people cannot ignore the LGBTQ community anymore.
“In the past, queers have sort of been on the outside—people just think, ‘Yeah, I can push these people aside, it doesn’t really matter because they can’t stand up and say anything because they are the outsiders and they have no advocacy to do that,’” Williams said. “But now, we’re penetrating all areas of this school. We’re out, we’re public faces, we are people that you know, people that you love, people that you hate and people that you feel indifferent about.”

Williams said the forum proved to the administration that the LGBTQ community is strong and will fight to fix the problems they see on campus.

“I just hope [the administration] realizes that if they don’t nip this in the bud and get it together, there’s going to be a whole wildfire spreading and people are going to be pissed off,” Williams said. “Pissed off people don’t stay quiet. Pissed off people get loud.”

Whenever someone spoke, he or she was prompted to give a name, relationship to the college and preferred pronoun, which sparked lots of responses from the audience. Many claimed that their identity was not preferred and that they had been consistently misgendered throughout their college career.

“You shouldn’t go into these courses being afraid that you’re going to be misgendered and invalidated every single day,” said Amanda Strauss, an art + design and cultural studies double major, during the forum.

Olivia Hanson, a junior cultural studies major, said not only would having a solidified queer theory major or minor be ideal, but she also wants to see more overlap between programs.

“Especially in the women and gender studies programs, there’s not a lot of overlapping, [for example] between black studies or Latino studies, or cultural studies,” Hanson said. “All those things intersect and overlap. Why do these programs have to be so singular? That’s not how the world works.”

Michelle Nance, president of Common Ground, the LGBTQ campus organization, and senior fashion studies major, said at the forum that many members have had similar issues and there needs to be sensitivity training for all faculty and staff.
“I have had many members of Common Ground tell me stories of when they have been horrified by teachers and even fellow students misgendering them or treating them as if they are anything other than a student in those classes,” Nance said at the forum. “Sensitivity training is something that has been talked about since I’ve been here for the last four years, and it’s time for us to actually take the step forward and make it happen.”

P-Fac, the part-time faculty union, has since filed a grievance with the college. Diana Vallera, president of P-Fac, said it was unfortunate that ground rules were set to guide discussion away from what initiated the forum in the first place—section reductions.

“The forum on LBGTQQIA Cultural Competency held on Tuesday was less an opportunity to openly discuss issues and concerns about cultural competency, as it was a demonstration of the college’s stubborn silencing of uncomfortable conversations,” Vallera said in a Nov. 21 email statement.

However, Vallera said it was exciting that the forum was packed with students and faculty and that the P-Fac union will continue to advocate for dignity, diversity and inclusion.

An LGBTQ five-year plan was also handed out at the forum, outlining steps being taken to “engage and support students with LGBTQ identities,” including name recognition for students, facilities such as gender-neutral restrooms, campus education and training on diversity, mixed-gender housing and systematic changes for student preferences and issue awareness.
Kari Sommers, assistant dean of Student Life, said the initiative began in May 2012 but is in a constant state of research, assessment and changes.

“The forum was very instructive because it helped us identify some of the challenges with where we’ve gone,” Sommers said. “Now I can go back and do my work and research and sort out where the problems lie in the system and then fix them.”
Sommers said hearing from the community in a public forum was helpful to give momentum to further implementations of the current plan as well as adapt upcoming stages based on the current progress. She said hearing personal thoughts and feelings from the students directly is different than hearing them through surveys and research.

“It was really powerful,” Sommers said. “It just reinforced for me that we’re moving in the right direction but that we have so much more work to do. We are ready to do that work.”


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