Next steps to help campus climate

The U held an event last week to find ways to create a more welcoming atmosphere.

Parker Lemke

After hearing concerns — ranging from students of color who feel isolated on campus to staff members worried about unfair employee hierarchies — the University of Minnesota is seeking ways to create a more inclusive environment.

About 375 students, staff and faculty members crowded into Coffman Union’s Great Hall on Thursday to discuss and improve the University’s climate, which some say is unwelcoming for minority groups and other marginalized communities.

The event followed the University’s recently-released campus climate report, which outlines plans to address campus issues, like a lack of diversity within the student body and among faculty members.

The University gathered the crowd Friday to garner feedback on the school’s current climate, and to promote collective action on making the school a more welcoming place, said Jen Mein, an Office of Human Resources consultant who helped manage the event.

“We hope that through that kind of conversation, people are moved and become more aware,” she said. “You need a lot of voices to say that this is important.”

Participants posed their own agenda topics before splitting up into discussion circles. Group leaders then compiled material for reports, which were posted online, and administrators serving on the campus climate work group will review them, Mein said.

“We have a campus climate report that is out just now — that’s step one,” President Eric Kaler said to Thursday’s crowd. “Step two is the work you are doing, the opportunity for you to be involved.”

Group exclusivity was a running theme throughout the event, said economics, statistics and communications student Chris Apriori.

“It’s an inability to break out of our shells,” he said. “Building avenues outside of our cultural silos — that’s the biggest issue across departments, across cultures, across employees [and] students.”

For Apriori, being a person of color in Minnesota can sometimes force him to engage in cultural discussions.

“My identity is politicized before I step out the door, and so it’s something that I just have to deal with,” he said, adding that the University should prioritize increasing the enrollment and retention of students from marginalized communities.

Nicholas Goldsmith, a doctoral student in the College of Biological Sciences, said he thought the campus climate report didn’t discuss retention adequately and that the University should make it a bigger priority.

“It’s almost like there’s this assumption that if they recruit students, that they’ll want to stick around,” Goldsmith said. “I don’t think that’s a safe assumption.”

On Friday, he helped lead a discussion on crime alerts, saying the University shouldn’t include a suspect’s race in the alerts. He said the descriptions are too broad to be useful, and instead may induce negative biases toward students of color.

Overall, though, he said the campus climate report was a good first step.

Employees also expressed grievances at the event.

College of Education and Human Development associate program director Sara Najm said perceived and real boundaries between and within departments can hinder innovation and exclude people.

“As a staff member, I think it can be difficult to contribute ideas, or be heard as much as faculty members,” she said.

Along with sitting in on a group that discussed rankism in the University’s hierarchy, Najm participated in a dialogue about the challenges of being a parent on campus.

As head of the Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel, Missy Bye said she attended the event to learn new ways to address equity problems she’s seen on campus.

“I’m just looking for ways to take a little bit back to make some change in my own department,” Bye said. “If you don’t participate or you don’t react, you’re enabling, and that’s not useful.”

Human Resources consultant Jen Mein said the campus climate can improve if people simply become more aware of how they affect others, whether they are differentiated by race or rank.

“I care a lot about this place, and I want to make sure that everybody has a good experience here,” she said, “and we’re not there yet.”