‘Intergroup dialogue course’ among students’ requests to improve race relations

Students requested administration to create an “intergroup dialogue course” and reevaluate the way it recruits underrepresented students.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s March 4 report revealed callousness and racial biases on the part of the Ferguson Police Department in emails discussing African-American citizens of its community. The report cited insensitive comments and caricatures made by Ferguson officials, including an email which depicted President Barack Obama as a chimpanzee.

“Honestly, it’s just blow after blow after blow,” said senior LeChae Mottley, president of the Legion of Black Collegians. “I’m not surprised by the results of the investigation. It’s not shocking anymore; it’s more hurtful.”

While the Justice Department’s findings troubled her personally, Mottley said she is more focused on what she can do for students at MU.

“There’s only so much we can do from here that can positively affect Ferguson,” she said. “If I can do things as an individual to help Ferguson, I will. But as a leader of the black student government here, I need to make sure that students feel comfortable here.”

Following a December listening session related to the events in Ferguson, MU administrators called on student leaders from various organizations to discuss a plan of action for addressing race relations on campus and changing the campus climate. Students suggested stronger dialogue on race, and administrators said they will re-evaluate existing diversity programs. Faculty Council has since formed a committee on race relations.

The administration relied on public forums to discuss with the student body the ideas and issues surrounding race relations in the aftermath of the events in Ferguson. The administration hosted one forum in December, during which administrators like Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin were criticized for being too “reactive” in its response to students’ concerns. Loftin issued a statement the following day, vowing to continue discussions about the issue and hold more forums.

But there has not been another forum since. A forum was scheduled for Feb. 16 but was postponed when the university closed due to snow. Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Cathy Scroggs said the February forum was canceled a week later after administrators ran into difficulty finding a new venue for the event. The administration will hold forums on March 17 and sometime in April, she said.

While no public forum took place in February, Scroggs has been a key player in administrative action on race relations issues. She said students and student leaders alike have come to her office regularly to discuss issues they are facing.

Scroggs said she met with Mottley on March 7 and with the Association of Black Graduate and Professional Students representatives on March 10. She said events in Ferguson have served as the catalyst for more serious discussions among campus leaders.

One of the most pressing requests students made, Mottley said, was for the creation of an “intergroup dialogue course.” Having students discuss issues surrounding race relations in smaller groups might allow for more productive, educational conversation, she added.

“You don’t get to have difficult discussions in diversity lecture courses,” Mottley said. “Difficult discussions usually lead to actual learning.”

A re-evaluation of how MU recruits under-represented students was also requested by this group of students, Mottley said.

Administrators are also reassessing how diversity is presented during Summer Welcome and remodeled the diversity training program for its leaders, Scroggs said.

“I think that the Ferguson issue really brings (race relations) to the fore and it forces us to talk about it in a much broader context with a lot more people engaged in the conversation,” Scroggs said. “That’s what happens on a college campus; this is a place where ideas and issues are discussed all the time. That’s not a bad thing.”

MU Chief Diversity Officer Noor Azizan-Gardner has also been a leading voice in the administration’s approach to race relations on campus. Azizan-Gardner said she agrees that events in Ferguson and students’ reactions to those events have forced administrators to take a closer look at what race relations are at MU.

Azizan-Gardner will meet with associate professor of journalism Berkley Hudson, who is heading Faculty Council’s race relations committee, and Faculty Council Chairman Craig Roberts during the week of March 9 to discuss the role the new committee is expected to play, she said.

“The university is a microcosm of the state and the nation,” Azizan-Gardner said. “Race relations has always been a fact of life for our country since its inception. The events in Ferguson, New York and California have intensified this continuing need for us to continue our work with race relations.”

Scroggs said while she believes public dialogue is an effective way to tackle difficult community issues, she acknowledged there are shortcomings.

“When you have these big public dialogues, most of the people there are interested in what’s being discussed,” she said. “You feel some days like you’re preaching to the choir. How do you get to the people that really need the message the most?”

Many members of the MU community are trying to answer that question, Azizan-Gardner said.

“Forums and discussions are just the beginning,” she said. “Many on this campus are discussing ways to create opportunities and spaces for more interactions in many different contexts — the classroom, labs, residence halls, the Greek system, extracurricular activities, study abroad, service learning and many more.”

The Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative, led by Azizan-Gardner, is focused on integrating diversity and inclusion throughout campus and reflecting diversity in MU’s curriculum, recruitment and scholarly products, she said.

She said the Chancellor’s Committee on Diversity Enhancement is revamping its Difficult Dialogues Program with more interactive theater and a renewed push for facilitatory workshops. The committee has developed a tip sheet on its website to help spark and guide discussions about race relations on campus.

“I encourage every faculty, staff and student on campus to reach out to someone who is not like them,” Azizan-Gardner said. “Start the conversation so that we can break down stereotypes and barriers. It starts always with building friendships. Say ‘hello’ to someone who looks different from you. Find out about each other. Learn to see the world from different lenses and perspectives.”

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