08 March 2015

A February of note for diversity at UMN

I am a student and educator of biology. In biology, diversity is a major theme. A system’s ability to weather disaster and adapt to change depends on diversity. Genetic diversity is required for the ability to adapt and evolve. In agricultural settings diversity can buffer systems from the destructive abilities of pathogens, droughts, and other threats. In an ecological context diversity allows a system to continue functioning even if a constitute part is removed. Diverse systems are more resistant to invasion by exotic species. Our diets and agriculture draw on species domesticated by cultures across the globe. The strength of diversity is not limited to plant systems. We as humans also gain from our own diversity. Diverse perspectives allow us to see problems we may not have known about before, to find innovative solutions, and to see a new appreciation for something that we previously took for granted. We also live in a globalizing society, where it is becoming increasingly more important to be able to interact with people from many different backgrounds and cultures. All of these aspects of diversity indicate that learning and teaching which is inclusive and multicultural is important.

On February 5, 2015, I attended an Open Space event hosted by the Campus Climate Workgroup of the University of Minnesota. During that event I sat with a group working to save the Chicano and Latino Studies Department at the University, facilitated two sessions seeking to remove racial descriptors from campus crime alerts, and was a part of a session developing action items to help get the university to remove racial descriptors from its crime alerts. I was a bit skeptical of spending almost my whole day on racial descriptors in crime alerts – while I knew it needed addressed, it is just one issue of many students are facing on campus. At the end of the day, it was illuminating in many ways and I understood why that much time needed to be spent. Students, faculty, and staff got a lot out of the conversation. We discovered just how flimsy the University’s position was; we discovered how wide and unified the opposition to the use of racial descriptors in crime alerts is; we saw how this issue is part of a much bigger picture and addressing it is necessary in making change; we heard stories and people got to tell their stories; we discovered how badly the University of Minnesota needs a cultural change in its police force, and we developed very concrete ways in which this could move forward.

On February 9, 2015, I saw students stage a sit-in in the Office of President Kaler. The students were willing to be arrested to try to make the University a more inclusive place, and the University was willing to arrest them for their “disruptive” behavior. That the University was so inconvenienced that they arrested students, simply for students demanding they be supported, is distressing. The University just hours earlier had released a statement saying they supported free speech, peaceful protest, and looked forward to working with students. The actions of the administration did not follow that. People took notice of that, including the Chronicle of Higher Education.

On February 25, 2015, the Universityof Minnesota announced it was changing its policy on the use of suspectdescriptors in crime alerts.While the step didn’t go as far as students, faculty, and staff were requesting, it did put the University of Minnesota in the lead on this issue, joining only Rutgers and the University of Maryland in avoiding the use of suspect descriptors when a description is very broad. It was an important step in making the campus safer. People at the university made sure their voices were heard. Years of letters, student government resolutions, speaking up at events, and holding a sit-in of the president’s office forced the administration to listen. This also came days after a cluster hire was announced, which will give the Chicano and Latino Studies Department the tenured professor it needs to survive (I'm sure there will be a continued push to get the university to give the department what it needs to thrive).

I bring these events up to start my discussion of Multicultural Inclusive Learning and Teaching because we can’t separate the learning from the learning environment, and these events illustrate what I think we hope to achieve as educators. Universities are strong because one simply need go down the hall to talk to an expert on a number of subjects. Universities are strong because they seek to allow for diversity of thought, discourse, study, and shared governance. When we fail to live up to those obligations – by refusing community concerns even when presented with data, by arresting students for peacefully protesting, by weakening shared governance by decreasing the number of tenure-track faculty and closing important departments – we decrease our ability to be an effective institution of higher learning.

Multicultural Inclusive Learning and Teaching is the harnessing of diversity to develop the skills, resources, and knowledge base of a community. This harnessing means a recognition that human difference is important and should be seen as a strength of our society. This diversity can and should include a diversity of perspectives, educational methods, and participants. The development of skills, resources, and knowledge base can and should be relevant, and should encourage the recognition of parallels that allow one to think and apply their knowledge in multiple contexts. The community can be a community of learners in a classroom, the participants in a workshop, or even a broader community.

The events of February at the University of Minnesota directly touch on issues of Multicultural Inclusive Learning and Teaching and give us solid examples of our goals. One reason for the sit-in was an attempt to save the Chicano and Latino Studies Department. Students, faculty, and staff all passionately expressed how important such a program is – for giving diverse perspectives, for asking students to draw parallels across disciplines, and for engaging the community. This department should clearly serve as an inspiration for other programs, such as those in biology. Diverse people and cultures developed agriculture, and many of the people responsible for growing and processing our food are economically and/or socially disadvantaged. Biology has a clear impact on everyday life, and touches other subjects in terms of the science, ethics, economics, social ramifications, history, philosophy, et cetera. Many global challenges concern biological issues and will likely involve biological parts of their solution – climate change, water shortages, energy, food security, global pandemics, et cetera. The recent events at the University of Minnesota also indicate history is important. The sit-in replicates a sit-in which led to the original creation ofthe Chicano and Latino Studies Department. The development of the field of biology is important for understanding where we are now in terms of knowledge, and the cycles that scientific inquiry undergoes. Furthermore, the students are ultimately asking for an environment that is safe and allows them to take risks in their education. Creating such a learning environment is fundamental for education, and for the university system.