Sewanee ReThinks campus culture

Photo Courtesy of Sewanee Flickr

By Shari Balouchi

At the beginning of the 2012 school year, Vice-Chancellor John McCardell called for a team of students, faculty, alumni, and parents to examine the root causes of events that threaten healthy relationships in the Sewanee Community. The team, called the ReThink: Respect and Dignity Task Force, focused on understanding how undergraduate relationships are formed at Sewanee and developed recommendations on how the community could encourage the highest quality undergraduate experience.

The task force completed its work in July 2013, and the results, culminating from its year-long undertaking, were revealed by President McCardell at this year’s “Launching of a New Year” and in an email report that was sent to all faculty, students, and alumni during the event. The Domain is revered for its rich community, comprised of little moments that make each student’s Sewanee experience both unique and universal.

With these principles in mind, Vice-Chancellor McCardell engaged Dawn Hawkins, who successfully directed a similar effort on Washington and Lee’s campus, to consult with the ReThink task force. This group was led by John Shackelford, the men’s tennis coach, and comprised of Women and Gender Studies Professor Julie Berebitsky and Economics Professor Doug Williams. Student members consisted of the now-graduated Andrew Carey, the former president of the Interfraternity Council, and Devin Loftus, former co-chair of the Women’s Center. Whitney Burton, a seminary student and resident chaplain, also served on the team alongside alumnus Craig Laine, and University deans Eric Hartman and Mary Beth Bankson Williams.

The ReThink task force’s final report summarizes ideas expressed during thirteen different focus groups and in a campus climate survey administered in January 2013. Sentiments of Sewanee’s positive community were echoed in these discussions. Nonetheless, in many areas, student experiences reveal that campus life has fallen short of healthy.

One of these areas is the student-advisor relationship. “This has to do with far more than course selection, and it does not mean encouraging a more intrusive presence in students’ lives,” says the Vice-Chancellor. In general, there are large discrepancies in the quality of advising students receive from faculty mentors, and there is not adequate support for students to confide in mentors about non-academic adjustments.“Any student who is part of a minority, whether it be socioeconomic, color, race, or gender-related, or any variety of other factors can face a natural set of pressures that add to the difficulty of college social and academic life. We want every student to have the same opportunities to enjoy the Sewanee experience,” Shackelford emphasized.

The large participation in Greek life on campus also causes social difficulties for students. The task force does not, by any means, condemn the Greek system but recognizes that most social life on campus exists within this environment and calls the Greek to reshape campus climate. The administration has paid special attention the recommendations concerning sexual misconduct. McCardell has already accepted the task force’s recommendations to hire a full-time professional health educator and to designate a crisis intervention counselor who will act as part of a 24/7 response team. Though problems of sexual misconduct often arise alongside alcohol, the task force emphasizes that these events originate separately and strongly emphasizes the importance of change from within.

Vice-Chancellor McCardell explains that those issues “are not simply gender issues; they are not ‘women’s issues’ or ‘men’s issues.’ Nor are they only Greek issues, limited to fraternities or sororities. Indeed, they are not entirely student issues. They are not best or most effectively addressed by simply hiring someone to take care of them. Nor are they best resolved by changing rules or procedures or adding more pages to our handbook. No. What I am talking about is something far more fundamental and far more pervasive. What I am talking about is respect.” One way to catalyze this change is through a student-enforced Community Code that would mirror the Honor Code but pertain to social behavior.

The task force also challenges the University to diversify student activities, so that social life is not restricted to the Greek scene. This change might mean implementing intramural sports activities or reforming administrative policy to allow sanctioned parties in theme houses; it might also mean creating a new community gathering space, such as a University Commons. The administration has already committed to cultivating a budget for campuswide activities dubbed Cornerstone Projects, which would develop personal relationships and help alleviate gender segregation on campus.

Whether the annual picnic on the Quad, a Slam Dunk Barbecue, or a boat-building project for Haiti, project activities should reinforce the sense of community between students and faculty.Sewanee is a special place; whether for its natural beauty, academic nourishment, or simply the “passing hello.” For it to remain special, its members must combat anything that undermines its special quality. John McCardell explains, “a less self-confident community, or a community divided against itself, would have been less thorough in its efforts and less bold in its conclusions. It is a measure of the health and vitality of the Sewanee community, that this report has been brought forth. It now falls to all of us to digest its findings and work together for the greater good of our University.”