By Tess Steele
Following initiatives of faculty, administrators, and students, Dr. John Swallow (C’89), University Provost, recently released the March 2017 Update on Diversity, Inclusion, and Cohesion at Sewanee, acknowledging progress as well as anticipated changes that are making the University of the South a welcoming environment for students of all backgrounds and beliefs.
One such initiative is the updated orientation program of the college. In the spring of 2016, Dean of the College Terry Papillon and Dean of Students Marichal Gentry (C’86) selected Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me as the orientation book for incoming freshmen. The politically charged text provides an account of the realities of racism and inequality that African Americans face in the United States. This encouraged meaningful, relevant conversation amongst students and faculty at orientation following the Black Lives Matter movement and other campaigns for equality and social justice.
“The conversations will be difficult. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them, but we need to understand how to have them well,” said Swallow. To ensure that both students and faculty successfully and critically had these conversations, the University instructed faculty about how to conduct these conversations, challenge ideas, and foster an inclusive, intentional environment celebrating and contextualizing the diversity of experience.
This orientation program launched a year of events related to diversity and inclusion, transforming the discussions during orientation into community conversations through academic and non-academic platforms.
Curricula developments discussing race, religion, class, and other polarizing topics are interdisciplinary in scope. Senior Associate Director of Civic Engagement Nicky Hamilton and Professor of Politics Paige Schneider will teach a course entitled Intergroup Dialogue: Race and Class next semester.
To develop a richer understanding of the complicated history of the American South, as well as a deeper and more honest knowledge of Sewanee’s intimate relation with slavery and the Confederacy, Professor of History Woody Register (C’80), in collaboration with Tanner Potts (C’15) and various students and faculty, is undertaking the Sewanee Slavery Project. Similar projects have been completed by other reputable universities, yet Sewanee’s unique emphasis on school tradition and history makes the school an exceptionally intriguing institution for such research.
The Sewanee Slavery Study is not a purely academic enterprise and consists of three components: scholarly research on Sewanee and slavery, development of University curriculum to reflect this research, and civic engagement to incorporate an understanding of slavery, race, and the legacy of Jim Crow laws outside the classroom.
“[African American history] is not a subset of American history. It is not a lesser quality. It is not a ‘bump in the road’ of American life. It is the road,” said Register, referencing Coate’s statement that slavery is not a bump in the road in American history, but rather the foundation of all American history. The Sewanee Slavery Study is distinct in its focus on slavery, slavery’s legacy, and race from a historical and community perspective.
“We must investigate question of justice, not just truth but justice, especially if we want to fulfil our aspirations to be an inclusive university and to fulfil our aspiration to be a University of the 21st century South,” said Register.
Even in its budding stage, the Sewanee Slavery Study has shaped Professor of Philosophy Mark Hopwood’s Political Philosophy seminar, where the final third of the course investigates Sewanee’s history of slavery though a uniquely philosophical lens.
“I knew that I wanted the class to be a community engagement class before I knew exactly what we would be focusing on,” shared Hopwood. Following conversations with Jim Peterman and Nicky Hamilton, both of the Civic Engagement Office, as well as Professor of Politics Adam Dahl, Hopwood incorporated a study of slavery at Sewanee into the curriculum.
“In general, political philosophy has such important implications in the real world, but if I am teaching political philosophy I want students to have the opportunity to investigate these connections with real philosophical theory,” said Hopwood. Combining theory with history reveals how practicality complicates seemingly straightforward issues, challenging students to turn away from abstraction in favor of the tangible. Hopwood’s class will contribute to the Sewanee Slavery Study by asking fundamental questions of justice, opening up questions and concerns that future investigations can grapple with.
Another facet of diversity is the widening socioeconomic statuses amongst students. Twenty percent of students are Pell Grant eligible, and while this may not be visibly observable diversity, this is a serious accomplishment towards becoming a university for all students. Another less observable change includes the school bringing food services in house, integrating university employees with campus life directly through university benefits.
Student-led efforts have had schoolwide effects on inclusion. Nora Viñas (C’17) created the Latinx Initiative, an organization reaching out to Spanish-speaking students and their families. Following the presidential election, Viñas was left frustrated and scared. “A blindfold came off, and I had to confront the Latino experience uniquely,” shared Viñas. To help fellow Latinx students feel included, safe, and important, the Latinx Initiative provides a platform for these discussions while acknowledging the distinct position of being Latinx at Sewanee.
Viñas took full advantage of the accessibility students have to the administration, meeting with various deans, the Provost, and professors to turn her frustration and passion into meaningful, visible change on campus. The project evolved into an independent study with Professor Schneider, where Viñas reached out to fellow Latinx students, collecting concerns and hopes these individuals had for the university. These strides towards inclusivity will manifest in an alternative 2017 Commencement bulletin in Spanish.
“People wait for permission, but students should just go ahead and get started rather than waiting for someone else to do something. There is a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm on this campus,” encouraged Swallow.