Empty Promises: Administrative Action Towards an Equitable Campus Falls Flat

In 1996, multiple racist incidents targeted Asian-American students on campus. As a result, the Tufts Task Force on Race was charged with the goal of examining “the impact of race on the undergraduate community at Tufts.”

The 1997 Task Force on Race was created by a mix of faculty, students, deans, and Group of Six (G6) center directors and was broken into three working groups: Institutional Policy, Campus Life, and Academic Experience.

Task forces are commonplace in universities across the country. They require administration, faculty, and students to work together for a period of a year or more to proactively address ways to increase awareness of an issue and develop ways to fix them. At the end of the collaboration period, task forces produce a report on the issue with a categorized list of recommendations of how the issue can be resolved, via an implementation team. 

In 2011, various student activist groups, such as the Pan Afrikan Alliance, began to protest. They called for an Africana Studies major and for the university to improve its resource allocation for African American students, as well as introduce faculty cultural competency trainings.

In March 2012, Tufts President Anthony Monaco established a Presidential Council on Diversity. In December 2013, the council produced a task report that outlined “new ways to recruit and support exceptional undergraduate, graduate, and professional students who traditionally have not applied to Tufts, and to strengthen the campus climate.” The creation of a Diversity Council was not among one of the requests of the protesters, showing a clear disconnect between the students’ needs and administrative response.

One of the recommendations of the 2013 task report included relocating the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) to the administrative building, Ballou Hall, as a symbolic move to represent the administration’s commitment to the value of the OEO. Another suggested implementing professional development programs to increase faculty understanding of issues of diversity. Both reports recommended financial aid initiatives as the highest priority.

Both task forces largely focus on how Tufts can be more inclusive to attract a broader range of applicants. However much of the progress regarding the recommendations remains stagnant, as the process for implementation lacks transparency and consistent follow-up. 

Aaron Parayno, the Asian American Center (AAC) Director, said for task forces to be effective, there need to be clear goals regarding what the task force hopes to achieve. However, Parayno also said task forces are sometimes used as a tactic to appease students and show a false sense of responsiveness.

Working groups and committees often freeze progress on pressing issues and show a lack of urgency and commitment to follow through.

“Folks in higher education love to create committees and [task] forces sometimes in show, and then there is nothing that comes from them,” Parayno said. “What often happens is that these reports uncover something that does not put the university in good light and instead of confronting those issues, they bury it.”

Instead of wasting resources and time, Parayno stressed the need for “critically conscious leadership” to better the institution. 

Anne Gardulski, the Earth and Ocean Sciences Department Chair, co-chaired the Task Force on Race alongside Michael Powell, the head of the OEO at the time. “Task forces are a necessary first step to get the conversation going, but it needs to be more than this. It should be infused across many levels at the university,” Gardulski said.

Gardulski also said the Task Force on Race had many positive results, including more support for the G6 centers, as well as the implementation of diversity workshops at first-year orientation. However, she noted while educational efforts, such as diversity workshops, have been put in place for students, “educating students about respect for each other” remains the “most daunting” aspect of addressing issues of race and diversity, while providing adequate financial aid and broadening socioeconomic diversity is the most difficult. 

“It’s one thing to have a one-off program, but getting a handle on everyone treating each other with respect, that’s intractable,” Gardulski saids. “You can’t legislate that, it’s hard to educate, there are so many venues for permeable bad behavior.”

Junior and TCU Education Committee Chair Ayden Crosby pushed back on this belief, pointing out how Tufts has had the same curriculum model since the 1930s, with the exception of the addition of the World Civilization requirement in 1986.

“Our curriculum requirements do not adequately address issues of diversity, inclusion, exclusion, marginalization, and the distribution of power in society,” Crosby said. “If Tufts ever wants to live up to its purported goals of diversity and inclusion…it also must create an inclusive and equitable culture.” 

Sophomore Gabe Reyes said due to the lack of basic education about race, students and faculty have insufficient knowledge and language to effectively engage in conversation or action about racial issues. 

“Unless students take classes or attend events specifically aimed at racial literacy, it falls upon students of color to do this labor of educating,” Reyes said.

Crosby and other students are starting a project to push for the addition of a requirement that directly educates students about these topics. While both task forces proposed a distribution requirement based on similar ideas, movement toward this change has been slow due to the political nature of changing a longstanding curriculum. 

“I think it is more important to diversify faculty, and then the education will flow from that,” Gardulski said.

She continued, saying there has been a “great deal of progress” regarding the diversification of faculty. However, in 2013, when the second evaluation of race and diversity came out, only six percent people of color comprised campus faculty. Yet, the surrounding labor market, as noted in the 2011-2012 university Affirmative Action Plan (AAP), was comprised of over 13 percent POC.

Last semester, at least 11 faculty of color left Tufts, out of the total 161 in 2018, highlighting that there are not enough supports in place for the retention aspect of the recommendations. As the report notes, “many [faculty of color] face adversity in overt and subtle forms…on our predominantly white campus.”

Senior Kira Lauring, a Women’s Center intern and member of the Race and Ethnic Studies Student Working Group, said faculty in the Department of Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora (RCD) recently received the Mellon Foundation grant, which was a major part of getting the funding to hire new professors. “That’s a grant they applied for externally, and it’s not Tufts getting money together, and it’s not the trustees asking, ‘How can I raise more money for this?’” Lauring explained. 

She sees it as a larger problem. “It feels like the institutional divestment from professors that teach in race and ethnic studies has left it gutted,” Lauring said, pointing to how faculty of color are the ones raising money to hire more faculty of color. “There’s this circle of profit off of the ideas of diversity Tufts sells and the absence of support and deliberate neglect.”

This neglect manifests in a variety of ways, one of which is the delay in implementation. The 2013 report suggested creating a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) position to guide the process for the implementation of recommendations. However, it was not until 2015, two years after the recommendations were published, that Tufts hired the first CDO, Mark Brimhall-Vargas.

Due to the lack of transparency regarding progress on the report, students continued to protest as their demands were overlooked. In the fall of 2015, student organizers, who identify themselves as the #thethreepercent, outlined a list of demands concerning the treatment of Black students and faculty members. The Three Percent signifies the numerical underrepresentation of Black undergraduate students.

The 2013 Diversity Report said over the next 10 years, Tufts will “demonstrate unprecedented institutional commitment to diversity, inclusion, and cultural competency…by developing robust financial aid.” However, nowhere in the plan are concrete steps listed on how this is to be achieved.

“​Tufts could be more transparent with the student body about diversity efforts they are undertaking and releasing specific timelines that they will follow in order to achieve those diversity efforts,” TCU President and Senior Shannon Lee said. “To increase Black student enrollment rates, Tufts Admissions could release a plan for how they will achieve such a goal.”

The end of this academic year will mark the five-year anniversary of the Three Percent Movement, and despite the demands made by the movement, Black student enrollment rates have not increased significantly. Rather, they’ve seen a raise from 3 to 4.3 percent in Fall 2018. 

Change in CDO leadership likely hindered progress. In 2017, Brimhall-Vargas left to assume a new role at Brandeis University, where he said in an interview with The Tufts Daily, he “will have more direct control over systemic responses to student needs.” He was succeeded by Amy Freeman later that year. 

In 2018, Freeman left to return to Pennsylvania for family-related reasons. The role was then split between existing faculty members Rob Mack and Joyce Sackey, who fulfilled the responsibilities of CDO on the Medford/SMFA campuses and the Health Sciences campuses, respectively. Once in their new roles, their first priority was to evaluate the progress of the report recommendations by each school.

“Tufts has a lot of work it needs to do to reach the point that we’d like to see it at, but the administration has made substantive strides to making campus more inclusive and to give resources to marginalized students,” Lee said.

Tufts’s peer institutions have developed various approaches to address diversity on campus. Middlebury College also has a CDO, as well as a Director of Education for Equity and Inclusion. This academic year, Middlebury began offering a “Black Studies” major, following an 89-page report containing a set of “actionable recommendations” that will serve as cornerstones of a strategic three-to-five year plan to improve campus equity. 

Tufts is also making changes. A newly formed CDO Cabinet will incorporate Assistant/Associate Deans for Diversity and Inclusion (ADDIs), who are to be formally hired by the end of this current semester. This refined structure, according to Mack, “will ensure increased communication…and encourage collaboration in diversity and inclusion efforts.” 

Nandi Bynoe started her role as one of the ADDIs in August to give the G6 more support. 

In addition, the G6 is now under the purview of School of Arts and Sciences Dean James Glaser and School of Engineering Dean Jianmin Qu’s office to provide each more financial and institutional support. Putting the G6 under the Deans means that each center will be staffed with a director and an additional staff member. The hiring for the latter is ongoing. 

Parayno says Tufts has supported the AAC in many ways, and points out that it is one of roughly 45 stand-alone Asian American centers in the nation. However, he believes there are ways in which the university can better support the AAC, and the Asian American community as a whole. 

“All work to support Asian American students and other students with marginalized identities cannot be the work of the Group of Six Centers, and Dean Bynoe alone,” Parayano says. He also notes the AAC and other identity based centers’ unique situation, as they are there to advocate for the needs of the students, yet are also part of the administration. 

“In many ways it can feel like we are fighting with ourselves,” he says. “The students who are a part of the Asian American community are Tufts students; it is the work of the entire university to ensure they are supported.”

While the administration has expressed the need to recruit students “from racially/ethnically and socioeconomically diverse backgrounds,” the task report does not include how Tufts intends to support those students once they arrive.

In addition, the language of the reports itself is intentionally vague. It can appease many different perspectives, meanwhile sidestepping the actual issues at hand. 

“Universities…do a great job of co-opting terms, watering them down and having them deviate from the intended meaning,” Parayno says, referencing how institutions often fail to center race as an issue, and in turn avoid meaningful institutional changes. 

Lee echoed the need for the university to be more specific when creating recommendations and following through with the process for implementation.

She suggested making implicit bias and cultural competency training mandatory for pre-major advisors and all faculty so they are equipped to support students with marginalized identities.

“Ensuring that we raise the enrollment rates of Black and Brown students would be critical in transforming the makeup of Tufts,” Lee said. “However, we also must ensure that when those students get here we have the systems in place to support them.”

When resources and genuine supports for students of color continue to fall short, task forces merely show performative displays of concern for diversity by the administration.

“Scarcity is the name of the game in resources for supporting marginalized students,” Lauring says. “I think it’s a critical moment for students to come together and fight for real changes concerning race and monetary distribution.”

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