“Words are Wind, Deeds are Stone”: The Disconnect Between DEIJ Efforts and Student Needs
Following protests in response to George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, President Tony Monaco joined thousands of other universities across the country in condemning acts of racism in a message to Tufts University. In a statement released after the university’s first observation of Juneteenth in 2020, President Monaco announced Tufts’ commitment to becoming an anti-racist institution. Since the commitment to “eradicate any structural racism” and prioritize creating a representative community in 2020, Tufts has launched several anti-racist initiatives that have been praised by senior leadership as significant steps. However, many members of the Tufts community, specifically marginalized students who are most greatly impacted by institutional and cultural racism, continue to voice that widespread anti-racist reform has been inadequate across the university.
The Campus Climate Survey, conducted during February and March of 2022, reflects these sentiments. The survey report, released on January 23, 2023, emphasizes that the survey results—which received responses from only 29 percent of all Tufts students, faculty, and staff—may not be representative of the opinions of the Tufts campus population overall.
According to the results, students of historically underrepresented racial, ethnic, and gender identities were disproportionately dissatisfied with Tufts’ campus climate. Further, these marginalized communities demonstrated a diminished sense of inclusion and belonging and experienced bias, harassment, and discrimination more frequently than their peers. As a result, Tufts has committed to developing an actionable plan in order to address the survey results.
In April 2023, Monroe France will fill the newly created position of Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ). According to a written statement to the Tufts Observer from Caroline Genco, the provost and senior vice president ad interim of Tufts, “An important step in advancing [DEIJ] work is partnering with University Communications & Marketing to develop a DEIJ communications strategy,” which Monroe will help to implement. Genco went on to explain that the survey’s purpose is to open up more channels of communication about DEIJ issues across the university. “We know communication is critical,” Genco wrote. “We want to foster constructive and interactive dialogue that will help us meet our shared goals.” The administration plans to continue communicating their initiatives to the Tufts community in the coming months. Regarding next steps, Genco said Tufts will be “engaging the community to identify the targeted actions that we need to take to improve the campus climate. Following this engagement, we’ll develop an implementation plan and timeline.”
Hope Freeman, the senior director of the Women’s Center and LGBT Center, emphasized that, while only a small percentage of students took the survey, the results still reveal an unsurprising depiction of how marginalized students feel at Tufts. “Every other year there’s always a new diversity check or a new climate survey. But the results are always the same. We’re still not feeling seen, not feeling safe, not feeling supported,” Freeman said.
While the Provost’s office claims this past survey was Tufts’ “first university-wide DEI Campus Climate Survey,” Tufts has received previous feedback that its attempts to foster an inclusive and equitable campus have been inadequate. According to a 2013 report from the Council on Diversity, “Data gathered indicate that students from historically marginalized groups disproportionately experience marginalization in and outside of the classroom and also experience incidents of bias on our campus.” Looking back even further, a 1997 report from the Task Force on Race highlighted, “Students of color have said that they often feel they are ‘guests’ at this institution rather than an integral, vital part.”
These past reports presented institutional recommendations to senior leadership to reduce inequality and discrimination at Tufts. The most recent DEIJ Strategic Plan released by the School of Arts and Sciences in May 2021 echoed similar ideas to both the 2013 and 1997 reports. Some initiatives from these past reports have been successfully implemented, such as the creation of the Chief Diversity Officer and Associate or Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion (ADDI) administrative roles, increased investment in financial aid, and the establishment of an Indigenous Center in 2022. According to Genco, “The schools are all individually also making investments into DEIJ programming, focusing on faculty recruitment, ADDIs (Associate or Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion), and academic programs and trainings, such as implicit bias training, for their communities.”
However, many of the recommendations from 2021 and earlier have yet to be carried out. An example of this is the initiative, outlined in the May 2021 Strategic Plan, to “compensate students who assume [DEIJ] roles and responsibilities at the school’s or department’s request.” According to the plan, the School of Arts and Sciences intended to realize this from 2021 to 2022. When asked about the May 2021 commitment to compensate and award students doing DEIJ work, Director of Media Relations Patrick Collins forwarded a statement from the School of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering that read, “As it pertains to DEIJ service activities performed for the university and/or specific schools, our policy is not to pay students because the effort is an act of service. However, if there are opportunities for students to be employed and work on DEIJ efforts, then they will be compensated.” Currently, graduate students within the GSAS Community Fellows and the Graduate Leadership in Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (GLIDE) Fellows programs and researchers within the School of Engineering’s Data Analysis for DEIJ Action team are compensated; but many other community members outside of these programs continue to engage in unpaid DEIJ work.
Another important recommendation that has yet to be fully realized is the allocation of adequate funds and staffing for the Division of Student Diversity and Inclusion centers. In the 1997 report, Tufts community members articulated a need to remedy a historical pattern of underfunding and understaffing identity centers. “A statement of understanding that is contradicted by a lack of support demonstrates a lack of priority for these students’ needs and concerns, [and] staff should be added to help the single staff assistant that serves five of the Centers,” the report stated.
Since 1997, community members have continually expressed that more resources and personnel are needed for the DSDI centers. Freeman, for example, mentioned that, for the majority of her time on campus as the LGBT Center Director, she was the only staff member. Originally hired as the director of the LGBT Center in 2017, she ended up volunteering to also head the Women’s Center less than a year later. After working with the previous Women’s Center director to transform both of the spaces to be more inclusive of students of color and trans students—as both centers were historically, “very cis, very white, and very upper class”—Freeman didn’t want the trajectory of the Women’s Center to regress.
“[My interim position] was only supposed to be six months. It turned into about three years,” Freeman said. It wasn’t until September 2022 that Freeman was officially recognized as the senior director of the Women’s Center.
An anonymous intern at the Asian American Center said that, although Asian-identifying students comprise around 20 percent of the Tufts community—and they feel the university often touts this high percentage to promote the school’s image—the center is not equipped with enough resources to support those students. “There’s a lot of things that we could focus more on, but we don’t necessarily have the funding or ability to [expand support for students],” they said. “The only reason why I feel like I’m a part of a campus or community on this campus is because of the center.”
While working to implement changes within her DSDI centers, Freeman noted how challenging it was to advocate for herself and her students. “We’ve been doing a lot of kicking and screaming [to receive sufficient funding and staff members],” Freeman said. “If I were to look at other job descriptions and things like that across other universities, I would technically be in a dean position, right? Especially given all the breadth of the population of students that I’m supporting.”
Marvin Casasola, director of the Latinx Center, also expressed that DSDI directors are often overburdened in carrying out the institution’s DEIJ work. “I’m doing work here that’s already outside of the director’s job description,” he said. “We should be utilized for our expertise, meaning we’re not going to sit here and do the entire thing for the whole institution, but we expect to provide valuable input because our voices belong in the conversation,” said Casasola.
Junior Wanci Nana said that students who frequent DSDI centers have noticed their scarce resources. When speaking on his experience coordinating events for the Black Men’s Group, an organization run through the Africana Center, he mentioned that through conversations with alumni it was evident that underfunding has always been an issue. Nana said many alumni have told him things like, “‘we never had enough money for this’ or ‘Tufts didn’t let us do this.’” Nana underscored that, even though students and directors often petition upper administrators for more resources, the money has never followed. “It’s a broken record,” he said. According to Genco, “The university has committed to doubling its investment in its anti-racist work, from $25 million to $50 million over five years.” Some community members have reservations about where these investments will go. Freeman touched on an ongoing issue with administrative budgeting decisions, stating, “There’s a lot of gatekeeping around what’s important programming, what’s important work, what’s worth this money?”
According to Freeman, one reason marginalized communities have not experienced a structural or cultural shift, despite the initiatives that Tufts has worked on, is because students of color and the directors of DSDI centers are treated as an afterthought. “We’re interacting with students all the time, especially the folks within the DSDI program. So it’s disheartening [to work in] a very hierarchical place where we get the top down direction, but there’s no room for bottom up direction,” she said. This sentiment also resonated with Casasola.
Genco stated the Campus Climate Survey was created “as a tool that would inform and further our anti-racism commitment.” At the same time, not all DSDI directors—whose expertise lie in advancing DEIJ and advocating for marginalized students—were consulted during the development of the survey. Casasola said, “I personally was not involved in how that survey was going to be developed. No one ever reached out to me directly to say, ‘Hey, Marvin, we’d love your input as to what questions we should ask [and] how we should release the survey.’” Freeman also expressed she was not consulted for the development of the survey.
Beyond this, some community members view Tufts’ messaging around anti-racist initiatives—and even in the case of the Campus Climate Survey—as unclear at best. Nana, when asked his opinions on Tufts’ responses to racism on campus, commented, “It’s definitely a facade… People do appreciate the transparency and knowing what’s happening on campus [but] it’s just kind of copy, paste, copy, paste.”
In regards to what the university decides to comment on, Freeman said, “It’s really glaring around what the university prioritizes and what the university doesn’t prioritize.” Following the international outrage after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, the administration swiftly denounced racism and continued to regularly release public statements regarding national acts of discrimination or injustice. Yet, overtime, these public statements on behalf of the administration have dwindled. “January was rough. And there were numerous Black people who were killed by police. Tyree [Nichols] was murdered by police,” Freeman said. “[And] all the anti-trans legislation, [Florida] is basically erasing black history… and so literally these communities that I support and don’t feel safe in this center are being told nationally that they’re not important.” She continued, “I didn’t see [acknowledgement], and, if I did see something, it would not come from the president’s office.”Feeling an absence of institutional change, Tufts community members continue to support each other. A leader within the Africana Center and co-founder of his own company W3, Nana is working to empower those “who may not necessarily have the resources to develop wealth, practice wellness, and obtain wisdom,” he said. While Nana also noted his involvement within the Black Men’s Group, which has proved to be an invaluable space for him, he questioned the administration’s direction. “What do all of these new initiatives, all of these new administrators…this deep strategic planning, like what do those things look like tangibly for us students?” When it comes to university-wide DEIJ initiatives, he said, “Words are wind, deeds are stone.” Genco acknowledged the frustration that students like Nana are experiencing. “Everyone naturally wants to move more quickly and to see change take effect more rapidly,” and that “we’ve made strides already, but we recognize that much more needs to be done and that our communication needs to improve.” Despite the administration’s continuous DEIJ efforts, it is from DSDI spaces that marginalized students feel real change is happening. As explained by Casasola, those within DSDI are “trying to lead an entire institution in a direction grounded on the depth of our work and what is best for our students and communities, while the institution itself is going in separate directions.” Freeman said that at an institution like Tufts, whose structures are “rooted in white supremacy, rooted in misogyny, rooted in racism,” DEIJ “is more than just having a speaker, it’s more than sitting at a table.”