Administration reacts to student-led protests for change in racial equality

Annie Deitz, Campus Carrier managing editor

Over the last few weeks, students have been participating in ongoing protests relating to racial injustice and diversity, equity and inclusion at Berry. Several of these demonstrations, many of which occurred during Mountain Day activities last week, called upon Berry administrators to act on some of the issues those involved experience on campus. 

While administrators do not necessarily like that these protests are occuring, Dean of Students Lindsey Taylor explained that the actions students are taking is heartening for the Berry community. 

“As the Dean of Students, do I want protests on campus?” Taylor said. “Probably not. When students are passionate enough to protest, to advocate for change and improving the experiences of other students, that’s always encouraging to see. In that respect, is it difficult, for sure, does it mean our students care? It does, and that’s good. You want people to care about the community that they’re a part of.”

These demonstrations began shortly after the President’s Office, through their weekly COVID-19 update email on Oct. 5, announced that the Residence Life staff member under investigation for social media usage occurring on Sept. 13, had ended. As a result, the employee had been moved to a position in the Student Enterprises Office.

Currently, Berry faculty and staff guidelines have no regulations on social media usage. Briggs explains that the administration is further considering revising this, as they would do whenever a similar staff issue. However, he stresses that it is important that any institution protects freedom of speech and expression.

“We’re always looking for things we can do better as we go through an investigation,” Briggs said. “One issue that we have thought about and will continue to think about is, do we need to have certain kinds of restricted speech? Or reverse, a freedom of expression policy, because those kind of go hand in hand. So I think our general principle is that people should have the opportunity to exercise freedom of speech. So, social media policy would begin with a notion that we allow people to engage, and the next question is would there be any restrictions.”

According to Taylor, administrators have been in contact with the students leading the demonstrations. Conversations with students, alumni and other Berry community members began over the summer, but now administrators are meeting with student leaders over this topic specifically. Taylor hopes that while discussions of the staff related incident occur, students begin to think about taking next steps and discussing issues of diversity and inclusion at Berry as a whole. She explains that communication on this issue is just beginning. 

“We’re at the starting point of those conversations, and we’re not anywhere near the end of those conversations,” Taylor said.

While both Taylor and Briggs hope to be able to work with students to solve some of the issues at hand, Briggs stated that the sort of major changes desired may take time. In order to operate and effectively alter the rules of an institution like Berry, administrators and students alike have to work through existing channels. Briggs explains that he specifically, as the President of Berry, has to follow procedures that could take time. 

“As the President of a College, you can’t just do whatever you want,” Briggs said. “You have to operate in a way that’s responsible with the role. You have to protect all the communities in the college, and the rights and freedoms that we all have. Sometimes that means we can’t respond that quickly, or as quickly as people like.”

One specific request made by the student demonstrators is that Berry administrators hire a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO). 

“Bigger picture, we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Briggs said. “We are operating with lots of additional economic stresses. In general, we are trying to be good stewards and be careful with our operating dollars and using them to keep the campus going in the way we all want. We’ve had to dedicate resources to testing, mitigation strategies, holding classes in person and remotely as needed so we are not filling all of our open lines. It’s not a moment when we’re adding lines to the institution generally.”

While the administration may not be looking to hire a CDO at this time, Briggs explained that they still want to work to accomplish some of the things that students expect to come along with that position. Briggs explained that the administration wants to continue working to look for areas where they can build upon the work already being done, in areas like the student body, financial aid, or for example, hiring. 

“We’re much more interested in looking at what specific things they’re trying to accomplish, and then we can see what we can do about it,” Briggs said. “There’s some things that I think that we agree on, someone said that we would like to see more faculty members of color over time, for a number of years now. And we have made some progress. Within our professional staff as well. As positions come open, we’ve made a concerted effort to find great candidates, and especially to find great candidates of color to fill in some of those roles.”

According to Provost Mary Boyd, perhaps the most major responsibility of a CDO would be to diversify the hiring process in hopes of getting more faculty and staff members of color at Berry. Boyd explains that she oversees processes to do this already, but understands this could potentially be expanded.

“We already use proactive recruitment practices, so that involves a number of things,” Boyd said. “It’s creating and posting the ad, and using inclusive language in the ad, and then asking. the candidate to tell us about their experience in equity and inclusion and how they would continue to do that going forward. We make sure that search committees are trained on how to review job applications and look for potential bias, in gendered language, or language that indicates a racial or ethnic bias. Then ensuring that the candidate’s response to questions of equity, diversity, and inclusion are valued highly in deciding which candidates to bring on campus. We also have candidates meet with students, and we will be ensuring that all candidates are meeting with a wide array of students this year.”

When thinking of general isolation or uncomfort that a student of color, or anyone in the minority might feel, administrators urged students to be proactive in seeking help in the existing sources present at Berry. Taylor explained that the school wants to give students the resources to feel more comfortable, and that mainly comes with students expressing their individual concerns.

“Students who may feel isolated or maybe even feel like they haven’t found their place, that’s at the core of what we’re doing,” Taylor said. “We’re trying to create a community where people belong. So if people are struggling with that, it doesn’t help when we learn about these things after the fact. So we have people in place strategically all around students to help give them someone to talk to.”

Boyd explained that the demonstrations, especially those occurring at the Mountain Day events, serve as a reminder that all community members should strive to make Berry a better place. On Saturday, David Slade, associate provost, hosted a lecture on the history of Mountain Day. Boyd references a quote from his lecture, which she sees to fit the ongoing situation well.

“The Mountain Day we saw today is not the same Mountain Day it was,” Boyd said. “Near the end, he said ‘Mountain Day is a moment when we can remember the best of Berry we have been, and cast forward to the Berry that we want to be.’ And I thought that really summed up so much of the work that we are doing, that we are taking everything that is good about Berry and looking forward to seeing how we can make that better. To see how we can work together, and identify where the issues of concern are and how we can address those.”

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