Students Speak Out on Global Studies

Lane Barton

Over 300 students have signed an open letter calling for the reconsideration of the suspension of the Global Studies Initiative. ASWC also held a hearing on Global Studies and passed a resolution in favor of the Initiative and called on the college to address concerns about transparency, student involvement and commitment to students and faculty of color.

As it stands, there will be a director for Global Studies with one course release per semester to assist with an external review of the program, but all other course releases and the fall faculty development seminar will not be provided in the 2016-17 academic year. This compromise is an adjustment from the initial position that all course releases were off the table in 2016-17 and also leaves room for reevaluation of course releases after the external review period.

The first method of student engagement on this issue came in the form of an open letter in support of Global Studies that was circulated to a variety student listservs on Oct. 25. The letter was spearheaded by senior Lorah Steichen and junior Mona Law, who after consulting with fellow members of student group Divest Whitman produced a brief letter with space for students to type signatures or personal testimonials in support of Global Studies.

“[W]e came to the conclusion that creating some sort of space where students could stand in solidarity with faculty is important, because we heard a lot of discussions among students…but neither of us knew if there was some sort of organized effort besides an ASWC response. So I think we really wanted to create space for student voices in the discussion,” Steichen said.

The letter has gathered over 300 signatures and includes over a dozen individual statements on the importance of Global Studies. Students express concerns about the fact that administrators  use students as justification for taking away a program that benefits students.

“It’s problematic for me when the argument from the administration is that [Global Studies is] taking away from students because it brings faculty out of the classroom, but I think that it really does provide a lot for students in direct and indirect ways,” said junior Drew Edmonds, a signee of the open letter. “I think having…interdisciplinary interactions facilitates a lot of learning for faculty and brings a unique perspective to the classroom that students really benefit from.”

Students also believe that aspects of the Initiative that support faculty development consequently bolsters student learning in the long run.

“Students…benefit so much from a faculty body that is intellectually engaged with each other and excited to create new innovative classes, innovative programs and [bring] all this material into conversation with each other,” said senior Josh Rubenstein, a signee of the open letter.

Moreover, some students signed the letter to express their belief in the importance of global perspectives, something that the Initiative emphasizes and the college expresses as a value in their mission statement.

“I know that in Whitman’s mission statement today they outwardly…talk about how they present things from a multicultural angle and they seem to be  quite proud of advertising that and I want to make sure that [multiculturalism] actually stays in as a value rather than just a professed value,” said senior Tommy Breeze, a signee of the open letter.

The variety of opinions and large volume of public support that has come with this letter is a factor that Steichen and Law hope will influence the administration to change their stance. They presented the letter and additional testimonies to Provost Pat Spencer on Oct. 30 to demonstrate the level of student backing behind Global Studies.

While the letter was one forum for students to express their opinions on Global Studies, they were also provided an opportunity to speak their minds at an ASWC hearing on Oct. 29. Attendees expressed concern at the lack of transparency with which the decision was made and the detrimental effects to faculty and students of color that benefited from aspects of the programs were cited by multiple students.

“The point of the hearing was to solicit student feedback in a really concrete way. We’d seen the open letter but we also wanted to have a space for students to come and express different opinions that the open letter might not have reflected or nuances that were not necessarily in the open letter, although that was clearly a significant gauge of student opinion on the Global Studies Initiative,” said Percival. “But we wanted to provide the additional space for student voices before we went ahead and wrote a resolution that was speaking on behalf of students.”

After listening to student input and reviewing a variety of other factors, ASWC wrote and unanimously approved a resolution in support of Global Studies during the ASWC Senate meeting on Nov. 1.

“Ultimately I think there’s a few major things that [the resolution] asks for. It kind of generally expresses support for the Global Studies Initiative and urges the college to come to a redesigned program that can continue the [faculty development] seminar. So we ended up taking a stance that was very much pro-seminar in addition to being pro-program in general,” said ASWC Vice President Arthur Shemitz.

The resolution also includes some other important points beyond their thoughts on the Global Studies Initiative and fall faculty seminar. The resolution “calls upon the College to reaffirm its commitment to students and faculty of color” and asks the administration “to pursue a policy of transparent and inclusive decision-making, involving all stakeholders and interested parties, especially in this pivotal moment in the College’s history.” The college will be undergoing a strategic planning process in the coming year to shape its vision for the future.

The issue of student involvement comes in two key forms, as not only does decisions around campus programs like Global Studies involve students, but students’ ability to speak out and influence decisions is an important value espoused by many students.

“I think this issue in particular is really important to students … but even greater than that students have a lot at stake with decisions that are made and want to be included and involved in those processes and should have every right to be,” said Steichen.