Inclusion Task Force update: 21 of 31 action items listed with Fall 2020 start date

Abby Main, Staff Reporter

Of the 31 action items published by the Inclusion Task Force created this summer by Whitman President Kathy Murray, 21 are listed with a Fall 2020 start date. As the Whitman community reaches the end of the fall semester, it remains unclear how many action items have been completed.

The task force announced in a June 8 email from Murray was created in response to students’ requests that Whitman make specific commitments towards becoming a more inclusive community.

Thomas Witherspoon, Vice President of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, chaired the task force and described its goals in a video posted to the task force’s website.

“This will be an iterative process that will allow us to grow and evolve as a community,” he said.

While Witherspoon will be leaving Whitman for a new position during the spring semester, the task force’s action items are still in progress. 

Those slated for a Fall 2020 start date include a feasibility study exploring the development of a Black Studies Program, developing and implementing a recruitment strategy “with the goal of reaching domestic Black student representation of 10% in each enrolled class within the next 5 years,” developing a formal faculty recruitment program with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with doctoral programs, “creating and maintaining an internal campus climate webpage” and exploring the addition of a required first-year course focused on race and ethnicity, among other items.

Director of Admissions Adam Miller explained that Whitman’s entire admission team has been working with Witherspoon in developing a new recruitment strategy meant to increase the representation of domestic Black student representation.

“While aspects of this strategy may evolve,” he said, “the key features are in place and already being implemented.”

These features include expanding communications to Black students and increasing Whitman’s outreach to high schools with high percentages of Black students.

“[This] looks like getting to know key staff members, spending a day or two meeting with students individually and in groups, and committing to covering the cost of visiting Whitman for admitted students from these schools and organizations,” Miller said. “Our hope is that this deep investment in building relationships helps create strong connections that lead to cohorts of students choosing Whitman together.”

While Miller cannot predict whether this shift in strategy will have immediate impacts on the fall admission cycle, he is happy with the college’s commitment to taking these concrete steps.

“I know Whitman students and alumni will be paying attention,” Miller said. “Whitman’s leadership, from the Board to President Murray to the Cabinet, have made it clear that making real progress in this area is a priority, so I think accountability will come from all sides.”

Miller’s expectation of accountability mirrors a sentiment expressed by Chair of the Faculty Barry Balof in an interview about the task force in September.

“One of the tenets of a good strategic plan is that the community is regularly updated as to the progress being made on these [action items],” Balof said.

Noting that “robust communication is built-in accountability,” Balof said, “the hope is that communication can continue to be strong.”

The Wire reached out to Witherspoon and the Office for Diversity and Inclusion with questions about progress on action items such as developing a faculty recruitment program with HBCUs and creating a campus climate webpage and did not receive a response. 

Similarly, when asked to speak on the campus climate webpage, Dean of Students Kazi Joshua responded that he was unsure that the Office of the Dean of Students was a lead on the action item and ultimately did not answer questions from The Wire. The task force’s report, however, lists both his office and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion as action leads on the webpage’s development which was slated to begin this semester.

The Office of the Dean of Students is also listed as an action lead on hosting three town hall meetings per year to, among other things, “share about progress made on diversity and inclusion initiatives and create the opportunity for students to ask questions and provide input on strategy.” While Joshua did not respond to a question on the subject, it appears that despite having a Fall 2020 start date, these meetings have yet to occur this school year.

In a September interview, director of the Intercultural Center Laura Sanchez outlined her wishes for the task force’s action items.

The hope that it brings me is that there is action and there is transparency,” Sanchez said. “There’s accountability because of that transparency.”

Sanchez described efforts to track progress on these action items in an email to The Wire.

“Every office or department that has action items are asked to provide monthly updates, and it has been the Office of Diversity and Inclusion that has managed the requests and information,” she said.