On Diversity, Inclusion and Equity at Whitman

This article was authored by President George Bridges for issue four of the spring semester. It was published on Feb. 19, 2015.

On Monday, Feb. 16, many students, faculty and staff gathered in the amphitheater to reflect on and express their outrage at the tragic death of Pasco resident Antonio Zambrano-Montes. I was inspired by the thoughtful remarks of our students about the pervasiveness of racial and ethnic bias and violence targeting minorities in our society.

Whitman students, like those around the country at many other institutions, are gathering to grieve and protest, and also to try to make sense of why events like the death of Mr. Zambrano-Montes occur. We know that racial, ethnic, religious, gender and sexual orientation biases (among others) continue to exist. The costs to individuals and communities harmed by such biases and prejudices are real and undeniable. Death may be the most dramatically visible consequence, yet the toll of bias is dispersed and felt throughout American communities daily, even when the harmful events don’t make the news or attract protestors’ attention.

As we gather to examine violence against racial and ethnic minorities in nearby cities and across the nation, we also must commit ourselves to honest self-reflection closer to home––on the Whitman Campus.. Do the conversations we have about injustices “elsewhere” simultaneously encourage us to turn an analytical eye on our own community here? As we build solidarity by identifying racial injustices in Pasco or Ferguson, we tend to reinforce our shared beliefs and values. Yet we must also stop and ask: what values do we share in common, and how well do we live them out daily at Whitman? How do I, as a member of this campus community, treat “different” others in daily interactions? In 2005, the Board of Trustees of affirmed that diversity is fundamentally important to the character and mission of Whitman College … that all individuals are valued and respected and that intellectual and personal growth are enriched because of our differences.”I believe each of us––students, faculty and staff members, administrator, and governing board members––is responsible for (a) understanding the meaning of this commitment, and (b) making this affirmation a daily lived reality on the Whitman campus.

I have served as president for nearly 10 years. During this tenure, I have seen how the actions and words of individuals and groups have, at times, undermined the College’s affirmation of, and commitment to, respectful recognition of our differences. Those among us who are underrepresented in the population, in both visible and invisible ways, bear a disproportionate burden of enduring the hurtful consequences of disrespectful or devaluing actions and words by others. Bias-related events have occurred at Whitman — some very public and some quite private – and have caused harm and pain to a segment of our community members. This is unacceptable. It may seem to some that problems of racial and ethnic bias exist only “out there” – in the really bad places where the people die. As the presiding leader here for the last 10 years, I know this is not true.

I deeply regret that these incidents have occurred and continue to occur, often (though not always) due to the indifference or ignorance of their perpetrators. Harm exists even when the hurtful consequences are unintended. If ignorance is a cause, it can and must be remedied; there is simply no excuse for harming others at Whitman. In my tenure, I have articulated the values reflected in the Trustees’ guiding statement, and have used leadership position to support and facilitate educational, discussion-based initiatives such as the Symposia on Race snortly after I arrived at Whitman and now, the student-led the Power and Privilege Symposium. I have also drawn attention to and challenged statements and actions that promote bias and/or defy values of respect for all. I will continue to do so in the months that remain of my time here.

Many people have contributed to addressing these issues over the years, and are involved in ongoing work now underway. Special recognition must go to our students, especially for their leadership,, and concrete accomplishments in renewing our commitment to understanding and valuing others. On Feb 19, 2015 we will enjoy our third year of the Power and Privilege Symposium, a student-inspired, developed and administered initiative. The Symposium is one of many collaborative efforts students have undertaken to promote diverse, inclusive and equitable treatment of individuals and groups at Whitman. Their efforts to align our everyday actions more closely with our stated values create clarity and hope.

I know that Whitman can do more to promote a welcoming climate that embraces and encourages all members of our community. While overt acts of ill will or bigotry may be mercifully rare, nevertheless, as President, I will not be complacent in confronting ignorance and insensitivity. Unintended demeaning remarks and implicitly biased actions hit their mark, regardless of the speaker or actor’s motivation. Whitman must change. And to facilitate constructive change in this direction, I have constituted a college wide council on diversity (Whitman Inclusion, Equity and Diversity) W.I.D.E., co-chaired by Professor Brooke Vick and our Chief Diversity Officer Kazi Joshua.

The Council will launch a climate study of Whitman’s life and culture this semester. Concurrent with the climate study, the council has begun gathering data from institutional reports and consulting with various campus constituents to determine issues that require attention and action. With this information, the Council will create a strategic plan for diversity that will guide Whitman’s work for the next five years under the leadership of President Murray.

Throughout this process, we will remain committed to dialogue, analysis, and building honest understanding. I cannot alleviate the painful effects of bias, insensitivity, and other past harms. However, I am unequivocally committed to promoting an interpersonal and institutional infrastructure at Whitman College, such that each individual has an equal opportunity to work, grow, and learn from one another in a climate of mutual respect and consideration.  I look forward to embarking on this together in the coming months.