Faculty Senate Holds Emergency Meeting, Releases Letter to Community

Published: November 2, 2012

Megan Patoskie

Faculty Senate held an emergency meeting last Monday, Oct. 22 to address the inconsistent faculty awareness of the events questioning diversity on campus. The meeting, in addition to addressing a student email asking faculty to become more involved, resulted in a formal letter to the Simon’s Rock Community on behalf of the faculty.

“We thought it warranted a response,” Wendy Shifrin, Chair of Faculty Senate and Professor of Dance and Women’s Studies, said. “A lot of the faculty didn’t even know what was going on… That was a cause of consternation because [faculty] felt that if it is so important to the students, why don’t we know it is going on?”

Going home at the end of the day is one of the main reasons that some faculty believe they were less cognizant of the magnitude of student disturbance.

“It was clear at the meeting that many faculty were not aware of how stressful the situation was for a lot of the students because no one had spoken with them, and they don’t live here,” an anonymous faculty member said. “The campus environment for the students is a very different thing from the sort of everyday environments inhabited by most of the faculty.”

While some faculty were overwhelmed by the number of students asking for assistance, other faculty knew nothing of the events. Shifrin called the meeting to discuss this uneven distribution amongst faculty and submit a formal response to the students.

One of the reasons why the meeting occurred more than a month after the first documented event in September was due to faculty uncertainty of addressing students apart from the administration.

“When faculty see that there has been an official statement, then they think that they shouldn’t intervene by making public statements that might be contradictory to the sort of official statement that’s already been put out there,” the anonymous faculty member said. “We’re so small, we don’t think necessarily that the administration’s response is that separate from the faculty response…. [but] other times we have to make a boundary. It was a situation where faculty felt like we needed to take things into our own hands.”

Because the events on campus are handled confidentially by the Anti-Harassment and Anti-Discrimination Committee (AHADC), faculty have very limited information regarding the events.

“We can’t ask people on the [AHADC] any questions, and they can’t reveal anything,” the anonymous faculty member said. “It’s a really important committee that involves faculty, staff, and students, and they work together extremely well. It’s a highly regarded committee, and I think faculty have a lot of respect for it. It’s not our place to make a bunch of statements as individuals.”

The Faculty Senate drafted a letter to the Simon’s Rock community, submitted it to all faculty for revision, and then voted on its release.

“I think there’s certainly concern that students have felt that faculty have sort of just stood back or stood aside for so long,” the anonymous faculty member said. “That’s a real problem. I hope that the letter isn’t read as us washing out hands of the problem by way of a proclamation because that’s not the goal. It’s more of an invitation to engage more fully and deeply. It’s a call to have robust conversations on race and diversity and discrimination and our feelings about otherness and community and what it means to be an inclusive community.”

The faculty senate meeting was one example of the encouraged discourse.

“It brought up a lot of really important issues, how we talk to each other, how we tolerate difference,” Shifrin said. “What do you do with in a liberal arts setting? We don’t think you should shut somebody down just because they have an opinion that isn’t popular, but what do you do with the anger felt by people who are genuinely insulted or worse than insulted, made fearful?”

The faculty intended for the letter to help students feel safer, especially in expressing their own opinions.

“I think that one of our interests in writing the letter was to cultivate an atmosphere where people aren’t afraid to feel and think and talk freely about issues that affect us and that we live everyday,” the anonymous faculty member said.

The anonymous faculty member wants to emphasize that the letter is no way a closing, but rather a reopening for the community. It is a renewal of the faculty commitments to students.

“We really need to talk as a community,” the anonymous faculty member said. “We need to talk, and we need to listen. We need to learn how to listen and be respectful. We need more compassion and wisdom. So how can we collectively work for more passionate compassion and more wisdom? I think it has to be a group effort. We very much need students to interact with us and be honest.”

As such, faculty do not wish for the letter to be viewed as a solution to a problem. Rather, it is meant to be a continuation of other institutions to address diversity on campus, including but not limited to student organizations and Diversity Day.

“I think we need to continue Diversity Day, but I also think that we need some spontaneity,” the anonymous faculty member said. “Anytime you create something that looks like a tradition, it can seem not spontaneous and not as dynamic as more spontaneous events.”

Shifrin agrees and wants to emphasize that the letter in no way is meant to silence a problem.

“The faculty recognize that [the events] are more symptomatic,” Shifrin said. “There are problems at the school that [the events] point to or exemplify, such as racism and sexism in the classroom that people need to talk about. Most of us don’t consider ourselves racist and sexist, but perhaps inadvertently something happens and we’re insensitive, and a student feels hurt.”

Shifrin hopes that the letter reminds students that they can count on the support of the faculty for a safe, intellectually challenging environment.

“We wanted to support students that felt upset because we wanted them to feel that this is a place that they can feel safe,” Shifrin said. “We were getting reports that some students literally did not feel safe… and that was very upsetting to us.”

While Jacob Fossum, Professor in the Arts, notes that many Simon’s Rock students are at an age where they may want to react to the events quickly or even forcibly, he believes that the letter does not cater to a mob mentality.

On the other hand, Wendy Shifrin is surprised at the lack of student response and power.

“I think that it’s interesting because students sometimes complain about not having power… when they could take power sometimes,” Shifrin said. “How come the [library sit-in of 2011] was so galvanizing? That’s not even that important compared to this. This is how human beings talk to each other, there’s nothing more important than that. I’m not belittling [the sit-in], but those people were really organized. I was impressed, and it had effect. I think students could take more power.”

Fossum believes that events that shake things up on any college campus can be eventually good for the school.

“It refocuses and brings people together to refocus on the mission of the school,” Fossum said. “I hope something positive can come out of this experience.”

Students are encouraged to attend the next community meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 7 to discuss the recent events and the future goals to address them.

View the Faculty letter to the community below:

To the Simon’s Rock Community:
We believe that diversity is a critical component of the intellectual community at Simon’s Rock, and that the College has grown stronger as it has grown more diverse. The life of the College has been enriched intellectually, academically, creatively, and socially by students, faculty, and staff who come from around the country and around the world in search of an environment where honest and open exploration of ideas is encouraged and where respect for all members of the community is expected. We stand firm in our commitment to cultural, religious, ethnic, and social inclusivity and to the principle that everyone should be able to enjoy these freely and without fear of emotional, social, or physical harm.
Expressions of hatred, intolerance, and ignorance are antithetical to the values that define Simon’s Rock – and we stand united against any and all such acts which occur within our community. We are committed to making Simon’s Rock an exemplary academic community, an institution characterized by principles of open-minded investigation of existing knowledge and vigorous exploration of new ways of knowing.
We propose that the next Community Meeting on November 7, 2012 be devoted to a discussion about furthering our goals. It is time to come together to reaffirm our commitment to upholding the kind of inclusive, respectful, and diverse community that we envision for Simon’s Rock. We hope that everyone at Simon’s Rock will attend in order to ensure that all voices will be heard.
Wendy Shifrin
Chair of Faculty Senate
on behalf of the Faculty, Bard College at Simon’s Rock