Diversity at Sarah Lawrence
Five Years Later
by Sophia Kelley MFA ’10
A vibrant, inclusive campus doesn’t happen by magic. Fortunately, SLC students, faculty, and staff are committed to cultivating diversity in all forms—and to building a community that’s unafraid of confronting difficult subjects.
In April 2004, reported incidents of ethnic and religious insensitivity on campus prompted Sarah Lawrence to hold a campus wide Teach-In on Racism, Bias, and Exclusion. For an entire day, all classes and normally scheduled activities were cancelled, and students, faculty, and staff discussed a wide range of issues in hopes of fundamentally changing the way the College approaches race and diversity. Now, five years later, the College is looking back at the teach-in to mark its progress. Has the Sarah Lawrence community become more inclusive, open, and understanding?
One of the immediate outcomes of the teach-in was the creation of a new staff position to handle diversity issues. Natalie Gross became the first director of diversity and community engagement in 2005; she supports and advises student groups that focus on identity, including the recently formed groups South-East Asian Organization, Queer People of Color, and Women of Color.
“Originally my job focused solely on race, but now it encompasses a lot more,” Gross says. “Everything I do is open to the whole College community, not just the students.” She works to create a dialogue about diversity of all kinds. “It is about us as a community—shedding light on the issues, breaking them down, and hopefully coming up with solutions,” she says.
Gross has also initiated a yearlong series of events to mark the anniversary of the original teach-in. In “Teach-In: Retrospective, Progress, and Visions for the Future in the Name of Diversity,” faculty and staff speak about issues related to the original teach-in as well as current issues, from the history of anti-Semitism and other forms of bias to how financial aid affects diversity at Sarah Lawrence.
Fostering discussion of difficult issues is only part of the solution, though. “Our goal is to have diversity permeate the entire institution and be celebrated at all levels,” says Mary Porter, associate dean of the College. She and Julie Auster, the director of human resources, spearhead diversity efforts among faculty and staff, respectively.
Gross, Porter, and Auster have put together guidelines for hiring faculty in order to increase diversity. “You have to really think about what diversity means,” Porter says. “It can mean social class, historically underrepresented groups such as black people or women … though at Sarah Lawrence it might be men who are underrepresented.” Even unconventional career backgrounds can play a part in enriching the mix among faculty, she says. The group is now working on similar guidelines for staff hiring.
So what’s the verdict? It’s hard to quantify community change, says Al Green, dean of studies; progress on diversity is about more than just the composition of the student body, faculty, and staff. But he notes that there has not been a recurrence of the type of incidents of insensitivity that spurred the 2004 teach-in. Though there remains much to be done, the sustained willingness of the Sarah Lawrence community to participate in dialogue about diversity throughout all institutional levels is itself a significant accomplishment, he says.