More than a year has passed since Plan 2008 came to a close in the University of Wisconsin System, and diversity efforts on campus are seeing a fundamental change as they begin to absorb the expanded concept of diversity “inclusive excellence” calls for.
Amid this enormous shift in ideology, the Associated Students of Madison Diversity Committee is rebuilding itself from the ground up after a period of quiet left it struggling to maintain and define its place on the UW campus.
As of this week, the committee is moving toward a “campaign-style” approach to begin putting its own diversity initiatives to work via the help of students. However, continuing roadblocks such as limited membership, the process of defining clear goals and the number of campus groups needed to collaborate on projects have all impacted Diversity Committee’s progress this semester.
A shaky history
Even just a few years ago, Diversity Committee was a completely different organization.
According to Chair Steve Olikara, the committee was once run similarly to campus groups such as the MultiCultural Student Coalition and other unions geared toward minority students on campus. It offered direct services such as social justice workshops and the procuring of funding for specialized events, but many of these programs overlapped with those provided by student groups and even dormitories.
Like the university at that time, the committee focused primarily on minority-based diversity. However, smaller initiatives at times expanded its regular services to other groups, such as students with disabilities.
From the fall of 2006 to the spring of 2008, a single student named Hannah Buck chaired the committee. After Buck resigned, a number of people ran to take over the position.
ASM had hoped they would find someone to take the position in “a new direction,” according to Olikara, but they never found anyone. Without an elected chair, the committee sat defunct through the summer and into the fall.
During the fall semester of 2008, Olikara said he was urged to run for the position. After meeting “with everyone possible” to get a grasp on the current state of diversity on campus, Olikara ran and was elected to head the committee.
At that time the committee was “nonexistent,” and Olikara said he was faced with the task of building from the ground up.
From November to February, Olikara wiped out the old structure and goals of the committee and started anew.
Still lacking a core group of members, Olikara said the committee began to gain an actual footing after the spring ASM kickoff, from which he gleaned a dedicated, but small, group of “staff.”
Olikara said confirmation the new Diversity Committee was finally being recognized came when he was invited to speak at a UW System event Feb. 19 exploring the new “inclusive excellence” direction being adopted for diversity on UW System campuses.
After ASM’s kickoff this fall, Olikara said the committee grew to a group of about 10 students who meet on a weekly basis. The committee is an ASM grassroots committee, meaning members are gained on a volunteer basis and not appointed.
Planning clashes with action
While there is “no infrastructure right now,” according to Olikara, the group is still pushing ahead with meeting with groups and administrators on campus and smaller diversity initiatives.
“I think the problem with Diversity Committee is it was sort of defunct before,” ASM chair Tyler Junger said. “I think the steps [Olikara] is taking are progress as it was nothing before he got there. They seem to be going slow now, but I think it’s because it’s in the initial phases of what’s going on.”
Olikara said the majority of Diversity Committee’s energy is currently being poured into creating the structure that will define the committee in its final functional form.
Earlier this year, the committee announced the possible creation of a task force that would adopt projects and see them through. Up until this week, the committee spent most of its time developing this task force.
However, Monday night, Olikara was advised by Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Aaron Brower and Associate Dean of Students Argyle Wade to move away form the task force idea. Under their proposed direction, the committee would revolve around a “campaign-style” approach to projects.
According to Olikara, a campaign means bringing relevant students, faculty and staff together to think of issues on campus that need to be addressed, and then getting those interested behind the topic to begin exploring how it can best be addressed before developing and implementing a solution.
Brower said the new direction was suggested because he believes it is important for the committee to have very clear goals for action.
“That was the message for Steve–get a group of people to really begin clarifying the specific goals for what they want to see change on campus,” Brower said. “Once you have a clear idea of that, you begin to flesh out how are you accountable to [the goals] and how campus will meet them–what are the projects to help them get there.”
Past saying this direction has been adopted though, there has not been a definite answer to how it will manifest itself beyond “continuing to work with students and administration,” and now, not yet determined faculty members.
However, Brower said this is an approach the university has previously used with success. Examples include measures taken by administrators last spring to engage campus after the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates was announced, and Brower and Dean of Students Lori Berquam’s efforts to build momentum behind the Wisconsin Experience.
Olikara said if Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate Damon Williams approves the direction when they meet Monday, the committee will adopt it.
“I’m not going to do anything independently of his office. It makes sense to coordinate what we’re doing as this idea fits perfectly into what this campus is doing,” Olikara said.
With the campaign-style approach, he said the committee would promote innovation and coordination across campus units by engaging students, staff and faculty.
“The general theme of these conversations will be, what does it mean to expand our diversity initiative to include more students and bring more students into the conversation?” Olikara said.
While these goals would align with the campus-wide move toward a mindset of inclusive excellence, Brower said the concept can be a “double edged sword” to implement as while it expands inclusiveness, it is more difficult to define and hold people accountable for its success.
The continual planning process the committee is going through also conflicts with the inclusive excellence “call to action” which states, “now is not a time for more planning. Now is a time for purposeful action.”
In the background, however, the committee has been working on a few definite projects.
Currently, the group operates on a largely volunteer basis. Olikara said members can propose ideas, after which someone takes leadership and is expected to follow through on the idea.
For example, an intern is currently looking into the expansion of funding and accommodations for students with disabilities to include non-registered student organization events. Currently, the university only provides services for RSO events, limiting opportunities for students with disabilities.
However, he said a structure, which now would be embodied by the ability to begin a campaign, must be in place before much further action can be taken.
Finding a place among other groups
Like its past versions, a large part of Diversity Committee’s success relies collaboration with on other diversity-related groups on campus. These groups include student unions, university committees and administration.
Williams, who was appointed last fall, said over the past year he and Diversity Committee have built a relationship he believes to be unprecedented.
He said he and Olikara meet every six or seven weeks to update each other on pertinent information going on at Bascom Hall or in the student world.
Williams noted several ASM representatives work with him on the Campus Diversity and Climate Committee-which advises campus institutions on diversity policy-contributing further to what he perceives as a strong relationship with ASM.
The committee is one Olikara said Diversity Committee is currently exploring the nature of a possible relationship with.
“There’s no doubt the objectives of all these committees need to be hammered out. That’s what we’re in conversation about right now,” Olikara said. “I think there is a major collaboration that may happen with that committee.”
While Diversity Committee meets with student groups to help implement ideas into their organizations, Olikara said the group only has a strong relationship with one: The MultiCultural Student Coalition.
“MCSC, just over this past year we’ve worked very closely with the Diversity Committee. There’s just so many different tasks that need to get done, no one committee can do it all,” MCSC Executive Staff Member Danielle Harris said.
Harris said through collaboration, both groups draw from one another to strengthen how they approach planning an event or initiative. MCSC also provides the benefit of an existing collaborative network connecting student groups across campus.
Its help as a large and well-established organization also provides a needed resource for the small Diversity Committee-manpower.
“We’re starting to develop a core group of people who are really interested in [the committee]. The next step is bringing them together,” Olikara said.
For now though, beyond executing events, the actions of the committee rest almost entirely on Olikara–the sole participant in most of its external meetings.
Looking to the future
Olikara said he is confident the committee will have established its direction, membership and necessary partners across UW by the end of the semester.
From there, the committee will be at a place where launching diversity campaigns will be possible.