Brooks College House hosts town hall to address bias incident reporting system, campus climate

By Alex Pinsk || Editor-in-Chief

On Thursday, February 13th at 8:30pm, Brooks College House hosted a town hall to discuss the Bias Incident Reporting System and F&M’s campus culture. Barbara Altmann, President of the College, Margaret Hazlett, Vice President and Dean of Student Affairs, and Maura Umble ‘83, Inaugural Director of the Office of the President, were all in attendance. Also present were Brian Samble, Dean of Brooks College House, Bryan Stinchfield, Don of Brooks College House and Associate Professor of BOS, and about 20 students.  

The town hall began with a discussion of the Bias Incident reporting System. The online system was launched on the first day of classes, and since then, five reports have been received, according to Umble. 

Of those five reports, one occured in a classroom setting and was a situation related to ability/disability. Reports that occur in a lab or a classroom are sent directly to the Office of the Provost. Classroom spaces are different from other spaces on campus in that they are settings in which students are able to explore all ideas and a place where freedom of expression is welcome. It is important for the classroom to provoke thought and foster interpersonal relationships between students and professors. However, while it is vital for the faculty to lead difficult discussions, it is not a place for professors who are “biased, racist, or misogynistic” to exploit that role, according to Stinchfield. This is where the Reporting System comes into effect. 

The other four reported incidents have been related to race or ethnicity—not in the classroom or lab—and they are discussed and handled through the agency of a group of individuals, including Umble, who meet weekly. There are a lot of factors that play into the next steps for each specific incident. The group of individuals must receive reports, determine what to do in the case of an anonymous response—the student reporting has the option to be anonymous or not—, determine what to do if the report is coming through a professor, etc. Because only a few reports have been received, it is still too early to see common trends. However, what they can say for certain, is that the first response must be to support the student reporter. It is not easy to come forward and the person reporting is hurting. It is vital that there is “empathy on the other end of the send button,” according to Umble. The second response is to deal with conduct issues and keep watch over the individual situation, as each one is different. The following questions were addressed at the town hall: 

Q: What does “under investigation” mean with respect to the Bias Incident Reporting System?

A: This refers to the process by which evidence is gathered. During this time, Public Safety may look into perpetrators of the assault, witness statements may be collected, and the victim may be able to make decisions about next steps.

Q: Is the Bias Incident Reporting System available to faculty and professional staff as well as to students?

A: The system is designed primarily for students, but it is open for the entire community to use. In other words, the main focus is students, but anyone can report. 

Q: Are there educational workshops available to students, and if so what are they?

A: Workshops are being implemented for students, faculty, and professional staff. There is also a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer coming to talk to the Board of Trustees. Workshops are also being implemented within the HA system, and there is discussion of including them in first semester connections courses. Various athletic teams, segments of LGBTQ+ student life, and fraternity and sorority life have begun to implement programming. The College plans to bring in a national coalition to initiate further programming in both the college houses and co-curricular groups. In addition, according to Hazlett, some of the best education comes from restorative practices, during which those who are impacted are able to talk to perpetrators. These one-to-one conversations with a peer are often most effective. Additionally, the College plans to hire a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion to support cultural events on campus, lead professional development, and encourage student-led programming. The administration is not looking to just “check a box” with the implementation of these techniques. Rather, it is a constant process that will need to be altered and fixed regularly in order to launch a community that promotes and represents a supportive, diverse, inclusive community. 

Q: Is diversity/equity training required for faculty?

A: All new faculty do some training; however, it is not mandatory for everyone else. At the moment members of the faculty must self-select to participate in these training sessions. While Altmann believes it would be a good idea to have these trainings be mandatory, she also clarifies that professors are somewhat synonymous with the College in a lot of ways. Thus, these trainings are difficult to mandate.  

It is vital for students to recognize that the Bias Incident reporting System is in its beginning stages. This Fall sparked a lot of “crisis for good reason,” says Altmann. This will help to get to the heart of what needs to be accomplished. According to Atlmann, this process “has to be a priority to us because that’s where the world is, and we are a microcosm of the world. We need to do it really well here because we need everyone to thrive.” With that in mind, we must be willing and open to both the challenges and the change that this new System will present. The sample size is small, but as more information is gathered, clarity with respect to the System and the process will develop, and everyone will have more answers. 

The new chief diversity officer will be key to this role but will not be the only agent. Stinchfield reminds us that the implementation of this officer does not absolve everyone else of their responsibilities. They will be there to help us do the work, but it is up to us to accept responsibility and strive for greater engagement and understanding. 

These smaller town halls initiate “productive, rich, interesting conversation,” according to Altmann, and are often more valuable because there is no set agenda. Unless the faculty and administration know and understand what the student body is thinking, it is difficult for anything to be accomplished. Altmann highlighted the importance of getting conversations rolling now, as there are tough moments ahead. Looking forward to the 2020 presidential election, it will be vital that students, faculty, and administration are able to have productive discussions. Those conversations need to begin now. 

Students have spoken up and conversation has been sparked. “We’ve been given awareness. We’ve been given a gold opportunity, and we will not waste it,” Atlmann says.

A note about the Campus Climate Survey: The results will be available at the end of April, two and a half weeks before commencement, and will be made public to the F&M community. The results will be difficult to hear and the information discovered from the Survey will provide insight into the community and what needs to be addressed. Note that the Survey has been organized by a 3rd party in order to protect the authenticity of the data.

Senior Alex Pinsk is the Editor-in-Chief. Her email is mpinsk@fandm.edu.

Photo Courtesy of fandm.edu
Maura Umble ’83, Inaugural Director of the Office of the President, spoke alongside President Barbara Altmann and Dean Margaret Hazlett at the Town Hall. It was the first time that many of the students present were able to meet her and learn about her position within the Office of the President.
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