Susan Herbst, the Chief Diversity Officer and civility

Joelle Murchison, UConn's new Chief Diversity Officer, presented her qualifications for the position in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center's Konover Auditorium in Storrs, Connecticut on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. At the time, Murchison was vice president of enterprise diversity and inclusion at Travelers Insurance Company. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

The Chief Diversity Officer

In the aftermath of the 2014 ‘Spirit Rock’ incident, the University of Connecticut has sought to address prejudice in Storrs. Though the popular narrative depicts instances of prejudice as isolated incidents perpetrated by bad apples, this view trivializes the responsible social structures. UConn administrators, following the example of their contemporaries in academia and enterprise announced the establishment of a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) to serve as the keystone of a larger solution.

After searching for candidates and putting finalists in front of the UConn community, President Susan Herbst recently announced the hiring of Joelle Murchison as the first UConn CDO.

While CDOs have existed for years, it is not clear that this position is effective in the stated goal—can a diversity czar remedy ingrained cultural maladies?

History

Decades ago, university administrators were capable of hushing campus discontent, save for the incidents during which students and faculty rallied and protested in the bright light of day. While students are less prone to protest and gather today than during the height of the 1950s and 60s, social-media has promoted the proliferation of campus dialogue.

Students flow between classes with faces embedded in devices linking one another with instant social connectivity. The anonymizing mask of social media means this connectivity is used for both discussion and denigration; campus dialogue is shared, skewed and exacerbated primarily through the social-media machine.

In the aftermath of the 2014 ‘Spirit Rock’ incident, UConn President Susan Herbst sent an email to the community to express disgust at social-media hate mongering on Yik-Yak. Herbst claimed this did not “reflect the community we strive to be—one that is welcoming, civil, [and] inclusive…,” reacting to social-media’s exacerbation of campus tension.

During an event at the Spirit Rock in April 2015, students gathered in response to a "Black Lives Matter" message on the rock being defaced. The word "Black" was painted over. The above message signaled inclusion on the UConn campus. (Rebecca Newman/The Daily Campus)

As these messages of hate muted conversations regarding the substance of campus discord, Herbst announced the UConn Diversity Task Force would convene to analyze current issues. After months of deliberation, the Diversity Task Force issued a multi-page report urging the university to hire a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) to fill a “very clear” need for “senior leadership focused on diversity, inclusion and campus climate…,” despite the task force’s praise of current diversity and inclusion programs.

Proactive or Reactive?

Keeping public relations in mind, organizations appoint CDOs to expand programs of diversity and inclusion, relying on the advantage of a proactive defense. However, in most cases the position arises reactively, as it did at Ithaca College earlier this year.

The Washington Post reported on the controversy at Ithaca College, which ended with President Tom Rochon resigning his position after a vote of no-confidence showed the university body had lost faith in him.

As Washington Post writer Susan Svrluga noted, IC President Rochon announced the hiring of a Chief Diversity Officer on Nov. 10, 2015, the day after the University of Missouri’s leadership—including their president and chancellor—resigned following similar student protests. In witnessing the breakdown of relations in Missouri, Rochon seemed to believe offering students and faculty a CDO would appease their appetite for change.

In a Jan. 14, 2016 mea culpa and letter of resignation, President Rochon defended his record, before euphemistically referring to alleged and proven accusations of campus prejudice: “I believe it is best for [Ithaca College] to be led in the future by a president chosen by the board specifically to make a fresh start on these challenges, including those that became so apparent to us all last semester.”

Though he expressed desire to create an “inclusive community of justice and respect” Rochon relied on vague, obfuscating language. In the Nov. 10, 2015 letter announcing the search for a CDO, Rochon hoped the new position would help to “articulate the value of diversity, inclusiveness, and equity.” Creating the CDO as a reaction to mounting criticism, while continuing to use evasive language to discuss issues only serves to debase the position’s potential positive impact.

After the ‘Spirit Rock’ incident, as well as an incident of Islamophobia in the wake of the Paris attacks, UConn President Susan Herbst found herself in a bind, relying on the Diversity Task Force to find a solution suited to the complex tug-of-war played by the modern university. Herbst agreed to hire a CDO, ostensibly hoping—as Ithaca College President Rochon did—that the hire would stem protest and discord.

It would be naïve to dismiss the public relations dynamic of the CDO, as the university administrators understand slip ups and public expressions of campus tension often scrape the name of university presidents from the frosted glass of office doors. Scenes of student protest cannot be erased or ameliorated through media tactics. Though campus protest and dialogue act as vital catalysts of cultural change, the university would hope to limit such action to sanctioned and sanitized events.

The CDO is a reactionary measure, meant to respond to criticism, while acting to stop future public incidents of prejudice through efforts of diversity, as well as the tactics of a public relations officer. If bound to the latter mindset, the CDO will prove an unsuitable solution.

Civility

Members of the UConn community are well aware of President Susan Herbst’s repeated reliance on the notion of civility. Through her regular emails, Herbst urges civility in conversations regarding issues of prejudice.

The word civility is not frequently used in the vernacular. Use of ‘civility’ peaked twice, during the mid-1650s and around 1780, picking up once again during the early-1990s. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 13 definitions for civility, all referring to a sense of order, as denoted by the fourth definition: “Civil order; orderliness in a state or region; absence of anarchy and disorder.”

For Herbst and others in charge of large public or private institutions, civility communicates both a fear and a distinct desire. Discussions of race, class, gender and prejudice are perceived as a societal powder keg. Using political language to focus on ‘university-led’ efforts to increase diversity, inclusion and community values promotes blind optimism in the hope of deflating tension. This language is designed to steer eyes away from instances of racism, prejudice and bigotry, common on all college campuses.

After the 2014 dual NCAA championship run, an April 7 email from President Herbst (also signed by coaches Kevin Ollie and Geno Auriemma) urged students to remember “all eyes will be on UConn. So show your pride by having fun while treating one another, and our campuses, with care.” While the university is capable of selling anticipated bedlam related to NCAA championships as the result of excitement (not requiring a single mention of civility), administrators are perturbed by the thought of organic activism and protest. The desire, and part of the new CDO’s responsibility, is to ensure the student body sticks to a set script, in which students attend sanctioned discussions. While these are beneficial in addressing issues, especially in communicating community concerns with administrators, the university cannot fear organic discussion.

Shabazz Napier grabs his jersey in celebration after winning the 2014 NCAA men's basketball National Championship game, 60-54, against the University of Kentucky on April 7, 2014 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. He was the tournament MVP and helped lead the Huskies on a storied title run. (File photo/The Daily Campus)

As civility means the university controlling the conversation, the CDO cannot become another gear in the university’s apparatus. This is not to say the administration necessarily holds manipulative or nefarious ulterior motives, but instead that it is most convenient for this body to hold the ability to guide campus dialogue.

The Metric of Success

UConn’s new CDO, Joelle Murchison comes to Storrs from The Travelers in Hartford. Murchison has experience in both academia and enterprise. President Herbst highlighted Murchison’s corporate experience, while also stressing her experience in academia while announcing Murchison’s selection in an email to students and faculty.

Given the CDO’s origins in the business world, Murchison’s business experience is to be expected. While business acumen is beneficial to aspects of the position, such as dealing with a meager budget, the business world does not parallel academia. For instance, the tools used to measure success cannot be brought from corporate America. For an academic environment, there must be more substance to success than growth charts and Excel spreadsheets.  

Though the University would love to proclaim Murchison a ‘success,’ such an accolade would mean little more than ‘Mission Accomplished’ did to President Bush on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Success is an ambiguous term for a university CDO, as there exists no true metric to measure acceptance, harmony and inclusion amongst 20,000 individuals.

Hiring and admissions data form will dictate public praise or criticism of the new CDO. The administration cannot measure Murchison’s success by the occurrence, or absence of prejudice-based incidents amongst the student body. Sten Spinella of The Daily Campus covered Murchison’s March 1 public interview the Thomas J. Dodd Center’s Konover Auditorium. During this interview, Murchison commented on the metrics used to gauge diversity, saying “It’s not just enough that you count the numbers” but a matter of making certain the university ensures underrepresented and unheard viewpoints are seen and expressed without hindrance.

Murchison acknowledged “a Chief Diversity Officer will not change the entire world at UConn” during her public interview. It is paramount that the administration, faculty, students and staff recognize this reality. While it is on the administration to give Murchison the resources required to properly advocate for students, it is also on the UConn community to recognize that a CDO is not a cure-all. Though the administration is covering their bases in hiring a CDO, there does exist the potential for change if the new CDO advocates for the passionate, underrepresented, and silenced. While this cannot be measured in a traditional sense, these changes would be tangible to the UConn community.

Storrs and the CDO

Joelle Murchison pitched a more realistic understanding of how campus dialogue must proceed. During her public interview, Murchison revealed that she had been “one of those students that took over the administration building at Brown my freshman year” to protest university financial aid policy regarding need-blind admission.

Murchison’s experience as a campus protestor means her commitment to advocacy is less dubious than other administrative officials. While activism can be wrung from the most righteous individual through years of corporate bureaucracy, her assessment of criticisms regarding the CDO position are promising.

Social-media has allowed this current generation to engage in conversation, with speed and frequency of which previous generations could never have dreamt. Much of this dialogue has, as with President Herbst’s comments on Yik-Yak, turned vitriolic. Though the CDO should promote organic conversation, Murchison must foster changes in campus culture to delegitimize social-media hate mongering. A successful CDO will not moderate debate, but instead encourage cultural growth.

UConn student Holden Powell made a controversial post in UConn’s Buy or Sell Tickets Facebook group, which has nearly 26,000 members who are primarily current UConn students or recent alumni. The terrorist attacks in Paris inspired him to write a post addressing broader issues of racism in the United States. He said it “pretty much just told people they need to acknowledge their white privilege and that white supremacy is a thing.” The reactions on Yik-Yak were strong. (Courtesy/Holden Powell)

Though a commitment to becoming an advocate for students is commendable, if the CDO is forced to follow the administration’s public-relations narrative, the position will fail. While President Herbst has been careful in choosing her words, her repeated reliance on the administrative trope of ‘civility’ highlights her chief concern—campus climate.

The university most likely believes Murchison’s business experience means she will serve them well. While expecting one position to increase diversity while also addressing campus prejudice is quixotic, Murchison has the potential to succeed. Her experience in business will serve her well in improving UConn’s quantifiable move toward diversity and inclusion. If the corporate world has not wrought all traces of an activist past from Murchison, the combination has the potential to achieve both goals.

Observant students are capable of understanding the bait they have been offered with the CDO. While the administration may hope for Murchison to embody the public relations manifestation of the CDO, her past and professed commitment to advocacy hint otherwise.

While the university fears a callback to the beatniks and unregulated protest, their fear should be of lingering prejudice, obfuscated by some semblance of ideal calm. If Murchison is provided with the needed resources and is permitted to be a passionate advocate for student there is a chance of cathartic, transparent dialogue in Storrs.


Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.sacco@uconn.edu. He tweets @ChrisPSacco.