Dear Campus Community,
Over the last several months, as our nation and the Schenectady community have grappled with difficult issues of race, power and privilege, I have been inspired by the reaction of the Union community to address these issues here on campus and beyond.
Immediately after the murder of George Floyd, members of the Union community participated in a lively forum on racial justice. Over the summer, the President’s Initiative on Race, Power and Privilege (RPP) was launched. A group of 40 students, faculty, staff, and alumni met weekly. They identified and discussed five key areas: (1) cultural competency, (2) curricular change, (3) faculty and staff diversity, (4) campus safety and (5) increased support for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) students.
It is clear that while we have taken action in many areas, there is still much to do. It is also clear that we must acknowledge that at Union we are not starting from a neutral place and that our past has consequences.
Union College was founded in 1795 as the first nondenominational college in the United States. We celebrate this often, as we should, because it highlights that inclusion is at the core of who we are. However, like most institutions and organizations, the College’s conception of inclusion has been narrow for much of its history. The initial union was between Protestant denominations. Union was long a college for white men. Students of color appear rarely before the 1960s, and women were not admitted until 1970. It is even more recently that LGBTQ+ students have become more visible at Union. For more on this and other aspects of our history, please see sources such as The Encyclopedia of Union College History, by Wayne Somers ’61, and The Unofficial Encyclopedia of Union College History, which is curated by recent Union College alumni.
Like all institutions, our history and what happens beyond our campus define the cultural ruts that have been worn into every aspect of our community for 225 years; ruts that guide some along the path to achieve their full potential, and force others to navigate paths that are often a poor fit with their cultures and their identities. We acknowledge that some have not thrived at Union, and for that, our culture, policies, and history must bear some responsibility. Even when dreams have been realized, it has often required more stress and tenacity for some than for others. For all the ways in which our institution could and should have served our students, faculty and staff better, we apologize.
These realizations guide our work on diversity, equity and inclusion. We examine our past to understand what must change to achieve our aspirational future. We listen to the stories of the distant past, the recent past, and the present, so that we can develop even more paths to success at Union, paths that will enable all of our current and future students, staff and faculty to experience the joy and fulfillment that many have long touted as the hallmark of a Union experience.
Achieving our goals will require actions by every member of our community, and the leadership of a special group of people. I am pleased to announce that four members of our community have stepped up to lead this effort. Collectively, they will pursue the responsibilities of a chief diversity officer with greater depth and breadth of knowledge, experience and relationships than any single individual could hope to achieve. They will work as a team, meeting regularly with one another and with me, to ensure that our approach is comprehensive and integrated.
- Andrew “Dru” Alvez, a member of the Residential Life team, will move to the position of Assistant Director of Intercultural Affairs. He will be responsible for the success and well-being of students of color and marginalized communities by helping to create an environment where all students understand their identity and those of others. This position reports to the Assistant Dean for Intercultural Affairs.
- Christa Grant, will move to Student Affairs and assume the role of Assistant Dean for Intercultural Affairs, responsible for all aspects of student affairs programming aimed at fostering a community of diversity and inclusion. This position reports to the Vice President for Student Affairs.
- Deidre Hill-Butler, Associate Professor of Sociology, has agreed to add the title of Academic Chief Diversity Officer, responsible for leading efforts in academic affairs to promote greater diversity, equity and inclusion. This position reports to the Dean of Faculty/Vice President for Academic Affairs.
- Mary Simeoli, Title IX Coordinator, will add the role of Interim Director of Equal Opportunity to foster a safe and supportive environment for all members of the community in compliance with federal law. This position reports to the Chief of Staff.
I thank Dru, Christa, Deidre and Mary for leading these important initiatives. In the weeks, months and years ahead, I look forward to working with them and all of you to create and sustain a campus environment that is even more consistent with our ideals.
For now, I encourage you to review data about our community that will now appear on our website, as well as a list of recommendations from the RPP committee that we will pursue this year, including:
- Enhance formal and informal actions to build connections between Campus Safety officers and students across campus
- Launch peer facilitator programs and diversity and inclusion workshops for students, staff, and faculty
- Develop curricular and co-curricular RPP requirements
This effort will make us all uncomfortable in different ways and at different times, as it should. I am confident that with wisdom, empathy and courage, we will not only live up to our name, but become a model for every college that is facing challenging issues that have plagued our country for over 400 years.
David R. Harris