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Combat Unrest With Respect

November 2016

By Janice Abraham

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A good first step in addressing student concerns is to value the
inclusion of diverse viewpoints.

Mary Ontiveros gets why college students protest. The Kent State shootings and the Cambodian invasion took place during her freshman year, and she was among the throngs of students across the United States expressing their collective concerns. In recent decades, student protest has covered the gamut—from war to environmental disaster to sexual assault.

Ontiveros, vice president for diversity at Colorado State University, is now leading the charge for her institution to be known as an inclusive community at a time when the student population has never been so diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and religious and cultural practices. In this interview, Ontiveros speaks about the role of respect in addressing issues of campus and community conflict.


How does your institution’s leadership respond to campus unrest generally, regardless of the concerns being expressed? 

Being at a land-grant university, we know that our mission is teaching, research, and service. But, how do we do this? Our intention is never to censor anyone, but we believe that if we’re going to engage in sometimes contentious conversations, we must be willing to listen to all perspectives. Respect is essential, especially where students may feel they are being treated unfairly—which is often the underlying cause of student protest. As an institution, we have now identified principles that we feel are critical to everything we do. They are: inclusion, integrity, respect, service, and social justice.

How did you go about identifying and developing these principles? 

This stemmed from a situation that occurred several years ago. One of our African American faculty members was giving a talk in the community during Black History Month. At the end of her presentation, she took questions and someone in the audience said: “I remember when the [“N” word] came to town.” Now, this faculty member has never been known to back down from a conversation related to issues of social justice or race and ethnicity, but she was so shocked she couldn’t say anything. The host of the event didn’t know what to say. Audience members were clearly uncomfortable, and nobody knew what to do.

The next day, this faculty member sent a message to our president, our provost, and to me, detailing what had happened. The incident became the catalyst for a much broader focus on figuring out how to have constructive conversations around difficult or controversial issues. I pulled together a committee, including representatives from the dean’s council, faculty members, students and student government representatives, employees from our health center and from various women’s programs, and so forth. We held a retreat to begin identifying our shared values. Then, we worked all spring and summer and came up with what we call our “principles of community.” As a next step, we met with more than 1,000 people on campus, including all employee councils, the council of deans, the cabinet, student government, and our campus communicators to seek feedback on the specific language. In the end, only a handful of minor edits were made before our full cabinet endorsed the principles in December 2015.

How are you using these principles today? 

At this point, our focus is on making sure that everyone is familiar with these new principles. Colleges and departments are introducing them to their faculty. They have been shared at all orientations for graduate students and new faculty. We provide all prospective students and guests coming to campus with a lanyard that includes the principles. And we now have T-shirts available with the principles printed on them. By all reports that we’ve received, people are really celebrating the principles. We’ve even had some departments ask if they could include them in their mission statements.

In what ways are you trying to instill or enforce these principles? 

The language of our principles makes clear that each member of the CSU community is responsible for upholding the principles when engaging with one another or acting on behalf of the university.

One example of how seriously we take these principles, and where we have called out behavior contrary to them, involves incoming students. All new students are asked to visit a website, so that they can communicate with each other and get to know one another. In several instances, there were reports that some students were engaging in racist commentary on the site. This was brought to the attention of our director of admissions, who then sent the principles of community to these students, making it known that the university subscribes to these principles, and that if these students did not feel comfortable doing so, CSU leadership would be happy to rescind their admission. All those students submitted apologies regarding their comments.

In response to this, our provost, vice president for student affairs, and I drafted a letter that went to every new student this fall semester letting them know that these are the principles of community for Colorado State University, and that there is an expectation that they will fully engage in them. These expectations regarding conduct apply not only to our employees and our students but also to guests, so even our guest lecturers are expected to subscribe to the principles, although getting word out to all is much more difficult.

So how do you balance these expectations with basic priorities of freedom of speech and academic freedom? 

As one example, in developing our principles of community, faculty members on the committee did express concern about using the word collegiality, because they noted that collegiality was not a value required for acquisition of tenure. So, we had to hammer out what collegiality means for us as a community.

How have you engaged your governing board in understanding the issues related to student protest and the board’s role in responding to such situations? 

I helped create an organization in our state that is now a chapter of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. Our past two meetings have focused on governing boards, because we feel they really need to understand what’s happening with diversity issues in particular, including the changing demographics of our state.

Colorado is one of the most educated states in the nation, but we also have one of the highest gaps in college attainment for racially and ethnically diverse students. One challenge is that the boards for our various institutions are selected in different ways. Currently, we are working to create a chief diversity officers council similar to higher education councils that exist for chief academic officers and chief business officers, so that we can meet with our various boards through that mechanism to speak with a unified voice about how to advance the merits of higher education for the benefit of the entire state and its citizens.

How should chief diversity officers, chief business officers, presidents, and others be thinking about and responding to campus unrest, in whatever form the activity takes?

Foremost, I believe institutions must strive to build an inclusive community. That will go a long way toward alleviating the most harmful tensions that may arise when students don’t feel that they are accepted or heard. Likewise, this can’t be viewed as an add-on, but rather, as central, to how we do business.

An example I use is how our business culture has changed surrounding recycling. When this was first introduced on our campus, people didn’t want to be bothered with two wastebaskets and having to think about what goes in which bin. But now this has become normal for everyone, and we understand the importance of this practice. We need a similar approach to get to that place where we understand that diversity and building a respectful community must be reflected in absolutely everything we do—in the research we do on our campuses, in how we construct buildings, in student programming, and in the people we hire. Unless we can change our culture, I really believe we will continue to see all of these flare-ups of student unrest centered on issues of inclusion.

What is the best approach for moving in this direction? 

A good place to start is by assessing the satisfaction of your employees. We administered our first campus climate survey when I first started in this position and have done a survey about every two years. This October, we will administer our third one, and there are some quantitative measures we can already look at to assess our campus climate.

For instance, from our first campus climate survey, we found that people wanted to have more training in diversity and inclusion topics, and many thought their supervisors didn’t really understand these concepts. We also learned that approximately 25 percent of respondents felt they had been harassed in some manner. That was an eye-opener. So, we have been involved in training sessions for supervisors. From our second survey, administered two years later, the number of respondents who felt they had been harassed on our campus went down to 20 percent—an improvement, but still too high.

How can you measure success or know when you’ve made enough progress?

First, here is an important point about campus climate surveys: You can’t have a survey and not share the results. And, you can’t share the results and then do nothing to address the findings. You must be willing to take that next step and act on what you see.

Markers of success include the extent to which everyone on your campus takes ownership of the priorities you identify and the extent to which your campus is known for making inclusion a priority. If someone is asked about Colorado State, I want him or her to say that it is an inclusive campus and that we care about issues of social justice, for instance. Over time, we want these things to resonate campuswide and beyond. We are also working with our city of Fort Collins to help spread the value of inclusion to our larger community. Our assumption is that if we’re going to be a world-class university, we want to reside in a world-class community, and so we need to reach out externally on these issues as well.

And we’re finding that some of our efforts are starting to take root. As one example, I read a recent copy of our faculty council minutes that urged everyone to complete the campus climate survey. There was a time when I had to share this information, so to have others promoting the work being done by this office is an indicator that this is becoming embedded in our culture.

What are some important steps to take in building a campus of inclusion?

As a first step, it’s incumbent upon campus leaders and diversity offices to create environments where people have courage to speak up and say they don’t understand something and to ask critical questions. There was a time when our training sessions included mostly the choir—those who already understood the importance of inclusion. Now more faculty are saying, “This came up in my classroom, and I didn’t know what to say. Can you help me?” Or, they express fear that they will say something wrong and the next day will find their name on the front page of The Denver Post. We all can appreciate that kind of anxiety. So there is a very real fear factor for many people who don’t want to be labeled as a racist, for instance. Because many people are simply fearful, we have to start there in our training.

The good news is that more people are coming forward. As with anything else, this is a learning process. You may never get 100 percent of your campus embracing the values of diversity and inclusion, but if you can get a critical mass, you will see incredible dividends paid by having a good number of people not only adhering to your principles of community, but speaking out when they see something that is contrary to those principles.

You also need to take the long view. We recently reintroduced our Faculty Institute for Inclusive Excellence, a yearlong program aimed at transforming teaching through integrating awareness about diversity and inclusion into classroom content and practices. I spoke with faculty who participated in a former version of this program 15 to 20 years ago to ask if they thought it was worthwhile. The responses I got were that it not only changed what they did in the classroom, but it changed their lives and impacted their personal conduct far beyond the classroom. That’s ultimately what we want to have happen, and that’s what we need to work toward more than ever today.

Read also, “To Engage Students, Listen.

JANICE ABRAHAM is president and CEO, United Educators, Bethesda, Md.

Related Topics

Unless we can change our culture, I really believe we will continue to see all of these flare-ups of student unrest centered on issues of inclusion.

It’s incumbent on campus leaders and diversity offices to create environments where people have courage to speak up … and ask critical questions.