October 11, 2002

Experience, initiatives aid campus unity

By Jan Ferris Heenan

With violence escalating in the Middle East, Americans debating over war on Iraq, and threats of terrorism still casting shadows across the country, it’s difficult to predict the student climate at UC Davis this academic year.

"The year ahead has the potential to be quite a controversial one particularly as we again mirror the issues of global conflict that are close to home to many of our students," said Janet Gong, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs.

In recent years the campus community has seen events that have included fights between groups of Asian and white students, the publishing of a controversial newspaper ad criticizing slave reparations that some perceived as racist, and the circulation of a KKK flier in early 2001 during the time of a disputed ASUCD election. Post-Sept. 11, 2001, pro-war and peace rallies were followed later by heated demonstrations concerning issues surrounding Palestine and Israel.

As a result administrators, staff and faculty members and students have become increasingly invested in finding productive avenues for dealing with conflict. The experiences of the last few years can only help this coming year, Gong said. "I think we’re certainly more equipped and better equipped because of the recent issues."

New initiatives

A number of initiatives have taken shape during the past two years to help ease tensions.

The Campus Community Book Project, a pilot program under way this fall, is one of the more visible efforts aimed at improving cultural awareness. Students, faculty and staff members and Davis city leaders are reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman’s biography of an immigrant Hmong family dealing with the American medical community.

The project aims to create a common experience for as many people as possible, by using workshops and other events around the book as a launching pad for discussions on diversity.

"It’s my hope that, in addition to having the book be a point of conversation and dialogue with each other, that it will foster a sense of community," said Karen Roth, coordinator of UC Davis’ Diversity Education Program.

Other initiatives with similar goals include:

• Establishment of a high-level administrative post for diversity issues, held the past 12 months by Rahim Reed, UC Davis’ first associate executive vice chancellor for campus community relations;

•Creation of the Diversity Action Administrative Council, composed of senior administrators across campus;

• The Chancellor’s Awards for Diversity and Community, started in 2001 to honor faculty and staff members and students;

• Hiring of additional staff in such academic programs as Asian American and Native American studies;

• An increase of funding for staffing to help focus on campus community issues in such departments as the counseling center, judicial affairs and student programs and activities; and

• Training in conflict management, cross-cultural competency and multi-cultural education, particularly for student affairs staff and other UC Davis employees who work with student employees and interns.

In July, Gov. Gray Davis also weighed in, requesting that all UC and CSU campuses review free-speech guidelines, comb course descriptions to ensure "that they are forums for intellectual inquiry and not vehicles for discrimination, intimidation and hate" and promote civility and tolerance.

Fatima Mohamud, a senior program administrator in the UC Davis Washington Center, is reading the Fadiman book. In recent years, she has attended ceremonial tree-plantings – such as one held in May 2001 that drew about 500 people to the quad – and other campus events aimed at promoting tolerance and diversity.

A Muslim, she applauds such efforts, as well as the university’s response to the numerous racial and religious tensions, which last year also included vandalism of the Cross Cultural Center and an arson fire at the Jewish Hillel House. "I think it’s helpful because you see a variety of people that are coming together, saying, ‘We all deserve respect. We are all opposed to hate,’" Mohamud said. "There really is more diligence in the campus’s response to these incidents and I think they are attempting to address them."

Judy Sakaki, UC Davis’ new vice chancellor for student affairs, says that she, in turn, has been encouraged by her conversations with students so far. Some have voiced concerns over strained cross-cultural relations, but many also want to help, she said.

"The university is the perfect place to work through these differences," Sakaki said, citing Davis’ diverse mosaic of ethnic and religious groups. "It can be incredibly rich. But in that mix, there are always opportunities for misunderstandings."

Responding to and setting trends

Activism on campus now more often finds its basis in world events than in localized issues or tensions, Gong said.

The events of Sept. 11, at least in the immediate sense, did foster more of an opportunity to think about how to come together as a community, she said. "That was manifested not only out of a concern for victims of Sept. 11 but also out of a concern for the fair and equitable treatment of all our citizens regardless of their cultural heritage. We didn’t have the level of conflict, the amount of conflict or the divisiveness of conflict that we had the year before."

That UC Davis had in place its first executive vice chancellor for campus community relations, Rahim Reed, also had a stabilizing influence, many agree.

Reed’s post grew out of a position held by Roberto Paez, who served as the chancellor’s special adviser on diversity issues from 1999 to 2001. The post marks the first time in the campus’s history that a top-level position has been solely devoted to issues of community, diversity and multicultural education. The position is also a first for the UC system.

"I think that really was a sign that the senior administration on the campus gets the need for a real strong and high-level commitment to thinking through how we deal with these issues," said Stephen Russell, director of the 4-H Center for Youth Development in the Department of Human and Community Development, and a member of the Davis Human Relations Commission. "We’re not abdicating the responsibility at the very highest levels, but realizing that we need people whose jobs are dedicated to thinking about this on a regular basis," he added.

Thoughts quickly turned to action, particularly in the weeks following the terrorist attacks. Reed, a former assistant dean at the University of Florida, joined the UC Davis staff the week after Sept. 11. "To say that the events of the week prior to my arrival on campus had increased the challenges involved in this new position would be a gross understatement of the obvious," Reed said.

By October, a series of educational forums had begun. The Institute of Government Affairs hosted faculty lectures focusing on religious, political, economic and public safety issues related to the Sept. 11 attacks. A program at Freeborn Hall brought staff and faculty members and students together for several hours to discuss and respectfully debate issues dividing the Middle East and various aspects of the attack on the United States. Also, a reconciliation forum was hosted by ASUCD.

"Promote Respect," a November 2001 lunchtime forum led by Reed and Provost Virginia Hinshaw, contributed to setting the tone for the year, many say. "What we tried to do there was to get people to understand that we encourage them to debate, that we want to promote free speech without the specter of hate and violence," Reed said.

Later, students would initiate protests and demonstrations – for peace, for war, pro-Palestine, pro-Israel. While police forces were a visible presence on some occasions, the events were pulled off safely.

The campus administration is now completing new policies, based on existing policy, for the use of the Memorial Union Plaza. Last year the seating and fountain areas on the south side of the Memorial Union replaced the quad as the campus’s most popular place for student activism, Gong said. The new guidelines aim to protect free speech while also providing appropriate routes of access and a heightened degree of safety during organized events, she said.

"We are committed to providing opportunities for safe and fair exchanges of diverse opinions as long as they comply with law and university policy," Gong said. "The guidelines will allow us a greater ability to make sure events go on in the manner that event organizers planned."

The student perspective

The past few years have been eye-opening ones for Vicky Vang, a fifth-year communications student and a Hmong who moved from Thailand to the United States as a child.

Vang says she had never felt persecuted by her ethnicity until two years ago, when fighting erupted between a group of white and Asian UC Davis students. The racial tensions unleashed much heated discourse over issues of campus climate, and the representation of ethnic minorities in staff and faculty jobs.

"That’s what college does. It makes you more aware of your surroundings, all of the inequalities that are out there," said Vang, a volunteer with the Campus Community Book Project. "Sometimes ignorance is bliss; you don’t really question these things...(High school) history books don’t talk a lot about African Americans, Asian Americans. With (UC) Davis trying to open up dialogue, it’s a good start."

Reed and Paez agree about the need to integrate diversity into the "core mission of the university," instead of the traditional view of multi-culturalism as something of "add-on" value.

By the time students graduate from UC Davis, they should not only be competent in their chosen areas of study but in their ability to communicate effectively across racial, ethnic, cultural and gender lines, Reed said.

"That is something that is part of the educational process for anyone who is going to be a leader, for anyone who is going to effectively negotiate this new millennium."
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Dateline UC Davis is the faculty and staff newspaper for the University of California, Davis.