President Christian's Opening Remarks
Good afternoon, and thank you all for joining us for this town hall meeting on inclusion. My name is Donald Christian and I have the privilege of serving as president at SUNY New Paltz. I want to welcome all of you. And I want to welcome Dr. Steven Jones back to campus. Dr. Jones will be guiding today’s town hall discussion. He is nationally recognized for his 27 years of experience as a speaker, trainer and facilitator specializing in diversity. In 2005 he was noted as one of America’s Top Diversity experts by Diversity Inc. magazine. He has been providing cultural competence educational programming at New Paltz for the past year, and has now worked with nearly 300 members of our community who speak in glowing terms about the influence their work with him has had on their thinking. He was here just last week, working with University Police, as well as faculty and staff.
I will set the stage by drawing on a newspaper column published Sunday by writer Leonard Pitts, whose subjects often include diversity, inclusion, race, and racism. His very timely column was titled “Inclusion helps erase bigotry.” He described a research study that used a Canadian television series as a test for reducing prejudice. This series was called “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” and it highlights cultural clashes surrounding a Muslim worship house in a hypothetical Canadian small town. The researcher studied white adults who were first tested to establish a baseline measurement of their prejudices. Then they were divided into two groups. One watched episodes of “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” the other “Friends.”
Mr. Pitts wrote that prejudice derives from the identification of an “in” group” and an “out” group and the social distancing of the first from the second. Some call this process “otherization.” The social distance and the tendency to “otherize” shrank for people in the study who watched “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” They learned about the lives of Muslim citizens, could imagine themselves having similar experiences, and watched both Muslims and Christians struggle with difficult issues. Changes like that did not happen for those who watched “Friends.”
In part, our purpose here today is to counter “otherization” and shrink social distances among members of our community. Otherization and social distance related to race are the source of deeply rooted issues confronting contemporary American society, and our campus as well. Certainly race and racism will be on our minds today, along with divisions surrounding gender, sexual orientation, economic status, religion, ability status, and other elements of human difference.
Mr. Pitts wrote that the study he described – and I quote - “underlines a truth often overlooked… namely, that inclusion is not some enlightened standard operating procedure to political correctness. Rather, inclusion changes the society itself. It lessens fears, opens eyes, unsticks hearts, makes people better. What exclusion otherizes, inclusion normalizes.” End quote.
Those words capture much of our core goal for today and in the long term.
We know that blatant acts such as hate speech are the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, members of our community regularly experience micro-aggression, insult, dismissal, minimization, or invalidation. We must move beyond the responses to these actions that we sometimes hear such as “oh, it probably was just a joke,” or “lighten up, don’t take this too seriously,” or that our concern about such incidents is a trivial matter of “political correctness.” As many of us have learned from Dr. Jones, we must develop and reinforce a skill set that shifts our focus from our intentions in such matters to better understand the impact of our words and actions on others.
Our campus community cannot correct the ills of American society, but we can work to make our campus more inclusive, more equitable. We have learned that having conversations solely in response or reaction to hateful acts or racist incidents is insufficient. We have learned that we must be committed to ongoing work if we are to address issues that are deeply embedded in our society, culture, history, and institutions. These are conversations that need to happen at all levels of the institution.
Dr. Jones has worked with us over the last year to help build common language and cultural competency skills that will help members of our community move these conversations forward in respectful and productive ways and offer tools to disrupt incidents of exclusion. Today’s conversation will also help inform and guide institutional level planning as we look to appoint a chief diversity officer, develop our campus plan on diversity and inclusion this spring and summer, and form a standing committee that will help sustain these efforts.
I will listen and participate as a member of this campus community. I recognize and acknowledge the special responsibility that a College president has to set the tone, lead by example, and motivate change. I understand that, and expect that some questions and comments today may be directed toward me. I stand ready to learn along with everyone else about how I can fulfill these roles better. Members of the College’s senior leadership team are here for that purpose as well. Please recognize that we cannot be in every classroom, organization meeting, residence hall room or lounge, faculty discussion about curriculum and course content, every passing encounter by members of this campus, or be in touch with every social media posting. That is why it is critical that we listen today with compassion, and leave with a sense of responsibility to be more intentional in recognizing our biases and their impacts on our community.
Before I turn the microphone over to Dr. Jones, I would like to note that we are audio recording this meeting, to preserve these conversations as part of our institutional history. A transcript of the Town Hall will be available in the future – individual speakers will not be identified in that transcript. We welcome Melissa, a student journalist from the Oracle who is here to report on this town hall. She’s been asked not to quote anyone directly, but encouraged to speak with participants afterwards who may be willing to offer comment.