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Georgia Southern taking ‘inclusive’ steps
Student protestors demand more diverse faculty, other actions
Georgia Southern students Oscar Dominguez, 21, of Athens, left, and Jessaly Chamorro, 19, of Dacula lead an "extinguishing" ceremony on October 18, 2019 in the same grill where other students burned the book of author and guest speaker Jennine Cap— Crucet. About 200 students joined the rally and march to protest the university's response to the book burning and other campus-related incidents perceived by many as racist. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

After several white Georgia Southern University students burned copies of a book by a Cuban American author who spoke on campus in October, a larger, diverse group of students protested against racism on campus and presented a list of demands to the administration.

Georgia Southern’s leadership was already undertaking, and is continuing, actions aimed at improving equity and inclusiveness. As Dr. Kyle Marrero, the university’s president, announced in his first State of the University speech in August, Georgia Southern began a search that month for an associate vice president of inclusive excellence. Also described as the university’s “chief diversity officer,” this official will report directly to Marrero. The search is ongoing.

In June, a team led by equity and inclusion expert Dr. Damon A. Williams completed Georgia Southern’s “inclusive excellence report,” which was presented on campus Aug. 28. The university now has student and employee advisory councils on the subject, planning further meetings and discussions.

Students interviewed who took part in the recent protests said these are positive steps but that these kinds of actions have not stopped repeated incidents of racism.

“Essentially the main point that I think the group altogether wants to make is that we want the university (leadership)  to do more to diversify our university, to not make it seem as the university empowering those who want to discriminate, or empowering those who want to make derogatory statements,” said Eduardo Delgado, 20.

Born in Vidalia to parents who emigrated from Mexico, Delgado is a junior majoring in political science. He was one of the organizers and spoke during a student rally Oct. 18 at the Rotunda on the Statesboro campus. Participants marched to Eagle Village, the student apartment complex where the small group of students had burned author Jennine Capo Crucet’s book on a charcoal grill the night of Oct. 9 after she spoke on the Statesboro campus.

Freshmen taking the First Year Experience, or FYE, class had been assigned to read her novel, “Make Your Home Among Strangers.” Crucet read from her more recent essay collection “My Time Among the Whites.” Her comments about “white privilege” reportedly drew pointed comments and criticism from some white students, before some took part in the book-burning, images of which were immediately posted on social media.

The next day, Marrero issued a statement stating that “while it’s within students’ First Amendment rights, book burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values nor does it encourage the civil discourse or debate of ideas.”

In the wake of the incident, which became national news, he also held two lengthy student government-sponsored open forums.


Dousing the grill

The student group who took part in the Oct. 18 march designed an action to contrast with book burning. They wrote things they want to “extinguish” such as racism, on cards, piled these on the same grill, and doused them with water.

“Through my time at the university I have seen many, many instances of people using derogatory terms or being racist in general, and I feel, as the group feels, that the university hasn’t been doing much to tell those people that it is not right,” Delgado said in a subsequent phone interview. “Although it is their First Amendment right, I think the university stops short of saying these statements are wrong.”

In a further action, at midday Oct. 23, some of the same students staged a “walkout.” A few entered the administration building and left a list of demands at Marrero’s office. He wasn’t there at the time.


Students’ demands

Peyton Rowe, 22, of Johns Creek, helped organize both the Oct. 18 and Oct. 23 protests. A senior majoring in political science, she was interviewed later by phone and provided a summary of the demands.

One of the demands was that students who took part in the book burning be required to take diversity training.

“I feel like if you’re not going to give any repercussions then I think that you should at least try to advance the mindset of your students,” Rowe said. “I don’t think that it should just left something that is acceptable to burn the book of someone’s different perspectives because that’s not what going to college is all about.”

She suggested that the mandatory training should also extend to students involved in similar situations in the future.

Other listed demands include increased faculty diversity; improved funding for FYE and diversity programs, after students say this was reduced as part of the recent overall budget cuts; transparency about where students’ tuition is going in light of these concerns, and mandatory diversity training for all incoming freshmen.


Faculty diversity

As of last academic year, white people made up 60% of Georgia Southern’s undergraduate students and 62.9% of its graduate students. The June inclusive excellence report noted these numbers from the university’s Office of Institutional Research, also noting that white people made up 65.1% of the staff, meaning non-teaching employees, and 75.8% of the teaching faculty.

“Black or African American” people constituted 25% of the GS students and 29.8% of the staff, but only 8.3% of the faculty. Those of other races make up the remainders.

“I think that they need a more diverse faculty because you can’t expect white kids to respect authority of color if they’ve never had any professors that are black or Latino or Asian or any of those things. They’ve only had white professors, so they only respect older white people,” said Rowe, who identified as black when asked her ethnicity.

As for diversity training, the First Year Experience, also known as First Year Seminar, classes include discussion of diversity and inclusion as one of three major objectives, according to a description on the university’s website. This course is required of all students in their first semester at Georgia Southern unless they enter as a transfer student with 30 or more credit hours.

But Delgado and Rowe said students in their group want a class devoted entirely to diversity and inclusion to be required of all incoming freshmen.

Neither Rowe nor Delgado were present for Crucet’s presentation. But freshman nursing student Jessaly Chamorro, 19, of Dacula, was there and heard what was said and also, as a resident of Eagle Village, saw the book-burning firsthand. Chamorro, the first in her family to attend college, described herself as “a first -generation Puerto Rican student.” Her father was born in Argentina and her mother in the United States, but later moved to Puerto Rico.

“I don’t feel like they should have burned the book because there’s a deeper significance to burning books, and also because the story itself is very similar to my story,” Chamorro said. “It was like they were saying none of that is true, by burning the book. You know, it hurt, it hurt a little bit because that is the experience that I go through, and you’re burning it.”

She said she had found Crucet’s presentation relatable to her own experience but also understood how some white students could have taken offense at some of the author’s remarks.

Chamorro took part in the Oct. 18 march but not in the Oct. 23 walkout and presentation of demands. She said she personally would like to see more efforts to bring students together because she sees them as “very separated,” hanging out with others of their own race or ethnicity.


University response

The students who presented the demands were offered a meeting with Marrero later that same day, Dr. John Lester, Georgia Southern’s vice president for communications and marketing, said in an interview this week.

“We invited them to come back to meet with the president and they declined to do it  that day, but we understand they’re going to come back. … It looks like we’re going to try to set that up again for later,” Lester said Wednesday.

Increasing diversity of the faculty and staff is already a priority, he said, but added that the hiring of faculty is generally done by other faculty.

“That’s not something that can be demanded of the president,” Lester said. “We can encourage it and work on ways to increase that as a priority across campus, and we’ve committed to do that, but in some ways it’s got to be on a very, very local level with the faculty and the department chairs, so that’s  something we’re going to have to continue to work on.”

Requiring the book burning students to take special training would be difficult even if the university could identify them, he said.

“As far as I know, nobody’s been able to identify them,” Lester said. “And there is a diversity and inclusion module in all the First Year Experience classes, so I think that’s something we’re accomplishing with our current programming, which we’ve said we will continue to tweak and figure out how to improve as we go along.”

He supplied a list of the university’s diversity and inclusion efforts, not all of which have been mentioned here.

“I think that people might be surprised by the emphasis that we’ve put on diversity and inclusion in the last year, and obviously that’s going to continue,” Lester said.

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.


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