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Lost in translation: How recent events have impacted John Carroll’s campus and its push for diversity & inclusion

February 7th, 2013

“To the nights we’ll never remember, with the friends we’ll never forget.” For many college students, this is the mantra for enjoying weekend parties off-campus. Last weekend, however, was the party that most students will not soon forget.

A group of JCU seniors hosted a party in their house for Kate Pifer, a junior who will be studying abroad in Africa this semester. Intended as a farewell party for her, the Facebook invitation indicated that in honor of Pifer’s study location, the party would be Africa-themed. Rumors, reports and pictures from the party deeply offended several students at JCU, according to University administrators.

In an unrelated incident, a derogatory racial slur was written on a chalkboard in a Sutowski Hall common area lounge the same weekend. This made students of all backgrounds feel uncomfortable, said sophomore Christian Cronauer, who saw a picture of the graffiti and immediately identified it as both hurtful and inappropriate.

Unlike the graffiti found in Sutowski, the party was never meant to have ethnically offensive undertones.

According to senior Campus Editor Spencer German, most students who attended this party understood the light-hearted nature of its theme, sporting costumes like tourists on safari or animals. A handful of students took this theme too far, though, wearing costumes that could be considered offensive, such as one person who dressed up as Joseph Kony and another who gave people shots from a shot glass labeled “AIDs.”

Former Student Union President Greg Petsche was also in attendance at the party, and informed The Carroll News that he and several friends asked all those wearing inappropriate costumes to either change their outfits or leave. According to Petsche, nobody objected.

However, the University received several reports of discrimination and bias based on the pictures posted to Facebook after the event.

Senior Curtis Walker, the former president of the African American Alliance, was one of the first to see these reports.

“I first found out about the party through Facebook late Saturday night (or) early Sunday morning. I saw several photo albums from different users being uploaded. As I saw each photo, the more confused I became. The photo captions indicated that the party had an African theme. Through word of mouth on campus on Sunday, students stated that a party was thrown Saturday night, and it had an African theme,” said Walker. “It was never addressed that the party was for Kate Pifer and the fact that she was going to study in South Africa until I had a sit-down meeting with her.”

On Tuesday, Jan. 29, University administration issued its first formal response to the event.

 Mark McCarthy, the vice president for student affairs, sent an email to the entire University community. A segment of the email read: “Whether motivated by hate or ignorance, these types of incidents demean and oppress others at the very core of their identities … The perpetuation of stereotypes of identities, ethnicities and cultures are harmful, and they continue to disenfranchise, alienate and isolate students of color on our campus.”McCarthy and other administrators first found out about the party from the Bias Incident Reporting system on the JCU website.

According to McCarthy, “The report included some of the details about the party, named a number of students in attendance and attached a picture of two students in costume.”

It quickly became evident to McCarthy that this was not a small incident, and he met with the dean of students, Sherri Crahen, and Lauren Bowen, the associate academic vice president for student learning initiatives and diversity, to determine an appropriate response.

Before sending out the email that the student body received, McCarthy consulted John Day, the provost and academic vice president, and Paul V. Murphy, the vice president for University mission and identity. The Rev. Robert Niehoff, S.J., University president, was also kept in the loop, despite being out of town.

“The response was shared with the Provost’s Council on Friday, and additional suggestions for further delineation of what bias is and how to respond to it were referred to the Diversity Steering Committee,” McCarthy said.

Bowen confirmed that the party and its aftermath were thoroughly discussed among administrators.

“The Provost Council discussed what had transpired last Friday, and I anticipate that the Diversity Steering Committee (which next meets on Feb. 8) will also discuss how to move forward and the role of the DSC in that process,” she said.

Other departments, like the Office of Admissions, also addressed this issue privately with their staff.

Vice President for Enrollment Brian Williams said he echoed the potential impact of this event with the tour guides, some of whom attended the party. “I spoke with our tour guide coordinator Monday evening, and we determined a message from me to the tour guide membership was appropriate. From there, our student tour guide coordinator and staff that oversee the group took the lead in working through this past week, holding their own group meeting and encouraging attendance at the student affairs events of the past week.”

But many students, like Petsche, feel that the University’s reaction to the party was overly critical and may have deepened the severity of the issue by relating the actions at the party to extreme acts of racism and discrimination from JCU students.

In a letter to five JCU administrators on Wednesday, Jan. 30, Petsche said, “The emails I have received and the conversations I have overheard, I found shocking. The accusatory tone and language makes anyone who was at the party sound like a racist and a bad person unworthy of being at JCU. Whether that was the intention or not, I believe this accusatory tone needs to be toned down.”

He continued, “I sincerely apologize for my role in any pain caused to members of the JCU community. The misinformation around the event and fierce communication response from administration has unfortunately deepened the severity of the issue.”

Even Walker, who initially reported the incident, discussed the concerns with party sponsor Pifer and felt that it had been successfully addressed between the two of them, acknowledging, “Kate didn’t have the easiest week.”

He said, “I sat down with Kate within 48 hours of Saturday’s incident. Kate and I shared both of our perspectives and interpretations of the party and left our meeting on the same page, as we listened to each other and built a new coalition to support cultural competency and awareness on campus.”

However, Walker did feel the University administrators were swift in their attention to this matter: “I feel that the University reacted quickly, which was a pleasant surprise.”

Through email correspondence with The Carroll News, McCarthy explained that the initial email sent to the student body was not intended to offend anybody or indict any student as a racist.

McCarthy said via email, “The juxtaposition of two bias incident reports and their timing between our celebration of MLK Day and the beginning of Ignatian Heritage Week, provided a unique opportunity to share information about the incidents more widely with students and faculty, staff and administrators. While the incidents [the graffiti and the party] were very different in terms of intentionality, the impact on students who are marginalized on campus and in society was similar and compounded by their coming so closely together.”

On Wednesday, Jan. 30, the African American Alliance hosted a forum, at which Pifer formally addressed the group to explain the situation.

Bowen felt that this meeting was a positive demonstration of student-led conflict resolution.

“I also appreciated having the opportunity to be present at the AAA meeting and am gratified that there was student-initiated response to the situation as well,” she said.

The following day, Thursday, Jan. 31, an open meeting known as a “Restorative Justice Circle,” was held in the LSC Conference Room, during which about 60 students discussed issues of race and discrimination for just under four hours.

McCarthy explained the restorative justice meeting model: “The process includes the use of a “talking stick,” or in this case a stone, that was passed from person to person, all of whom responded to three questions – What do I value about my experience at JCU?  How have others and I been affected by the events that transpired? How can we move forward as a community to heal and prevent further harm?”

He highlighted the importance of continuing the conversations about race and diversity at the University as a whole.

“Utilizing the learnings from these two incidents is critical if we are to move forward as a community,” he said. “Understanding the experience of others who differ from us along all the many lines of diversity requires both the acquisition of knowledge and the application of this knowledge through real world experiences with each other.”

Moving forward, Bowen emphasized the importance of being cautious when dealing with the sensitive subject of race.

“I think honest and candid dialogue is essential. Some of that needs to be spontaneous and organic – and people need to feel safe enough to name their own experiences and feelings and be heard,” she said. “Yet I also think that race is a difficult construct for many of us to discuss openly in the U.S. right now. … So I think structured opportunities to learn more about racism as an historical and political and systemic and structural phenomena is necessary, too.”

McCarthy added, “Coming to terms with this phenomenon and then responding to it is a challenge for all of us.”