Recent town hall sparks critical dialogue about equity, diversity and inclusion

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A town hall meeting discussing equity, diversity and inclusion at Vanderbilt was held in the Student Life Center Board of Trust Room Nov. 13, moderated by Vice Chancellor James Page and Vice Provost Melissa Thomas-Hunt. (Steve Green/Vanderbilt)

Recruiting a more diverse staff and faculty, campus climate surveys and building authentic community are just a few of the many suggestions discussed at a town hall meeting led by Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer James Page Jr. and Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence Melissa Thomas-Hunt Nov. 13 in the Student Life Center Board of Trust Room. The meeting on Tuesday was the first of two town halls to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion at Vanderbilt, with the second scheduled for Dec. 6.

Vice Chancellor James Page Jr. (Steve Green/Vanderbilt)

During the interactive 90-minute discussion, Vanderbilt community members openly voiced their ideas, feedback and concerns for how Vanderbilt can continue to build equity, diversity, inclusion, trust and respect across the university.

Page and Thomas-Hunt began the program by asking attendees to describe what comes to mind when they think of Vanderbilt. While many positive descriptors arose, attendees also included words that raised discussion about the current climate of the university community and Vanderbilt’s role in engaging the larger Nashville community.

“To be an anchor institution, it means the fate of the community is tied with the community that you are serving,” Page said. “It means that you are creating amazing learners that are going to go out and change the world, that we’re able to create economic opportunities for staff and faculty, and that we’re able to do some of the most exciting and important research in the world. But it also means that we give opportunities to our local diverse suppliers who are part of our community, so that as Vanderbilt succeeds, we’re also passing the wealth within our community.”

Vice Provost Melissa Thomas-Hunt (Steve Green/Vanderbilt)

The discussion also covered how to prepare students to be global scholars, with Thomas-Hunt mentioning the importance of investing in the community and understanding the larger local context.

“There’s an imperative for us to make sure that all members of the Vanderbilt university community, including students, staff and faculty, understand the broader context within which the university is situated,” Thomas-Hunt said. “That history, and the future of Vanderbilt University, are integrally linked to that, and if there’s an absence of a deep understanding of the implications of the university’s very existence in the larger local context, then we’re not doing our jobs in educating them to be global citizens.”

The discussion also brought about honest dialogue about the experiences of underrepresented groups on campus. Page spoke to the importance of creating an inclusive and supportive environment where everyone is able to thrive, and ensuring that an undue burden or “tax” isn’t placed on any one part of the community. “What is the minority tax here? How burdensome is it? At other places I’ve been, everyone comes to you and you are helping everyone else navigate, but you also have your personal challenges that you are trying to navigate. It can have an impact on your ability to positively engage in the environment when you constantly have these weights on you.”

Several others at the town hall spoke to this concern as well. “Students of color on this campus have so much more to worry about than just school,” said one student in attendance. “Being a person of color, you have to deal with so many other things, whether it be microaggressions, comments, always having your defense mechanism up, and being silenced or unheard.”

The need for increased support for staff also was discussed during the town hall. “Investing in employee wellbeing and fostering a sense of connection with each other and with the university would be a way to build community on campus,” said one staff member in attendance. Another mentioned creating a better system of support for staff if they encounter oppressive actions or behaviors at work.

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Town Hall (Steve Green/Vanderbilt)

During the latter half of the town hall, attendees shared their perspective and feedback on how to build a more diverse, inclusive and equitable campus community. Suggestions included campus climate surveys, more intentional staff and faculty recruitment processes, benchmarking with other institutions, greater transparency, clarity on the structure of the multiple equity, diversity and inclusion offices and resources on campus, and implementing accountability mechanisms. Attendees also spoke to the importance of using data to drive change.

“We need to look at the empirical data, we need a [staff] climate survey and we need a salary survey [analysis],” Thomas-Hunt said. “The data can really tell a story and help us to find where the origin of a problem emerges, allowing us to begin to put in place structures that will promote change and create professional development opportunities.”

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Town Hall (Steve Green/Vanderbilt)

The next equity, diversity and inclusion town hall will be on Dec. 6 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Student Life Center Board of Trust Room. Questions can be submitted in advance for the second town hall using this online form. Page and Thomas-Hunt will provide responses to all submitted questions following the second town hall.