Occidental students, faculty and staff came together April 19 for a town hall meeting about the Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI). The informational presentation and open discussion were led by Jonathan Grady, co-curricular co-director of the program, and Kerry Thompson, academic co-director of the program.
Students in attendance raised concerns that recent restructuring of MSI has made it a “deficit program” focused primarily on addressing academic inability rather than fostering community.
Thompson, interim dean of the college and biology professor, was recently chosen as a new director of the program. He called the town hall to announce and discuss the new leadership that had been selected for MSI for the upcoming 2016 summer session.
During his presentation, Thompson first addressed his choice of faculty members to teach in the program. In selecting faculty for MSI, Thompson sought out those with whom he felt students could have a sustainable, ongoing relationship through their time at Occidental. For this reason, all faculty chosen are tenured — a change from past years.
Faculty selected include Mary Christianakis, professor of critical theory and social justice; Mary Lopez, professor of economics; Salvador Fernandez, professor of Spanish and French studies; and Richard Mora, professor of sociology.
The academic competent of MSI includes courses “Children, Youth and Inequities” and “Social Justice by the Numbers.” A co-curricular component compliments the program’s academics and it focused on learning outside the classroom.
“Social justice is what the program is really about,” Thompson said. “Students are introduced to the social, cultural and intellectual resources of Los Angeles.”
Thompson emphasized the retention success of students who have participated in MSI. According to Thompson, 91 percent of MSI students remain at Occidental, compared to the collegewide average retention rate of 85 percent. He considers this difference to be significant for the program.
Thompson and Grady briefly explained the direction of MSI in upcoming years. Both would like to increase the relationship between the academic and co-curricular components by continuing to bridge theory to practice, allowing students to spend more time directly going into the community to make change.
Following their presentation, Thompson and Grady gave attendees the opportunity to ask questions. Students in the audience voiced their concerns with the restructuring of the program.
Students said they felt as if the academic component was solely meant for skill building, and expressed concern that MSI is becoming a “deficit program.” They also said they felt as if potential MSI students are assumed to be lacking academic ability, taking away from the collective community building aspect of the experience.
Grady assured attendees that the academic and co-curricular components are complementary of each other, ensuring that the program is not built on a deficit framework.
Students also questioned how the staff were chosen, specifically whether they have had training in dialogue facilitation and familiarity with intersectionality.
Grady and Thompson said they chose staff carefully, looking for success skills, resource navigation and understanding of social justice issues.
Students feel that staff need to represent a wide range of opinions around social justice and must not limit their knowledge to lived experiences. Grady said he wants to ensure that Occidental is meeting the needs of its students.
“Over the past academic year (2015–16), both co-directors have reviewed MSI student feedback for the past two years (MSI 2014 and MSI 2015) as well as MSI staff feedback,” Grady said via email. “As a result, we have incorporated this feedback into MSI 2016.”
Grady and Thompson acknowledged the frustration of students who feel their concerns are not being heard. They invited students to share additional feedback about MSI in an online form open until May 8.
“Please know that any feedback provided will be appreciated and welcomed,” Grady said.