The Diversity and Equity Board (DEB)/Senate Joint-Committee of Academic Affairs hosted a town hall in the Johnson Global Forum Nov. 2 to discuss concerns surrounding the Multicultural Summer Institute’s (MSI) leadership and programming. The committee plans to release a report that interviewed 30 MSI-affiliated individuals. Based on their findings, the committee encourages a reevaluation of MSI. The committee summarized their findings in a Letter to the Editor published in The Occidental Weekly Nov. 1.
MSI is a four-week long summer program in which first-year students from different cultural backgrounds take classes and participate in co-curricular activities. This past summer, Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) and Vice President of Equity and Inclusion Rhonda Brown and biology Professor Kerry Thompson were the co-directors of MSI.
The committee, comprised of two members of DEB and four from the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Senate, as well as one unaffiliated first-year student, proposed a re-evaluation of MSI based on concerns about a lack of mental health resources, current hiring practices, disparity between the curricular and co-curricular components and insufficient critical intergroup dialogue.
After discussion with current and past MSI students as well as Occidental community members at the town hall, Senior Class Senator and committee member Ricardo Parada (senior) presented a list of eight recommendations for the future of MSI: the establishment of a standing committee to assess MSI, reintroduction of Engaging Reflections on Social Justice (ERSJs), improved training of Residential Advisors (RAs), a student assessment after MSI, transparency in hiring practices, stronger communication between STEM and the humanities in the academic portion of MSI, more off-campus events focused on social justice and community engagement as well as an increase in panels with community members and students discussing social justice issues.
ERSJs were MSI discussions on a variety of socially pressing topics, according to committee member and First-Year Class Senator Rachel Hayes (first year).
Brown said that learning about the committee’s scrutiny of her work with MSI before the town hall surprised her.
“I felt like this was my first time running, being a co–director of MSI, and I thought we had a really successful cohort, so I was surprised,” Brown said.
She also said that the committee’s concerns regarding MSI were never properly communicated with her.
“If I’m wrong and I recognize that I am wrong, I am happy to correct, but there is a way you talk about that,” Brown said. “I still felt like I don’t really know what the issue is — that’s a problem.”
According to Jessica Rodriguez (first year), the unaffiliated member of the committee, the MSI leadership mishandled participants’ mental health this past summer. Hayes said that the committee is seriously concerned with this aspect of MSI.
“Mental health was never really mentioned during [MSI] and I think that’s really troubling and I think that’s definitely what a lot of this year‘s MSI students are really worried about as well,” Hayes said. “I think [the committee] wants for mental health to be incorporated and considered more in the program.”
Brown said that she believed that the rigorous academics were a primary cause of this stress. According to Brown, MSI fits about a semester’s worth of academic work into four weeks, inevitably inducing stress.
“There was nothing diagnosable that could’ve been corrected, the problem simply was they had a lot of work and they had to get it done in a short period of time,” Brown said. “So I know that causes mental distress, I absolutely know that, but I also know that there is no button, no pill, no anything that someone can be given to fix that.”
Brown said that she and the faculty deliberately removed ERSJs.
“I understand that you [the students] want the ERSJs brought back, but the faculty who taught this year and both co-directors met, and we decided that it would be better to exclude those things from the conversations,” Brown said. “The faculty felt that they were divisive. The faculty felt that they caused friction in the classroom that took people away from their academic studies, so they were harmful to the academic nature of the course, so we removed them.”
Thompson said that the former director of the Intercultural Community Center (ICC), Jonathan Grady, met with faculty in 2016 to address the perceived harm that ERSJs had on academic success.
“They [faculty] were finding that the content of the ERSJ programming was being carried over into the classroom experience and impacting some students negatively (fatigue/emotional impact/etc.),” Thompson said via email. “So Dr. Grady made an effort to curtail the programming, but he was not satisfied that the faculty’s concerns were addressed sufficiently and he reflected at his exit meeting that a change was needed.”
Thompson said that Brown inherited both the programming structure of MSI and the faculty concerns about ERSJs from Grady. According to Thompson, feedback from previous programming influenced this year’s MSI.
Hayes, who participated in MSI this summer said that she had heard about ERSJs from students in years past.
“They were really long and they bled long into the night and something that the CDO mentioned during our interview was that it was really taxing for students, but I think, at the same time, other students have said that they have benefited from them,” Hayes said.
According to Nina Monet Reynoso ’16, former MSI alumni believe that the ERSJs were formative during their time at Occidental and in connecting with other past MSI students after graduation.
“I think that there is a lot of wealth in the intergenerational connections that are made,” Reynoso said. “I think that was a really widespread connection that is losing its power when we don’t engage with each other critically through ERSJs, through these co-curricular things and through critical curriculum in the classroom.”
The town hall was a valuable first step in the reevaluation of MSI, according to MSI participant Jo-Anne Naarendorp (first year).
“I think that there are a lot of changes being made that aren’t as transparent as they need to be, and I think it’s really imperative for the people that have been through this and even alums of the college that know so much about it to be here to talk about it,” Naarendorp said.
ASOC Vice President of Academic Affairs and committee member Belén Moreno (senior) said that she believes there is more work to be done.
“One of our next major steps includes holding follow-up meetings with admin, faculty and students,” Moreno said via email. “We want to ensure that the conversation about the development and improvement of MSI continues throughout the academic year.”
Update: This article was updated Nov. 10 to clarify the distinction between ERSJs and MSI panels.