“Premier Education. Access and Affordability. With a Commitment to Diversity,” State of the College, Fall 2020
Presented on September 24, 2020
This is probably the most challenging State of the College address I’ve had to prepare. What should I speak on besides the pandemic? After all, it has consumed 75% of the work being done at the College. But, I don’t want to talk about that. Yes, it is important. Yes, it’s going to be with us for some time to come. Yet, in spite of these realities, we must all continue to think about and prepare for life when we get to the other side. And, we must find things to talk about that bring us joy, give us a sense of accomplishment, provide us with some sense of normalcy. And, importantly, continue to prepare us for future success at the College.
The landscape of our built community continues to change. The NABA, designated to house the departments of music and ed studies, is on schedule to be completed by 2022. Recall the building has a 700-seat auditorium. We are going to have fun thinking about innovative ways to fully utilize that space post-COVID!
The panels for our Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples have been fabricated and are on a truck on its way to Maryland. The concrete slab at the site has been poured. It will be a magnificent edifice that we will dedicate on November 21 in a very special way that includes Jelani Cobb as the keynote speaker. I hope you tune in.
Before March, we looked forward to the 2020-21 academic year with much anticipation. Why, not? The entire campus community, by virtue of our integrated institutional planning process, had worked so hard to attract and recruit what potentially could have been the largest entering class in SMCM history. We had received almost 900 more applications than last year. What a feat! By mid-July, we had 409 paid deposits from first-time first-year students and well over 70 deposits from transfer students. Where did we end up? In the midst of all of the turmoil going on in the country and around the globe, we are fortunate and happy to welcome 382 FTFY and 80 transfer students to the SMCM community. Again, I say “welcome new Seahawks!”
Thank You to the staff in Admission for your team effort to get us here! You have done a most excellent job! It is also very important for us to recognize our incredibly supportive colleagues in Student Financial Assistance, Integrated Marketing, Facilities and Grounds, the New Student Experience team, Office of Information Technology, and the countless numbers of students, faculty, and staff who lent their expertise, commitment, and passion for all things SMCM to engage in the Admission efforts and to display their Seahawk pride. We could not have done this without you!
I want to continue with positive news and highlight some of the accolades bestowed upon members of our campus community in the last six months. Many of the faculty and staff who are making noteworthy contributions, individually and/or in groups, to our community and to their professions have been featured in Inside SMCM and on our webpage. A group that has not been announced that was integral in the College receiving a prestigious grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation had more than 15 individuals engaged in this endeavor that was led by Pam Mertz and Alan Jamieson. Thank you for this tremendous collaborative effort supported by Lauren Sampson, the director of Corporate and Foundation Relations.
There is so much need in the country right now. This need has brought out the best in so many. I would like to take a moment to recognize the tremendous effort of our student government association for their focus on the Greater Good. Under the previous leadership, as we transitioned to COVID-19-mandated operations, the SGA committed $50 thousand to the Recovery Fund. They also purchased ENGAGE, a software designed to connect students – a godsend during a pandemic with strict social distancing guidelines and policies.
This year, they have committed $10 thousand to the cost of providing free flu shots for every campus community member who is consistently on campus this semester. That is a fine example of responsible and engaged leadership. Well done!
I next want to recognize Laurie Scherer, our Wellness Center director. The Wellness Center is usually a busy place but as you may well imagine, since the pandemic hit these shores, “busy” is an understatement! I would say that the Center’s workload has increased at least 50-fold since this all started. Yet, Laurie has managed the workload, the deadlines, the fluid guidelines, and all the other stuff with a can-do attitude and with grace and confidence. Thank you, Laurie, for your efforts and sacrifice. It is our hope that the gift that you received today from the College is as comforting to you as our knowing that the Wellness Center is under your care.
The College continues to receive external validation for the things we do with our programming and facilities and I am happy that, in addition to moving up 12 spots on the USNWR ranking of national liberal arts colleges, we continue to be in the top five as the best public liberal arts colleges in the nation.
Thus, through virtually any lens, the people who make up our community are doing excellent work and are contributing in some very significant ways to the campus environment and, by extension, to our mission.
What is our legislated mission? It is that SMCM provides both the promise of a public education affordable to all, thriving on diversity, and the high standards of academic excellence. This mission has evolved into the statement of purpose: To provide an excellent education akin to that found at elite private liberal arts colleges that is affordable and accessible to all and with a commitment to diversity.
What is the College’s aspirational vision? SMCM will become the College of Choice where all who enter into our community will thrive. To do this, to ensure that all thrive and that the institution is sustained over the long-term, EQUITY must be at the center of EVERYTHING we do. Everything.
What does equity mean? In my early years at the College, I was told that being an honors college means that we meet students where they are and bring them to where they need to be. In principle that appears to be an equitable approach to education. What about in practice? We have had success in many of our programs but not all. The LEAD initiative is an equitable approach to education that will put us on the path where all of our students will thrive in their educational experience at SMCM.
Since I’ve been here, we have talked about the changing demographics of the college-going population in this country and trying to prepare for it. Our efforts have been laudable but standing before you as a woman of color, as a faculty member, as a member of the staff, as the president of this community I will tell you that I know that we can and must do better.
Creating an environment where all thrive, putting EQUITY at the center of everything we do is not simply to placate the calls for social justice across the nation or even at SMCM for that matter. SMCM is not a “just because…” kind of organization, meaning that we are not a community that does things just because others are doing them. We are principled, thoughtful and deliberate. Trying to work towards the aspirational vision of being a community where all will thrive will ensure that this college will be home to a very cohesive and committed community and ensure the sustainability of our institution.
When I came here, a former College employee stated, SMCM does programs well, not people. That statement gave me pause. Could it be true? No, but what is true is that the ways by which we have tried to address the issues of inclusive diversity and equity have not been nearly as successful as we need them to be.
In our most recent strategic plan, A Time for Rebirth, we intentionally integrated issues of inclusive diversity into each goal because we wanted to ensure that if things got off track we could not easily deprioritize them. As we all know, the intentional integration of important matters into the fabric of the mundane ensures that they get done. Integration requires the attention of a broad swath of individuals. When you examine what has occurred with our enrollment efforts, our work to do integrated institutional planning laid the foundation for the momentum that’s been building and produced this year’s tremendous success.
During my tenure, we started our focused diversity efforts with five groups working on different aspects of IDE. This massive effort was coordinated by a single individual. The beauty of that approach was that it demonstrated the community’s desire to address IDE issues (there were about 200 campus members engaged at various points) but the effort was not sustainable because everyone was engaged in the activities as their second or third SMCM “job”.
We then moved to a model where there was a single leader whose job was to provide the vision and road map to our building an inclusively diverse community where all felt welcomed.
What we’ve learned over the years is that the job is much too complex for a single individual to address with the sense of urgency we need. Given the depth of the issues we face here on campus and elsewhere, SMCM needs a different approach – one that incorporates a number of individuals with different yet complementary areas of expertise and who are familiar with our College, to help build a solid foundation, from which to grow our IDE efforts. Thus, today, I am announcing the formation of a new campus unit that will serve as the foundation of our new approach to our efforts to live up to our vision to become an institution where all who enter will thrive.
We are all familiar with IDE. This is evolving to IDEAA, Inclusive Diversity, Equity, Access, and Accountability. Access is not a term we have associated with our diversity initiatives in the past but it should be. Access is about thinking how can we ensure that people with different abilities – physical, neural or whatever– thrive at the College? In our strategic plan we discussed helping faculty develop teaching materials and pedagogy to enhance the learning by neurodiverse students. From that effort, we developed CITL, the Center for Inclusive Teaching and Learning. We now must broaden how we think about accessibility and include making our community more accessible not just to neurodiverse students but also to students, faculty, and staff who have other atypical needs.
What about the other “A”, Accountability? As a public institution, we should be held to higher standards. We must be made aware of how well we are doing advancing our goals. Thus, metrics, qualitative and quantitative, must be developed and visible. Progress must be evaluated, assessed, and rewarded. There are an abundance of offices on campus that are responsible for various compliance reports on issues related to diversity, inclusion, and equity. However, few people know what is being collected and how we are doing regarding any metric. We cannot get the big picture, institutionally, when the reporting is treated simply as something to check a box. The question is when we look at all the data that are collected, what story does it tell us about our institution? What are our strengths? Where do we need to improve? The IDEA2 unit will have the responsibility of learning what we collect across all campus units, analyzing the data, and providing the institutional story. Our results will be placed on our website for all to see. The Washington Post’s tagline is democracy dies in darkness. A tagline for SMCM will be inclusive diversity happens where there is light. That should be strong motivation to get us moving with a greater sense of purpose.
The foundational members of the IDEAA group are Kelsey Bush, chief diversity officer; Michael Dunn, assistant vice president of equity and inclusion; and José Ballesteros, director of equity programming.
For the time being, the three of them will report directly to me. Mr. Bush is a member of the Executive Council. At the end of the summer, we will assess how things are progressing and make a decision regarding who will lead IDEAA.
This year I have asked the group to spend time thinking hard and engaging the campus community to address the question, what does inclusive diversity really mean at an institution like St. Mary’s College? What kind of organizational changes must we make so that we can begin to truly build an environment and develop/implement/and support programming that creates a community where everyone can thrive?
There is tremendous work ahead for this unit, for our community. The time is now. There will be some disruption since part of their efforts will require some realignment of already established organizational structures. We ask for your patience and understanding as we move with deliberate intent and urgency to a new ideal.
If we are successful, at the end of the next strategic plan, we will be at a place where we will see a noticeable difference in the diversity of our campus community members because we have markedly improved our recruitment of diverse students and hiring of diverse faculty and staff; all of whom will be better retained because the campus environment will be good and right; our programming will be more inclusive; our services will be more equitable. Individuals and thus the campus writ large will be thriving.
Accessibility is being able to get into the building
Diversity is getting invited to the table
Inclusion is having a voice at that table
Belonging is having your voice heard at that table
IDEAA is an integral stepping stone on St. Mary’s College’s path to a brighter and sustainable future. It is our sincere hope that you will join us in this endeavor.