In his annual State of the University address on Feb. 11, President C. L. Max Nikias placed heavy emphasis on increasing diversity throughout the USC community. His speech paralleled many of the student efforts that have been made to ameliorate recent problems with inclusion, including the Undergraduate Student Government’s Campus Climate Resolution, which was passed in the fall.
The original resolution outlined multiple actions to be taken on the administration’s part. According to USG President Rini Sampath, after the passing of the resolution, Provost Michael Quick established a task force, which consists of Ainsley Carry, vice president for Student Affairs; Varun Soni, dean of Religious Life; Nikita Hamilton, Graduate Student Government president; Christina Gutierrez, GSG vice president; Sampath; Moira Turner, director of diversity affairs; Ginger Clark, president of the Academic Senate; Debra Langford, officer of diversity and inclusion initiatives in the Marshall School of Business; Domenika Lynch, executive director of the Latino Alumni Association; and Jodi Armour, professor at the Gould School of Law.
However, Sampath also said the administration has yet to address several objectives of the resolution, including the hiring of additional Title IX coordinators and the establishment of a Vice President of Diversity. For this reason, Sampath said, there has been growing frustration among the student body.
“We haven’t seen immediate action,” Sampath said. “Where the students, I think, are disappointed is that this is turning into more conversations, more dialogue, and it’s a cyclical advocacy process. Students are feeling [a lack] of trust in the process.”
She added that students feel that there seems to be a discrepancy between the resolution and the actions taken by administrators. Graduate student Leslie Berntsen, who is one of the student organizers with the Campus Climate Coalition, echoed feelings of this discrepancy.
“[Nikias] gave his State of the University and it addressed the wicked problems of diversity, equity and inclusion, and there was a great press release and it looked very good,” Berntsen said. “But that image is entirely at odds with the students’ opinions of who actually gets to talk to [him and other administrators].”
Berntsen recalled one instance in which she saw an administrator walk past a student who was trying to ask whether he was going to be at a task force meeting, only to be completely disregarded.
“The body language was so striking,” Bernsten said. “It was ‘I do not want to be here or talk to you about any of this.’ So I think there’s a disconnect between the material in speeches that are given and what’s actually happening on the ground as we’re organizing around these issues.”
Berntsen said she sees Nikias’ speech as more of a “symbolic gesture” than anything else.
“I appreciate the efforts,” Berntsen said. “I can’t emphasize that enough. But there’s still much work to be done.”
Efforts in addition to the task force have included a secondary advisory board as well as open forums for students, according to Sampath. In addition, she said that the task force is pushing for transparency by publishing meeting summaries to a new website, diversity.usc.edu. In addition, Quick, to substitute for the VP of Diversity, has created a diversity liaison model, which will consist of faculty members and staff.
“The student community is absolutely still pushing for this VP of Diversity spot,” Sampath said. “Especially because we see issues [such as] a student [telling] me they experienced an awful incident of racism and had no idea who to go to.”
However, whatever the discrepancies may be, Sampath is pleased that there is an open discussion between the administration and the student body.
“I think one of the biggest successes for us is to have opened this up as a conversation, and to have sustained that conversation,” Sampath said. “I think students [are] able to keep the momentum going. For example, our Campus Climate Coalition is now hosting general body meetings and the administration is hosting these task force meetings and open forums, so I’m really grateful.”