Saturday, June 22, 2024

Temperatures rise, but campus climate cools: Task Force begins meetings

On a micro-level, Plattsburgh State wants to tackle the nation’s most gripping controversies at home.

As an onslaught of race and diversity issues racked PSUC, the college struggled to regain some semblance of stability. Students and faculty offered up a slew of ideas and solutions in an attempt to plug a dam with swiftly widening holes.

Namely, the newly formed Social Justice Task Force, headed by Jonathan Slater, director of the Institute for Ethics in Public Life, and Maxine Perry, Plattsburgh Housing Authority family tenant relations coordinator, is tasked with providing President John Ettling with a list of “actionable” recommendations by Aug. 1, Slater said.

The group will hold its third meeting Monday, and Slater expects members will come away from that round table with a small set of interim recommendations.

“We have students on the task force,” he said. “Some are leaving, so we made it a priority to focus on student issues.”

In addition to student issues, members are using conversations, interviews and quantitative data to tackle faculty, administrative, and larger community issues and understand those affected by them.

The task force will disband July 31, but both Slater and the rest of PSUC know the work its doing is far from finished.

PSUC has a Title IX department, the I Am An Ally Campaign, Student Affairs and the Center for Diversity, Pluralism and Inclusion among others, but it comes as no surprise that one of the team’s recommendations for the university will be to form a long-term entity that advises the administration on social justice issues.

Where other departments are geared toward sex and gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights and diversity issues, the Social Justice Task Force aims to go broader.

“All of us are in the same boat, paddling toward the same shore,” Slater said. “But what we’re looking at is something a bit more umbrella-like, something more comprehensive… Diversity is part of social justice, but social justice encompasses far more than diversity.”

While the co-chair is convinced the finished product will be useful in improving PSUC’s grasp on these concerns, “it will really depend on how the recommendations are taken up by the president and the administration,” he said.

Task force members endured a significant blow already with the sudden loss of fellow member Kyla Relaford, director of the Educational Opportunity Program. Relaford was a reverberating voice among shouts earlier this semester through a series of forums and protests against the campus climate and administration.

Student Association President and Social Justice Task Force member Jessica Falace said Relaford had played a huge role in the group’s first meeting.

“She pushed forward so much with social justice and so much positivity that it’s a huge loss for us,” Falace said.

Slater recalls feeling as though he’d been punched in the gut, and gotten the wind knocked out of him, upon receiving the news of her death.

“Spiritually, I would say she’s still at the table,” Slater said.

During February’s campus-wide forums, students expressed concerns they would not see real, concrete changes from their administration, and earlier faculty meetings grew tense in light of divided thoughts in terms of how to deal with perceived inaction, including the consideration of a vote of no confidence in a handful of administrators.

Faculty senator and representative for the biological sciences department Joel Parker listed a number of other solutions the campus is actively pursuing following February’s distress.

He cited revisions to the student code of conduct, a new standing committee by a faculty senate to deal with student diversity issues, plans to integrate mandatory diversity training already moving through the system and both the city and university taking a new look at the reports of harassment by local residents toward students, particularly on Rugar Street.

“I just hope that these changes have a chance to have some effect before the next incident,” Parker said. “There is still a long way to go, but we are moving in the right direction. Education happens by trial and error, by making mistakes and correcting them.”

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