Fall 2021FeaturesSpecial Edition

Let’s Talk About Accountability, Baby

Students gather outside of Jones Hall for the MIBU walk out on Nov. 10, 2021 (Andrew Benoit/The Trail)

In the past two years, the University of Puget Sound endured shared hardships with communities beyond campus while simultaneously attempting to grapple with its own internal struggles. September marked the campus’ return to full capacity for the first time following the Coronavirus induced shutdown in Spring 2020. The pendulum swung from total isolation back to a complete immersion into campus life and community. 

The University of Puget Sound is not alone in the trauma weathered during this time. This trauma extends well beyond a global health crisis, stemming also from cataclysmic racial injustices. The death of George Floyd brought on an onslaught of digital and physical protests and resistance movements. The world watched history unfold in the past two years, and broad scale social movements disseminated on college campuses.

The horrific racial attacks witnessed in the summer of 2020 are not unprecedented events; the coverage and national response were, on the other hand, profound. The assaults broadcasted worldwide reopened unhealed wounds for marginalized communities and individuals, spurring renewed demands for tangible change. 

The Multi-Identity Based Union (MIBU) Demands, published Spring 2021, explain that the summer of 2020 served as a catalyst in the call for the University to hire Dr. Dexter Gordon for the role of Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity (VPIED).  This was the first of 11 demands addressed to the administration and the collective campus community with an appeal to grapple with the grievances of marginalized groups. Dr. Gordon made significant contributions to the African American Studies department during his 19 years teaching at the University. The University’s external hire of Dr. Lorna Hernandez Jarvis over Dr. Gordon further fueled distrust and dissent from students as demonstrated by the most recent student walkout on November 10, 2021.

The Trail recently met with President Isiaah Crawford, the new VPIED Lorna Hernandez Jarvis and a MIBU representative and a Demand author Helena Marlowe (Fourth Year) to discuss current tensions on campus and the potential for progress moving forward. 

Everyone has a role to play

The general consensus from the three interviews expressed a need for transparent dialogue as well as the acknowledgment that this is not a single party issue. All three interviewees made the point that every person on this campus has a role to play in working to create a  environment.

“I am not an oracle and this is not my singular work that’s here. So, I think this is a collective piece of work that we all have a role to play toward that end, and that’s how we will achieve our goals.” Crawford said.

Marlowe explained that accountability is split between the administration.     “… A misconception is that it rides on President Crawford.  You know, I think historically, good things at the University have come from the bottom up.  What we did … was think about who holds the most institutional power for… the alteration of things that are kind of codified.” Marlowe said in regards to how and to whom each of the demands was addressed.

What does accountability look like?

On Oct. 20, 2021, in what has been interpreted as an attempt to meet Demand 6 for semesterly accountability forums, the University hosted a public town hall. Hernandez Jarvis opened the forum with comparative statistics between the University of Puget Sound and other liberal arts institutions. Issues measured were campus demographics, experiences of diversity and sense of belonging on campus.  The presentation was concluded with action steps, including increased culturally responsive teaching and trauma informed pedagogy.

A Q&A with President Crawford and Dr. Hernandez Jarvis followed the presentation .  Students held up signs presenting pleas for action and the room become rowdy as frustrations boiled over. 

Students felt that this forum failed to appropriately meet their preconditions.  “Demand six has a really specific outline. That is just what they had to follow. But they didn’t… I don’t even want to refer to it as a MIBU town hall. It wasn’t. It was an Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity (OIED) town hall. It was about their office and what they did. And valuable things are said, but … this isn’t what our demand is asking.”  Marlowe said. 

“I think there were a series of misinterpretations or misunderstandings of what accountability means. I think that in terms of meeting the transparency, there was an attempt to do that. Clearly the students did not, and certainly the MIBU students did not see that as a process of transparency or accountability.” Hernandez Jarvis said when asked whether she thought the Oct. town hall satisfied MIBU’s sixth demand for a transparency and accountability forum.  

Hernandez Jarvis acknowledged that “the two town halls we’ve had have not worked, so I’m not sure having one more is going to do anything different. So, I think we need to figure out alternative ways to think about how to take action steps to address the concerns; to me, that’s accountability.”

When asked if there was a more personalized way to address student concerns than through town halls, Crawford said “I think the clear goals and issues that stand underneath all of the demands are just different ways that one can try to look at and meet them. I think that comes with dialogue and understanding.  I think progress is being made. It is challenging right now.  I know for many, it feels as though it’s really hard work.”     

In response to the same question Marlowe said “I don’t think that people can heal or feel comfortable in the workplace or in their classrooms, until there’s that kind of acknowledgement by people who have done harm… I don’t see any meaningful change happening before individuals are ready to say that this happened and I contributed to it or I did it.”  

The mutual call for open communication and understanding persisted throughout the interviews, but the verdict on how accountability should be met is still out.

Building or burning bridges?

A common sentiment is the tendency of reconciliation efforts to inflict more pain than remedy for victims of discrimination.  A virtual forum in April of 2020 left students in tears expressing their experiences of discrimination on campus to the President and his cabinet.   

When asked how the University can reckon with its history in a way that allows for healing rather than furthering harm, Crawford responded, “We never want to look to do anything that would cause more harm, I don’t know of anyone that is looking to maliciously create more harm. I know we’re working to provide as much support and care to our students as we can… I do think that we’re sometimes talking past one another and how we can find ways to be able to really, actively and positively listen and recognize that we are all trying to row in the same direction towards the same end.” 

In response to the apparent rift between the administration and the student body, Hernandez Jarvis explained, “I think that the biggest concern is that the divide has led people to be more entrenched in their positions rather than to be willing to engage in a collaborative process to look for solutions… Building trust is always very challenging in any context where there has been conflict.”

While fragmentation is evident for many, President Crawford wants to ensure that communication is open and for students to know he is working to maintain a connection.  “Well, it troubles me if there is a sense of a rift developing, I certainly want to make sure that there is always a bridge so that doesn’t occur.  There is certainly not a rift developing from this side of the equation, I’ll put it that way.”  Crawford said when asked about the divide.

Students’ feelings of mistrust have not been hidden or underplayed. The MIBU Demands emphasize the need for transparent communication and acknowledgement from the President and his administration. “…In some senses, he has acknowledged it, but he’s doing his best to erase it. It’s not that they don’t understand us.  It’s not that they don’t hear us.  They hear us, they understand us.  But it’s a disregard and an erasure.  It’s on purpose.” Marlowe said of President Crawford and the administration’s handling of MIBU and the Demands.  

Looking back and moving forward

Signs made for the Oct. Town Hall line the Student Union Building with the tagline “6 months, 0 Demands”.  Six months turns to ten with the release of this issue, indicating the trend of incontinuity in regards to student and faculty demands on campus.

After nearly a year, student leaders feel burnt out. “I’ve wrestled with whether or not it should have been done in the first place because of the cost of it emotionally,” Marlowe said looking back at the past year.

This burnout is made all the more difficult by the presumption that the Demands will realistically take years to address. “I think one misconception or maybe misuse of energy a little bit is people are vying for the demands just to be met. But I think, one thing that has been difficult to achieve in a general understanding is that it’s hard for the demands to be met, they have to be met… with care… You know, some of these are gonna take, like years, even 10 years, really to do.” explained Marlowe.​

The MIBU Demands are not the first of their kind, preceded by the Advocates for Institutional Change in 2015 and the Coalition against Injustice and Racism in 2008.  In the eyes of student activists and allies, the response from the administration under former President Ronald Thomas failed to meet student initiatives to enact meaningful change and the consistent request for personal accountability. 

The three sets of demands, not including faculty demands from 2020, and their spanning over more than a decade paint a cyclical image of waiting periods.  The administration meets students seeking accountability with passivity (or, as seen in 2016, with extreme reprimand) until the time comes for the key players of these activist groups to graduate.

There is a fear that as the authors of the MIBU Demands graduate in the Fall and Spring semester of 2021-2022, momentum will die down. Marlowe (graduating this semester) stressed the importance of the student body stepping up instead of letting the responsibility be placed exclusively on the shoulders of “hyper visual individuals”.  She went on, “…people need to have the ability to stand up in those moments that sh*t’s happening in class or in your living space and say ‘that’s not right’.  It doesn’t take a special body to take interest in a thing, for that thing to be addressed… cross peer collectivism is really powerful.”

Will the MIBU Demands become yet another incidence of student activism  that fades away? With future students lacking the general knowledge about the University’s history and student leaders graduating, it is a possibility.  Conversely, in this concurrent pandemic era of social reckoning with an extraordinary level of communication and information spread, now may be the time for an uninterrupted impetus toward reform.