Creating tangible equity in the ‘Tower of Power’

PSU leaders present critical discussion on campus diversity

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Dr. Oscar Fernandez, who spoke at the Walking the Talk: Demanding Equity from the ‘Tower of Power' event on April 6. Jamon Sin/PSU Vanguard

An April 6 University Studies’ Dialogue Series seeking to spark engaging conversations began the first of three events with a lecture about fostering diversity.

Director of the Portland State School of Gender, Race and Nations Dr. Winston Grady-Willis presented “Walking the Talk: Demanding Equity from the ‘Tower of Power,’” focusing on what real commitment to equity and diversity looks like for PSU and how to measure its success.

[Note: The Market Center Building, home to the office of PSU President Wim Wiewel and several key university players carries the unofficial nickname ‘Tower of Power’ amidst some members of the PSU community.]

Before the presentation, Dr. Maude Hines, Associate Professor of English and voting member on the PSU Board of Trustees, led a discussion with her class, “Sociology! Literature!” Co-taught by College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Associate Dean Matthew Carlson.

“[The course is] a race and social justice class aimed at increasing awareness and understanding of how data and narrative are used persuasively,” Hines said.

Hines felt their class should attend the event as its curriculum is quite similar to the Dialogue Series’ mission statement.

“A bit of a creation story for this Dialogue Series because it’s very University Studies culture, which I love,” recalled PSU University Studies Instructor Dr. Oscar Fernandez. “This past summer, 2016, University Studies faculty met to express a sincere interest in establishing courageous conversations among colleagues on campus with students about race, violence, and social justice. University Studies is committed to fighting social oppression through its learning objective of understanding the diversity of human experience.”

Historical Context

Grady-Willis began by discussing contexts that frame concerns about equity.

“The State of Oregon, the City of Portland, both have inarguably institutionally racist pasts,” Grady-Willis said. “The state of Oregon is the only state in the United States that was founded with racial exclusionary laws.”

Grady-Willis believes this ugly past informs contemporary realities.

Funding and structure

Grady-Willis asserted that PSU receives less funding per student than the University of Oregon and OSU.

“I argue that this is really important to look at from a racialized lens,” Grady-Willis stated, questioning why the most diverse four-year institution is also the most underfunded.

Grady-Willis brought up PSU’s decentralized organizational structure; decision making is localized to individual departments providing independence and autonomy. While good, Grady-Willis feels this can be frustrating for social justice workers, citing lack of communication about similar goals and duplicated efforts.

Presidential transition at PSU

PSU President Wim Wiewel will retire at the end the current academic year and thus has actively pursued his successor since Wiewel’s notice of resignation. Grady-Willis noted all presidential candidates are men and shared pros and cons.

Jack Knott comes from a very diverse campus at USC, though Grady-Willis emphasized that USC is a private institution in an extremely diverse part of the country.

Dr. Shoureshi, his entire presentation was almost lock-step with the current PSU strategic plan, the spirit of it was amazing,” Grady-Willis recalled. “But there’s this silence around equity. Though in fairness to Dr. Shoureshi, he did use the word diversity several times.”

Grady-Willis thought Dr. Jonathan Koppell’s talk went well, until asked about the need for culturally specific curriculum. Unless backed by data and evidence Koppell felt no need to support it.

PSU’s visual commitment to diversity

Grady-Willis discussed PSU’s budgetary challenges and potential to cut important resources needed to support the success of underserved communities at PSU, especially if its future president isn’t really committed to equity.

When viewing images on PSU’s brochures and website, Grady-Willis noted how one might assume PSU is a markedly diverse community.

Grady-Willis referenced the “Equity Scorecard,” which takes commitment to diversity further by not only tracking enrollment, but also success on campus including graduation—transforming commitment to diversity into commitment to fostering diversity that encourages legitimate success of students.

“At one time, [PSU] had a diversity requirement,” Grady-Willis said. “When University Studies was created, that requirement went away.”

Grady-Willis concluded, “I think it’s time in 2017 that such a requirement should be revisited.”

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