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Student Senate discuses diversity


In a continuation of ongoing deliberations between the recovering Student Senate and University of New Hampshire (UNH) administration, the body once again suspended parliamentary procedures on Sunday, March 8, and welcomed Senior Vice Provost for Student Life and Dean of Students John T. Kirkpatrick as he led a discussion on its efforts to improve diversity and inclusivity within its ranks amid the aftermath of allegations of, and investigations into, misconduct and harassment by its former speaker and parliamentarian. 

The meeting also contained an announcement from Kirkpatrick regarding the future of the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMSA), whose brand he said would be retired in the near future. The dean added that the new group would be assigned a new director and designed to make better use of “underutilized space” currently overseen by OMSA. The organization’s new name, as well as its new director, will not be announced until at least after students return from spring break. 

The dean was set to be joined by Assistant Director of Residential Life Darnelle Bosquet-Fleurival, who could not make it that night due to a head injury. Despite her absence, he addressed attending members for over an hour on the changing demographics of the student body, as well as ways for the Senate to not only adapt to this evolution but also become more inclusive and connected to the populations it was created to represent. 

Kirkpatrick initially acknowledged that the push for inclusivity emanates from the desire of universities like UNH to find the most talented students regardless of “what size, shape, backgrounds [or] sources of identity that talent actually appears in,” calling American colleges one of the remaining “meritocracies” left in the world. 

“You are here because you have a demonstrated track record at the secondary school level to earn a spot here at UNH, a competitive process” he said. “So, you were judged to have the talent to be here…I know it sounds a lot like Camelot, but it’s where the arts and sciences flourish, and it depends upon talent; so, if you have talent, it doesn’t matter what your gender, gender expression, race, ethnicity, how else you identify [is], you belong at a university.” 

Despite the desires of institutions to outweigh personal characteristics with personal ability during the application process, Kirkpatrick admitted that trending cultural divides often “invade” universities like UNH – especially in recent years – and help to separate different groups of students based on factors like race and gender. The dean stressed that collegiate openness, and democracy itself, was born out of statements like “E pluribus unum” – which translates from Latin into “out of many, one” – and yearned for student leaders like those in the Senate to stand by such mottos when it comes to looking for fresh student talent, especially when outside conflicts threaten to directly affect conversations about diversity on campus. 

“But especially with all of you who are leaders, student leaders here at UNH, you are representatives of the student body here,” he said. “I would argue that you have a special obligation – beyond the average student – to further that notion and strengthen it here at UNH.” 

Kirkpatrick explained that that obligation stems from a history of cultural tensions on campus throughout UNH’s history. Specifically, the dean referenced events such as 2017’s controversial Cinco de Mayo celebrations, which invoked frustration and outrage from students who, per the dean, had “had it” with the university’s response to calls for inclusivity at the time, particularly in the wake of UNH appearing as an “overwhelmingly white institution.” In response to the outcry, UNH toned down the celebrations in favor of community service efforts like “Unity Days,” which take place during the previous Cinco de Mayo events. 

The dean also pointed toward the changing demographics themselves as a core component of this “obligation” and changing societal attitudes overall. One prominent example of these demographics included declining birth rates and increasing death rates among white Americans throughout states like New Hampshire and Maine, who he said will look “very different” in a decade’s time if the trend continues; this case would in turn accelerate the national trend toward a “minority majority” country, which could occur by 2045, according to reports from the Census Bureau conducted in 2017

Despite such trends and related improvements in communal diversity, however, Kirkpatrick emphasized that disadvantages toward minority students remain; while he stated that the experience of learning at UNH allows graduating students to succeed in the outside world, uneven allocation of resources and opportunities in the outside world continue to create disparities for minority and underrepresented populations, which he attributed to the national emphasis on feelings of independence and self-reliance. 

“I worry about American culture because…there’s the emphasis on the ‘me,’ the ‘I.’ ‘I did it; I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, so can other people,’” he said. “The fact is…that’s not always true, it’s not always a fair, even playing field at birth: some people have better school systems in your hometowns than others have elsewhere. So, when you talk about issues of race, of gender, ethnicity – even religion – it’s not always a fair game in the United States. We like to think it is, but, as a sociologist, I’m telling you that’s not always the case.” 

To combat concerns of bias in real-world applications and in organizations like the Senate, Kirkpatrick urged the body to place greater importance on providing “equity” for members of underrepresented and/or minority populations such as women, who the dean said are often exposed to cases of “mansplaining” or “manspreading” regardless of whether the male responsible for those actions is aware of them. 

Kirkpatrick’s talk inspired members of the Senate to join into the conversation, such as Student Trustee Cailee Griffin, who asked attendees how the organization could improve retention and recruitment of minority students and populations without “tokenizing” them. Community Development Council Chair Elza Brechbuhl responded that a key answer to that question could come from more direct involvement from Senate members in events and activities that matter to those populations. 

“A lot of…racial diverse people at UNH, like, they feel like a lot of people just come to their events or meetings when they do them,” Brechbuhl said. “I’ve been talking to a lot of people from like BSU, the Black Student Union, and even people from disabilities and stuff to try and bring new people to Senate next year, but I don’t feel right doing it because I personally don’t see a lot of people from the Senate [attending] any of the events they post, so I don’t feel like I don’t have the right to ask them to come…” 

Brechbuhl added that amplified involvement in the doings of organizations like BSU and others – such as event sponsorship – and raised awareness of their presence on campus could in turn “expose” more students to Senate and its mission, which in turn could lead to a more diverse roster in future sessions. Others, like Sen. Meagan McLean (Non-Res. 4), encouraged members to additionally and actively “lift” up those populations while confirming that a new Code of Ethics would strengthen its commitment to inclusivity. 

Kirkpatrick himself responded to the ideas by promising to assist the Senate in its efforts to reform its culture and representation, but stressed that he cannot do it himself and that “we all have to work together to make sure we’re producing that equitable and welcoming inclusive community…these little, small things that we can do every day are meaningful.” 

Following additional conversation on the topic of diversity, the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and regularly scheduled communications, the Senate ultimately adjourned at 7:59 p.m. 

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