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Saturday, June 6, 2020

Guest Column: Obsession, Expectation and Disappointment

Western and its diversity problem, as told by a professor who’s been here since 1997

An obsession, according to Merriam-Webster, is characterized by “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently, especially in a way that is not normal.”

Would it be unreasonable to think of Western’s historical fascination with diversity —or rather the blatant absence of it throughout campus— as a sort of obsession?

Surely, as a foreign-born Latino who has made his professional career on three continents, and as a member of a multicultural, trilingual family, I am more than aware of the potential advantageous possibilities that a diverse environment has to offer. Thus, what have been the concrete measures undertaken by the institution to achieve its self-declared goal of attracting and keeping a more diverse student body, faculty and staff?

I first came to Western from Chile as an international student in 1997 and returned exactly 10 years later to serve as an instructor in the department of communication studies until 2010. I then moved to France, where I taught while I completed my doctoral work in political science, sociology and education.

And so, today I find myself back at Western once again, this time as a visiting assistant professor, in charge of courses on identity, difference and intercultural communication. To my rather ambivalent surprise I was confronted with the same all-too-familiar angst among colleagues, administrators, staff and of course students —as evidenced by the demonstrations that have periodically taken place on campus.

Despite its best efforts over the last 20 years, Western seems to have continued to fail in diversifying its predominantly white, domestic and upper-middle class constituency. Surely, and even if at a rather painfully sluggish pace, the university has improved its record on this matter. Yet, it is precisely the gross disparity between the scarcity of results and the great expectations conveyed by the pervasive official discourse of the last three administrations. The waves of consultations, initiatives, training programs, and the successive awareness —and PR— campaigns, have highlighted a serious dissonance problem… so, who or what is to blame?

Immediately after my arrival to Western, at the beginning of the quarter, I decided to consult with colleagues and administrators to both introduce myself and speak with them about these very issues. I also requested a meeting with President Sabah Randhawa early in the Quarter, but as of today my solicitation has not been answered.

To my surprise, while I expected to find a more welcoming environment for an educator with my academic, racial and ethnic credentials —a sort of “brown unicorn”, judging by the almost desperate official discourse in favor of inclusion and diversity across campus— I found rather a mixture of confusion and indifference; something that later I came to identify as “invisibility.”

In other words, even though the language used by many on campus —as well as on posters, banners, and the university’s website— seems to indicate Western’s resolute commitment to seek people like myself. I felt neglected, as if the institution just didn’t know what to make of me or do with me.  And now, I regularly hear colleagues and staff heading hiring committees complain, for instance, about the difficulties of bringing in minority candidates to fill competitive vacancies; or the frustration among minorities —whether faculty, staff or students— feeling ever identified and defined, but seldom heard or seen: invisible. Paradoxically, it seems, the very guidelines designed by the institution to improve its paltry record on inclusion, somehow make the task more difficult.

Even though just about everyone seems certain about the desperate need for a more heterogeneous campus, the increased normalization of these issues in the public conversation are, without a doubt, a welcome improvement towards the recognition of historically marginalized groups They have also created a climate of rhetorical confusion; an increasingly dangerous intellectual and political stiffness. Western has yet to open itself to an honest and candid debate about the significance and consequences of its expressed commitment to diversify. To do this, we must be ready to face and confront the inescapable contradictions and discomfort that these very complex issues entail.   

 

– Max Barahona, Visiting Assistant Professor

 

*Updated 4/23 from a guest editorial to a guest column.

1 COMMENT

  1. I would attribute most of this problem due to location. Why work at WWU when someone could live near Seattle which has easier access to ethnic food stores or bigger ethnic communities? This problem won’t be solved by WWU but by whatever future Bellingham sets itself on and if it’s attractive to minorities.

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