‘Different Meanings’ or an ‘Attack on Students’?

Trustees at Lakeland Community College plan to review diversity, equity and inclusion language in the institution’s plans and policies. Faculty members are speaking out against the decision.

October 5, 2022
Exterior view of a Lakeland Community college building.
(Lakeland Community College)

Faculty members at Lakeland Community College in Ohio are voicing opposition to a motion passed by the Board of Trustees to create a special committee of trustees to “review equity, diversity, and inclusion language in Lakeland Community College’s plans and policies.”

The motion passed with a 5-to-2 vote in early September. The decision came after the board in May tabled an earlier motion, proposed by Trustee Matthew Hebebrand, to remove the words “equity,” “inclusion” and “inclusivity” from the college’s strategic plan. The strategic plan was kept as is.

Hebebrand did not respond to a request for comment made through a college spokesperson, but Beverly A. Vitaz, the board chair, explained how the idea for a review committee came about.

When the first motion was proposed during the spring semester, “there was discussion that those words have different meanings from different perspectives,” she said in a written statement. The new motion to create a special committee, which was also proposed by Hebebrand, passed because “the board would like to better understand what diversity, equity and inclusion means at the college. Lakeland is an open access public institution of higher education. The board is committed to non-discrimination based on race, gender or any protected status.”

A group of faculty and community members isn’t convinced of that commitment and raised concerns about this at a Board of Trustees meeting last Thursday, at which they said the plan strayed from the college’s mission and lacked faculty input. The board took no action at the meeting, The News-Herald reported. The special committee also has not yet been formed.

Lakeland Faculty Association president Tobin Terry believes the new motion is likely another attempt to scrub equity and inclusion language from college documents.

“There are those who seek to vilify words and values that have long been a part of Lakeland’s legacy and that embody the best of who we are and what we have to offer,” he said at the meeting. “These people wish to use the College and our most vulnerable students to start a culture war, but Lakeland and our students are not pawns to be sacrificed in someone else’s game of political chess.”

More than 70 percent of students at Lakeland are white, almost 12 percent are Black and about 5 percent are Hispanic, according to spring 2022 data from the college.

Terry, an English professor at the college, believes removing diversity, equity and inclusion language in college documents would undercut the college’s value to the community as a place that “opens its arms to all students regardless of where they’re coming from or what barriers they’ve faced or what challenges they’ve had to overcome.”

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“We have to be prepared to uplift everyone and prepare them for what is an interconnected society and economy,” he said.

Carlton Brown, practice area leader for justice, diversity, equity and inclusion at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), said campus boards are increasingly having these kinds of discussions about reviewing diversity-related language and initiatives.

He partly attributes that shift to rising political polarization in the country and the pervasive narrative that campuses are advancing “progressive agendas.” He sees attempts to remove these kinds of terms from campus materials as partially a backlash to a wider movement in higher education to close equity gaps in academic outcomes. This movement, and the pushback against it, may have become especially apparent in 2020, during the national racial reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd, but it started long before that moment, he said.

While Brown believes discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion issues are important for boards to engage in, “It has to be a reasoned conversation, not a conversation based on political whims,” he said. “The conversation has to be focused on the capacity of the institution to meet the needs of its students and the communities that it serves.”

He also said the special committee at Lakeside shouldn’t only include the perspectives of trustees.

“We press for greater inclusion and shared responsibility in governance, which means at the very least being inclusive of, considerate of and examining of the views and attitudes and experiences of faculty, staff, students and other administrators,” he said.

Terry, a father of three, said the motion to review diversity-related language reminded him of some of the heated debates he’s heard among parents at local K-12 school board meetings. He was surprised to see similar sentiments come from a board that he believes has otherwise supported diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

He sees debates over terms like “equity” and “inclusion” as “a distraction from the very real issues that our students face,” particularly the financial constraints facing working adult students with children. He noted that 40 percent of Lakeland students are over the age of 22.

The motion “feels like an attempt to perpetuate this recent explosion of divisive and angry commentary that’s also happening at our local school board meetings that have done little to improve education for our community’s students and instead have served to deeply divide our communities over issues that have very little to do with what’s actually happening in our classroom,” he said.

Terry said removing the terms from college documents could also pose other challenges for the institution. For example, he fears the college would lose the respect of local industry leaders looking to hire a diverse workforce. He also fears the move may put the college’s accreditation at risk because the Higher Learning Commission, the institution’s accreditor, upholds diversity, equity and inclusion as values for its institutions.

“If we were to remove or replace these words, it’s a direct attack on the students,” he said. “Losing accreditation would be a tragedy … Losing our legitimacy in the eyes of our industry partners would be disastrous. It directly impacts our students.”

The Higher Learning Commission affirmed that its “committed to diversity in its Criteria for Accreditation” in a statement to Inside Higher Ed. The commission’s criteria require that an institution’s “processes and activities demonstrate inclusive and equitable treatment of diverse populations” and “the institution fosters a climate of respect among all students, faculty, staff and administrators from a range of diverse backgrounds, ideas and perspectives.”

“As part of HLC’s evaluation process for accreditation, the institution must demonstrate it meets the Criteria and its core components,” the statement from the Higher Learning Commission read. “The institution may provide evidence in writing for HLC to consider. HLC will evaluate this evidence and also will consider much other detailed information about the institution before making any decision regarding an institution’s accreditation.”

Vitaz, the chair of the Board of Trustees, said the board is aware “that inclusive and equitable treatment of diverse populations is a core criterion for the college’s accreditation.”

Brown, of AGB, stressed that the terminology campus leaders choose to use matters.

“Words have meaning,” he said. “Words have consequences. Words come to represent concepts and approaches to things and true, long-ranging discussions and research and development of sets of ideas.”

“We believe that it is necessary that [college administrators] begin to look at practices that lead to equitable outcomes, that inclusion is a vital concept related to persistence,” he added.

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