Forum brings UAA together to discuss diversity

Respect, open discussion and a commitment to action will resolve conflicts of classroom diversity at UAA.

Students, teachers, administrators and social workers all gathered March 11 for an open discussion about diversity at UAA. The forum, headed by chairwomen of the UAA Senate Diversity Committee Jeanne Eder and Helena Jermalovic was organized to discuss not only the element of classroom diversity but also the various issues that arise from it.

Robert Heffle, who will graduate this May with a master’s degree in social work, brought up how students can remain politically correct within the classrooms.

“When we talk about diversity I heard comments like Alaska Native or American Indian,” Heffle said. “And I’m understanding that some of the people here are teaching in courses and really need to have that dialogue and know what the correct term is, because how can you teach it if you don’t know what the correct term is?”

The best course of action is to simply be respectful and ask people how they choose to be referred to, Heffle said.

“I think that’s really where it starts,” Heffle said. “It’s about respect.”

Julianna Kien, a justice student of Navajo descent, shared her own account of discrimination when, during a recent class session, a fellow student commented jokingly on a Navajo spiritual practice. Kien said she felt very angry, not only with the student for making the comment but with the professor for changing the subject and not educating the offender.

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Chairita Franklin, director of Campus Diversity and Compliance, urged any student with a similar story to seek help from her so the conflict may be resolved.

“It’s my job to have those difficult conversations with faculty, with administrators, and I’ve had them,” Franklin said. “I want to say for the students that are here (to) contact my office, I can be an advocate.”

All agreed these issues must be brought to the forefront of discussion, and the university should not talk about classroom diversity conflicts without being prepared to take action. Nursing professor Patti Hong commented people attending this university must know tolerance is expected on the UAA campus.

“Diversity needs to be front and center on the Web page, front and center on the catalog,” Hong said. “That will do so much more as a reminder and as a pledge to our public, to our community.”

Discussion moved to whether UAA should require a three-credit course on diversity education. Many argued the course would be an overview, covering as many topics as possible and would be a great help to students coming to UAA from other parts of the country.

“I just don’t know how a student can come up from the Lower 48 to complete an education at the University of Alaska Anchorage and not know the differences between an Eskimo and an Indian,” Heffle said.

UAA administrators were on hand to offer their views on issues being raised. Vice chancellor Linda Lazzell said that some of the ideas being presented were things she could work on this coming year.

“I’m now in charge of the catalog, the class schedule and student handbook,” Lazzell said. “And I can tell you that having the diversity statement right up front, what a great idea. It’s in there, but obviously people don’t get to page 20 or 30.”

Lazzell also urged students to feel free to talk with faculty and staff about any problems they might be having, because that is often the only way administrators hear about incidents.

“We really need you to tell us,” Lazzell said. “You can tell us, you can talk to me, you can talk with the chancellor, with any of these other fine faculty and staff that are around here, and we together can work.”

The forum ended with Chancellor Elaine Maimon offering her perspective. Maimon thanked the participants in the forum because open discussion is the first step toward progress.

“I also want to thank you for your openness, for speaking out without any kind of fear or sense of repression, which is exactly what we want on the university campus,” Maimon said. “That kind of atmosphere is something that creates other opportunities and places where that kind of discussion can take place.”

Maimon also said the new administration is and will be working diligently to answer these issues, and new strategies are being organized.

“The way we are now structuring ourselves we hope that, after studying some of the issues on campus, it will help,” Maimon said. “The administration is in the service of students and faculty, and we have to organize ourselves so that we can do that service.”