Constance Relihan fielded questions about diversity, the First Amendment and more Monday afternoon during the second forum for executive vice president and provost.
Relihan, associate provost for undergraduate studies at Auburn University, spoke to an audience of about 50 people in Baker Ballroom and touched on a variety of issues affecting higher education.
About halfway through the forum, Relihan was asked what she believed were some of the largest challenges related to the First Amendment on college campuses.
“I’m not a big fan of stifling debate or muzzling any perspective, but I also know that a university has responsibilities to its students to make sure that people stay safe, and I think we have a responsibility to want to promote deep engagement and not superficial soundbites,” she said. “That’s the key issue: How do we promote free speech while keeping everyone safe? How do we not muzzle discourse but not just promote incitements to hatred?”
Throughout the forum, several audience members posed questions about diversity and how Relihan would work to make Ohio University a more inclusive university.
“I think that we have a responsibility to ourselves to be as inclusive and diverse as possible,” she said. “The knowledge and the opportunities we create are stronger when we have all the voices at the table and everyone present in the room. We need to be holding people accountable for how they’re approaching issues of hiring."
She added that universities need to encourage people to create opportunities for diverse perspectives and for individuals to be physically present, for example, as guest speakers.
In addition to diversity, Relihan discussed the importance of state universities in addressing issues such as the opioid crisis and poverty in the region.
“I would like to see more opportunities for researchers and students to engage longterm with the communities in the region,” she said.
She then described a project at Auburn, a university of about 30,000 total students this academic year, in which students and faculty work on projects like designing homes, building a fire station and remodeling a library.
“You can’t have a one semester-long project here and a short internship there; you really need long-term engagement with areas that have been hard hit by economic difficulty,” she said. “I would like to see how we might grow opportunities like that to help with the community and the region.”
Pete Trentacoste, executive director of Housing and Residence Life, mentioned how OU’s retention rate in the past 10 years for first-year students has stayed at about 78 to 82 percent. He said he saw room for improvement there and asked Relihan how she would best try to improve that number.
“First of all, I want to know why students are leaving,” she said. “Until you know what the reasons are, you can’t fix it.”
She said it’s important to look at all factors as to why students would leave the university and address those, whether it’s financial, students not feeling welcome or students failing out. Those all need to be addressed in different ways to help improve retention. She said Auburn’s retention rate has remained steady at about 89-91 percent in recent years.
Relihan closed out the forum by discussing the importance of being inclusive and accepting of students’ religions and religious holidays in addition to pushing for professors to use students’ preferred pronouns.
Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly stated OU's retention rate for first-year students. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.