As a white woman from the Athens community who cares deeply about people who are marginalized by mainstream society, I have had the pleasure of extended contact with Ohio University students through auditing classes and participating in campus events.
Presently, I am alarmed about the direction of OU’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion due to the recent actions taken and precedents set by the vice president for Diversity and Inclusion Gigi Secuban with the support of university President Duane Nellis.
Though 70-plus tenured professors wrote a letter to both of them asking for clarification of the new strategic goals and overall vision for Diversity and Inclusion, so far there has been no public response.
Nellis has made Diversity and Inclusion a serious priority and invested about $200,000 into the salary of Secuban, hired in July 2018. Last September, OU was one of 96 schools to be given the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award, which is based on “level of achievement and intensity of commitment in regard to broadening diversity and inclusion ... and hiring practices for faculty and staff.”
The Diversity and Inclusion mission statement, written years ago, is laudable. It reads that Diversity and Inclusion “seeks to facilitate an infusion of diversity embedded into the fabric of the institution with inclusive practices ... leading to a supportive and affirming environment that welcomes and respects all persons, specifically those individuals and groups who have historically been excluded, not represented and or rendered voiceless in society.”
Not only have questions gone unanswered about a $20,000 differential between the two directors of color for the LGBT Center and Multicultural Center and the white director of the Women’s Center, but since October three employees of color within Diversity and Inclusion have been dismissed without warning.
The only explanation offered at the time since the last one, delfin bautista, director of the LGBT center, was “we are going in a different direction.” (bautista uses they/them pronouns and the lowercase spelling of their name.)
If Secuban felt confident about these dismissals, she could have provided strong, transparent explanations, leading to an open dialogue that might have continued to build trust and confidence in her leadership. Since then, students’ calls for clarity and respect have not been answered.
Being most familiar with the LGBT Center, I wonder what was “wrong” with the previous direction. Was there too much support and empowerment of participating students? Was there too much inclusion of transgender people (whose presence is sometimes believed to make more mainstream gay people uncomfortable)? Was there was too much creativity, play and self-care organized to support students who are among the most at-risk individuals on campus? Was the center too proactive in reaching across the persistent “town/gown divide” by educating both the campus and community about pronouns, gender differences, microaggressions and intersectional systems of discrimination?
All marginalized groups are worthy of advocacy and places they can feel safe, discuss problems and celebrate differences — especially in a predominantly white, cis-gendered, heterosexual student body and town.
Notably, transgender have the highest death rate from suicide and violence of any group in the United States save for Native Americans. Many people are uncomfortable with honoring their chosen pronouns, including Secuban, and with their self-expression in dress and behavior. Transgender and nonbinary people are challenging others — and the system — to see new possibilities.
In addition, many of these students experience an intersection of discrimination by belonging to both gender and racial minorities. The LGBT Center, under the guidance of bautista, was offering a large tent that welcomed and nourished some of the most marginalized and at-risk groups under Secuban’s charge.
So where might this “different direction” be headed? Will it be away from supporting advocacy, activism, power and pride to a more conservative position where the programs are more conventional? Will it be less student-centered and more image-centered? Is “new direction” actually a kind of dog-whistle or code for prioritizing services for those trying to join mainstream culture rather than challenge it? Does it mean not seriously considering including students’ input in decisions that clearly impact them? Or maybe it means combining the Multicultural, LGBT and Women’s centers under one roof — which has been done elsewhere and, though possibly fiscally responsible, would water down of the individual needs of the different groups. I certainly hope not.
An assistant director for the LGBT Center, Jan Huebenthal, was recently hired. He is a friendly, energetic person who identifies as gay. He is not of color, is European, is male and interacts in the world as the gender he was assigned at birth.
Just as they were fully within their rights to fire three people under the Diversity and Inclusion umbrella, Secuban and Nellis are in charge of shaping the inclusiveness and direction of a center that has been serving precisely those people “who have historically been excluded, not represented and/or rendered voiceless in society.”
The power lies with them — let’s hope they use it wisely, transparently and inclusively as they hire the new director.
Beth Amoriya is an activist and an Athens resident.