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MSU James Madison College to hold open forum in response to student calls for improved DEI efforts

April 15, 2024
<p>James Madison College sign directing to Case Hall on Mar. 24, 2022. The Hall holds much of the coursework for James Madison, Michigan State&#x27;s college of public affairs.</p>

James Madison College sign directing to Case Hall on Mar. 24, 2022. The Hall holds much of the coursework for James Madison, Michigan State's college of public affairs.

MSU's residential college in public affairs and international relations, James Madison College, is hosting an open forum tonight for students to discuss concerns regarding a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion in the college. 

The forum, which will be in the Wonders Hall Kiva on April 15 from 5 to 7 p.m., is a response to a letter released earlier this month. 

In the letter, James Madison College students condemned the institution for "cultivating and perpetuating an environment and culture where marginalized students are clearly unwelcome."

The letter discussed issues regarding racism, Islamophobia, anti-Arab sentiment, antisemitism and xenophobia that the students believe the college has failed to address. 

The letter was written by the Madisonians for Justice, "a collective of students devoted to promoting equity and inclusivity" in the college, according to a statement from the unofficial organization.

It was sent to the JMC deans, faculty, staff, College Inclusion Committee and Faculty Affair Committee in February and was released publicly on April 5, according to a joint Instagram post from the JMC Women of Color Coalition, JMC Wilma Mankiller Society and W.E.B. Du Bois Society. 

In addition to those three student groups, the letter's signatories include the United Madison Multicultural Association, Students United for Palestinian Rights, Arab Cultural Society Muslim Students Association Jewish Voice for Peace, MSU Successful Black Women, James Madison College Student Senate, and more.

The letter said students of color in James Madison classes "bear the burden of educating their classmates on their lived experiences." These students are tokenized and "face the invalidation and reappropriation of their experiences," which is exacerbated by the power imbalance between students and professors, the letter said. 

"Additionally, students are harmed in their educational journey as their identities become targets of unhealthy discourse because white professors perpetuate harmful stereotypes by allowing biased viewpoints to take priority," the letter said. 

Professors and staff members of color face similar tokenization, the letter said, and they have the disproportionate burden of supporting marginalized students while being offered little support. 

There is also a lack of representation of Black and Indigenous faculty, which the letter said may deter students from pursuing higher degrees. 

Additionally, Madisonians for Justice criticized the college for a lack of "official discourse of the atrocities that the Palestinian people in Gaza are facing or any form of support offered to students and faculty impacted." The burden of support has been placed on impacted students and faculty instead of proactive efforts from the institution, the letter said. 

For these reasons, the letter said the college demonstrates hypocrisy, as it "claims to be a space that prepares our future leaders through education and civic engagement to address the greatest challenges of our time, yet it fails to address its internal problems that further perpetuate an unsafe, unjust, and inequitable environment."

The letter said JMC is familiar with complaints about a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But these problems have not been addressed until Black student organizations and faculty brought them to light, the letter said. It listed examples of actions taken by the Black Madisonians, senior Black faculty members, and the W.E.B. DuBois Society.

In response to past concerns, the college has "appeared to take steps to address equity issues," with the Racial Climate Committee Report in 2016 and the JMC DEI Strategic Plan in 2020. 

However, the letter said these plans did not come to fruition.

"Although JMC’s administration took steps by creating detailed plans, Madison failed to be transparent about the progress of the plans, surveys, and goals," the letter said. "The outcomes of the DEI Strategic Plan will be up for evaluation soon, according to the 3-5 year window given, and they have clearly been unsuccessful in their efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion within the 'college community,' 'curriculum,' and 'culture.'"

The letter gave a list of demands, including tonight's forum. It said fora must be a space for all students to discuss "administrative action on DEI, curriculum, and overall climate." Fora must be moderated by the College Inclusion Committee and attended by all Deans of James Madison College, the letter said. 

The statement's other demands are:

  • "Hold faculty and staff to a higher standard during hiring, retention, and tenure processes.
  • Create mechanisms for JMC students to anonymously report behavior and launch public fora in which peer-to-peer dialogue can occur between students, faculty, and staff.
  • Increase retention and recruitment of BIPOC and international students.
  • The revival of the Madison Academic Diversity Initiative (MADI) Program.
  • Ensure that annual surveys about climate are created based on both CIC and JMC’s strategic plan. Additionally, ensure that the CIC can review and work hand in hand with the OJEI to examine results and communicate updates with the JMC community.
  • Release graduation numbers in accordance with the 3-5 year timeline proposed by the DEI strategic plan to raise BIPOC graduation rates to mirror white student graduation rates; based on this data, creating a tangible plan to increase equity and success among BIPOC students.
  • Follow through with the grant-winning proposal for the establishment of the AREA program between residential colleges, ensure it is effectively advertised and faculty members involved have resources to support the program.
  • Maintain prior commitments to supporting and protecting BIPOC tenure and non-tenure track faculty and staff to ensure a diverse faculty body, especially when faced with harassment. 
  • Cultivate a learning environment rooted in inclusivity, belonging, and diversity to uphold the core values this institution claims to adhere to.
  • Support and finance JMC-affiliated student organizations that actively engage in DEI work to recruit and retain BIPOC students."

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The letter included a students’ statement section, which was not included in the public release to ensure student safety.

"We commend the students who were willing to share their stories, and we share the pain of those who decided they cannot go public with their testimonies for fear of retaliation," the statement read. "We have heard and listened to countless students' experiences that include professors using racial slurs and harmful ideology in the classroom to alienate marginalized students. It is on you to continue hearing the stories and creating tangible change based on students’ daily experiences."

In response to the Madisonians for Justice's Letter, Dean Cameron Thies released a statement to the JMC community on April 5.

"There have been multiple communications sent to ensure all students, faculty and staff are informed," Thies wrote. "The purpose of the forum is to discuss concerns raised by the student group Madisonians for Justice; however, the forum will be organized in such a way that all in attendance are afforded opportunities to voice their concerns."

Thies said the "college takes student concerns very seriously" and acknowledged students' anger and frustration in his message. He said that he hopes the forum will start a conversation about how the college communicates with its students.

Thies added that JMC has structures in place to ensure that student voices are included. The College Inclusion Committee meets regularly to discuss and respond to the community's needs, Thies wrote, and is actively working to administer a climate survey.

In response to Madisonians for Justice’s letter, Thies said the college has been transparent in providing the retention and demographics data requested. Members of the JMC administration have met with student representatives since the letter's release, according to Thies. 

"JMC continues to invest in the development of multiple programs devoted to recruitment and retention of BIPOC students," he wrote.

Thies encouraged students to participate in the community forum.

"I am hopeful it will provide an opportunity for respectful dialogue where different perspectives and experiences are valued," Thies said. "If you are unable to attend the forum, but would like to discuss a particular concern, please know that you are always welcome to make an appointment with me or any other dean for that matter."

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