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‘Courageous Conversations’ spark dialogue about diversity, equity, inclusion

By Ashley A. Williams

‘Courageous Conversations’ spark dialogue about diversity, equity, inclusion

By Ashley A. Williams
The first event in a new series centered around “Finding Common Ground and Building Community” and was hosted by the Office of the President and Student Government.

In a brave step toward a better tomorrow, members of the University of Miami community gathered online Wednesday evening for “Courageous Conversations,” a new discussion series that allows students the opportunity to directly engage with leadership about topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The first virtual discussion, “Finding Common Ground and Building Community,” promoted dialogue among diverse individuals and reiterated the University’s plan to confront preconceptions and to continue to promote positive change. 

Student Government President Abigail Adeleke kicked off the event with a warm welcome message, echoing the event’s goal of endorsing thoughtful conversations around race and racism. Following her opening remarks, Adeleke introduced the evening’s panelists: University President Julio Frenk; Patricia A. Whitely, senior vice president of student affairs; and Jeffrey L. Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. 

“As we aspire to be an exemplary institution, one that equips you to be both professionals in your chosen fields and constructive members of society, we must engage,” said Frenk. “First, with each other. Then with the communities we call home, both here in South Florida and around the world.” 

Whitely highlighted the Division of Student Affairs’ most recent contributions to programs, policies, and procedures in relation to racial and social justice efforts at the University. She was proud to announce that the new Racial Justice Grant Program has received 40 submissions and is looking forward to funding teams of faculty, staff, students, and community partners who will address pressing social issues on and beyond the Coral Gables Campus. 

Before answering questions from the audience, Duerk shared a few of the solutions and efforts that the current leadership team has undertaken on the academic front. 

“We are both a group that identifies problems but also takes action to solve them, and solutions to those problems sit on top of a foundation of decades, almost a century of what came before us,” said Duerk before sharing several facts that exemplify the University’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

“We have increased the number of Black student applicants to the University by over 50 percent since 2017. If you look at the number of leading scholarship recipients, there’s been a significant increase in the percentages of our Foote Fellows and Singer Fellows that are now minority students,” he said. “These are things that have happened over the last few years and as Pat [Whitely] said, our work is not done. That is the nature of the beast, but it is also the beast that we hope to slay.” 

Students asked questions about admissions protocols, scholarships, housing, academics, and student activities as it pertains to diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus. In addition, an update on the Historic Name Change Review Committee's recommendations and the Global Center for Black Studies was requested.  

"The Board of Trustees Ad Hoc Committee on Social Justice and Diversity will be meeting later this month to deliberate, and then the recommendations will go to the Executive Committee of the Board," Frenk responded. "With respect to the Center for Global Black Studies, as we announced in the fall, we have made an initial budgetary commitment of $150,000 in the current academic year to match the planning grant received by Professor Jafari Allen from the Mellon Foundation to support the establishment of the Center for Global Black Studies based on his vision." 

Alongside this series, across the University, faculty, staff and students have created several spaces for crucial conversations to take place. Though recent United Black Students and Asian American Student Association events were canceled because of the rise in COVID-19 cases on campus, Frenk said he is hopeful that the celebrations will take place at a later date. 

The panelists concluded the evening by encouraging students to get involved on campus and continue to take opportunities to engage. 

“Equity and justice must be part and parcel of who we are and everything we do,” said Frenk. “We are fortunate that the co-chair of our reinvigorated Standing Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is none other than the executive director of student life, Dr. Renee Callan. She is well-informed on the plan and our Student Life team can certainly help you get plugged into your areas of interest.”