Board of Trustees talks diversity

The Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees’ committee for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) met on March 12 for a primarily informational session. Several reports were given to the board on the progress of efforts to reduce discrimination within the VSCS.
The first item on the agenda, and the only to have action taken, was a charter for DEI goals across the VSCS. The charter was passed unanimously, but will likely see revisions moving forward.
The plan was drafted by the VSCS General Counsel Office with input from Chancellor Sophie Zdatny. Currently, the charter only lists goals for the VSCS to achieve as it attempts to increase diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
According to Assistant General Counsel Kathryn Santiago, much of the language was based on the newly adopted DEI standards of NECHE, the accrediting institution for the VSCS.
“These are the standards that our institutions will have to respond to… in the evaluations that NECHE conducts,” Zdatny said.
The new NECHE standards went into effect on Jan. 1, and since the VSCS will need reaccreditation following unification, Santiago said, “We all thought it was a good starting point just to transcribe… and flesh out a little bit.”
Missing from the charter are specific definitions for terms surrounding these goals. “We did take a look at a lot of other universities and colleges [and] how they define those terms,” Zdatny said. However, she and Santiago noted that developing these definitions will be a tricky and intensive process.
“As we move forward and we reach each goal, the charter can be developed and expanded to reflect the work that the committee has done,” Santiago said.
According to education professor Hannah Miller, adopting DEI goals at a system-wide level would benefit similar work being done on individual campuses.
Miller is part of VSC Social Justice, an unofficial group which meets monthly to “build capacity across the institutions with equity and diversity inclusion initiatives,” according to Miller.
“We needed to build these definitions for ourselves too,” Miller said, adding, “If the VSC had a policy document or something we could look to… when we’re building smaller initiatives on campus, that would be nice.”
The second item on the agenda was a proposed pledge against racism for the VSCS. The concept for the pledge was presented by Assistant Director of Athletics Miles Smith and Associate Dean of Athletics Jeremy Ventura, both of whom are members of VSC Social Justice.
“We wanted to make sure that the students wanted to do this,” Ventura said. The initial idea for an anti-racism pledge came from a group of students who spoke at a Board of Trustees meeting about their experiences on campus.
Smith and Ventura worked with those students to develop the pledge, a process which is still underway. Smith said part of the discussion touched on how the anti-racism pledge might compare to the COVID-19 pledge.
“The COVID pledge is something that all faculty, staff and students have to fill out in order to either be on campus or be present in the campus community,” Smith said. He said enforcing a mandatory anti-racism pledge will likely be a trickier process.
Chief Academic Officer Jasmine Ziesler also gave an update on the standardization of gen-ed across campuses. Ziesler said the VSCS Forward Task Force, which she chairs, is submitting its final proposal.
“Because the timeline has been short, we’ve asked faculty assemblies to give preliminary approval so that we can move forward some of the next steps on the implementation planning,” Ziesler said, adding that due to its many revisions, she is hopeful that the proposal will be adopted.
“The social justice groups and representatives reviewed the first draft of the general education proposal, through the lens of diversity, equity [and] inclusion and made a number of recommendations,” Ziesler said. Miller was on the DEI revision team, and she expressed her support for the final proposal.
Director of Information Technology Doug Eastman spoke briefly on implementing gender inclusion within software across the VSCS.
“We’re in the process of forming a cross college, cross function, working group in an effort to make our enterprise Information Systems more gender inclusive,” he said. The group’s first meeting is scheduled for April 7.
Eastman cited the recently developed option for students and faculty to designate their pronouns within Canvas as an example, but added that more work needs to be done, such as making these options available on additional platforms.
“Implementing these kinds of changes… is not only a technical one, but it requires a level of awareness,” he said.