DEB-ASOC Senate Joint Committee releases final report on Multicultural Summer Institute

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By Alice Feng

The Associated Students of Occidental (ASOC) Senate voted unanimously Dec. 4 to endorse and affirm the Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI) Report and its recommendations, according to a campus-wide email sent by ASOC President Zachary Solomon (sophomore) Dec. 5. ASOC Vice President of Academic Affairs Belén Moreno (senior), a member of the ASOC Senate-Diversity and Equity Board (DEB) Joint Committee of Academic Affairs, released the report via campus-wide email Nov. 9.

The report includes an evaluation of the Summer 2017 MSI curriculum, interviews with Summer 2016 and 2017 MSI participants and recommendations for the future of the program. The report evaluated multiple aspects of MSI, such as mental health, academics and co-curricular components. The committee released the report one week after its members hosted a town hall in the Johnson Global Forum Nov. 2 to discuss their concerns surrounding MSI with students, faculty and administrators.

“We recommend a complete evaluation of the Multicultural Summer Institute as a program that fulfills its initial purpose as a retention program and the mission of Occidental College,” Moreno said via email Nov. 9 on behalf of the committee. “We strongly suggest that this evaluation includes the input of students, alumni and faculty. We also recommend an evaluation of the professional leadership of MSI in providing an equitable social and academic experience for students of color during the summer of 2017.”

In their Dec. 5 campus-wide email, ASOC Senate stated four recommendations for MSI-affiliated faculty and administrators: recognize the content of the report, affirm the indispensability of MSI, meet with student groups and the Joint Committee in January 2018 and create an advisory committee consisting of faculty, students, alumni and administrators at least three months before the first week of MSI 2018.

Members of the ASOC Senate-DEB Joint Committee, which first met Sept. 19, collected 29 interviews from three MSI affiliated professors, one educational researcher, one historical researcher, four administrators, five staff members from the 2017 MSI session and 16 students from the 2016 and 2017 sessions for the report.

According to the report, MSI suffers from poor hiring practices, lack of mental health resources for students, a disparate relationship between the curricular and co-curricular components and the lack of critical intergroup dialogue. The report stated that the lack of MSI mental health programming was a particularly critical issue.

“Other 2017 participants claim they do not remember mental health or self care being addressed by the teaching assistant, resident adviser or faculty members,” the report stated. “Four out of the seven student participants interviewed from MSI 2017 claimed to have felt at one point or another overwhelmed by emotions of stress and anxiety, or depression.”

According to the report, some MSI participants were losing sleep and skipping meals due to stress and anxiety. Former MSI resident adviser (RA) Anastasia Cusack-Mercedez (sophomore) said seeing students have these experiences concerned her.

“We had asked for a self-care presentation from someone from Emmons, just like a presentation on what you should be doing because we’d been approached by a lot of students who said they weren’t sleeping and they weren’t eating, too, and that was really worrying us — just watching everyone really stressing out and not taking care of themselves,” Cusack-Mercedez said.

According to Cusack-Mercedez, such presentations had been fixtures in the programming of previous MSI years. Cusack-Mercedez said that student staff reached out to bring back this mental health programming, but Vice President for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) Rhonda Brown, co-director of MSI 2017, and Administrative Coordinator for Intercultural Affairs Sarah Dwyer misunderstood this as a request for group therapy.

“That’s what upset us most about the mental health thing, because we thought it was really important to have something like that in there and make sure [students] knew they have resources at Emmons and know that is accessible, and we felt like it wasn’t really given,” Cusack-Mercedez said.

According to Dwyer, the student staff reached out to Matthew Calkins, associate director of student wellness services and director of psychological services, during the second week of MSI to coordinate mental health training similar to that of RAs and teaching assistants for MSI students. Dwyer said that MSI program directors and faculty decided not to add a mental health discussion to the program schedule and focus on mental wellness instead.

“There is room to have discussions focusing on mental wellness [issues], such as sleep, hygiene, nutrition or physical activity. Student staff was focused on mental health, not wellness,” Dwyer said. “MSI focuses on building community, and has never directly provided programming around mental health. I think this is something MSI faculty can look at including.”

In regard to the academic aspects of MSI, students responded positively to the 2017 MSI academic curriculum, according to the report.

“All of the 2017 student participants interviewed by the committee stated the significance of the curriculum to their development as students and members of a global community,” the report stated.

The report identified differences between the co-curriculum from 2016 and 2017, such as the elimination of ERSJs (Engaging Reflections on Social Justice). ERSJs were MSI discussions on a variety of socially pressing topics, according to committee member and First-Year Class Senator Rachel Hayes (first year).

Brown said that they now plan to reevaluate ERSJs and determine their effective value in response to the report. According to Dwyer, the report does not contextualize the co-curricular changes made from 2016–2017.

“This component [ERSJs] was moved to the classroom where faculty gave the students the language to have these discussions. MSI faculty will continue to build on these group discussions,” Dwyer said.

The report ends with a list of the committee’s recommendations for the future of MSI. According to the report, the committee recommends that the administration institute a transparent evaluation process; create a new committee composed of administrators, faculty and students; and mandate increased transparency in the hiring process. Regarding MSI’s academic content, the report recommends the reintroduction of ERSJs, implementing social justice or community engagement content in half of the off-campus excursions and an increase in the number of mandatory social justice panels with community member and student participation.

The report also recommends the creation of stronger connections between the humanities and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in MSI classes. According to the report, the qualitative portion of MSI makes up for 75 percent of the final grade, while the quantitative portion is 25 percent of the grade.

The report’s final recommendations are to incorporate student assessments at the end of each MSI session and training for MSI RAs that is consistent with Residential Education and Housing Services (REHS) policies and qualifications.

According to Moreno, since the report’s release, committee members attempted to meet with MSI administrators and faculty Nov. 16 in order to discuss how the two parties should move forward.

“In this meeting, we would like to discuss any reactions to our report or town hall, issues that were not addressed in either, and how best to implement our recommendations in order to improve MSI,” Moreno said via an email sent to MSI affiliated administrators and faculty.

Although the meeting took place, with both Dean of Students Rob Flot and Professor Kerry Thompson in attendance, Brown and Dwyer did not attend, according to Moreno. Brown said that this is because she and Dwyer did not agree to have a mediator present at the meeting.

“I wasn’t comfortable with a mediator because I did not think a mediator was needed,” Brown said. “The committee responded that a mediator was needed in these situations, I suggested we postpone until we could agree but the committee responded that the mediator was necessary and that the meeting would go as planned with a mediator. I did not attend.”

Cusack-Mercedez said that the ASOC/DEB committee is well equipped to move forward with the reassessment of MSI.

“They have power to make change and they’ve also put a lot of work into figuring out what the histories are and trying to figure out how everyone can see us moving forward,” Cusack-Mercedez said.