Why Senate, not Honor Board, is DEBI's biggest obstacle

27

Nobody rejects the mission of the Diversity and Equity Board (DEB). No person within our community wants the “I, Too, Am Oxy” stories to define an Occidental experience, nor do students oppose the “empowerment and improved conditions for structurally marginalized groups on campus” stated firmly in DEBI’s mission statement. DEBI is noble and necessary, and our beloved, socially conscious liberal arts college deserves to have a branch of government to guarantee diversity and equity on campus.

But while DEBI supporters treat that diversity and equity as the finish line, communal strife over its implementation is almost as palpable as the racism on which DEBI is based. Honor Board’s rejection of this year’s sequential DEBI proposal has split the campus into “pro-DEBI” versus “anti-DEBI.” Students cannot speak out against DEBI or in solidarity with Honor Board’s decision without being told that they do not support diversity and equity on campus. Sadly, the problem does not simply start with the lack of gray area in this trite debate. The problem is Senate: A group defined by DEBI but struggling to make it work. Its membership has instead tried projecting its own internal conflicts onto a neutral Honor Board and vilified it in the process.

One could argue that an apparent divide in Senate began during last April’s ASOC elections, when The Weekly published a formal letter of support from candidates to support the creation of a vice president for diversity and equity. While 12 candidates included their signatures, some candidates were not asked to sign the letter. This move isolated candidates excluded from signing who supported the creation of the position and denied them the opportunity to explain their absence.

While the public statement in no way represents the divide within Senate, in hindsight, it feels like a precursor to the current political conflict. After all, DEBI is Senate’s signature promise. Like the candidates who signed the letter of support, DEBI’s sponsors are closely connected to campus equity movements, which seems more and more dangerous when their constituents demand quicker action than Senate has the capacity to effectively deliver.

Senate twice voted unanimously on its DEBI proposal: once Nov. 17 in a packed Studenmund Room of over 50 DEBI supporters and again Feb. 9 in a hasty response to Honor Board, which claimed in a public statement released Feb. 27 that “there wasn’t a clear enough idea as to what a new organ of ASOC would look like and how it would operate.” But if one were to observe the content of these meetings, they would see that Senate’s unanimous opinion was not entirely genuine.

The Weekly reported that, in the first meeting, one anonymous senator felt pressure from the abundance of DEBI supporters to approve the proposal even the senator felt the vote was rushed. The arduous DEBI debate can be perfectly summed up in that senator’s decision to remain anonymous. If a senator cannot safely articulate their concern about a bill, how can Senate—and the students it represents—engage in balanced dialogue? Especially during an initial voting stage, senators should be comfortable dissenting without fear of repercussion from the community that elected them in the first place.

Honor Board struck down the initial proposal Feb. 3, sending DEBI back to Senate. According to minutes from Feb. 9, Senate fixated primarily on the student body fee increase instead of addressing Honor Board’s request for a more detailed outline of how those funds would be managed. After quickly dismissing the idea of using ASOC’s savings account to back DEB, the Senate reluctantly voted to lower the proposed fee increase to $7 from the originally proposed $10.

At this point, Senate believed Honor Board rejected the size of the increase rather than the grounds for the increase. It seems as if Senate spoke for Honor Board about its intentions, a move that sparked the “pro-DEBI” versus “anti-DEBI” debate and fractured communication between the two bodies.

Senate’s internal divide surfaced between its Feb. 9 meeting and the Feb. 11 meeting. On page three of Honor Board’s public statement, Honor Board took the savings account into consideration during the vote, having learned about it through a senator’s anonymous tip. DEBI members told Honor Board that the savings account “was an arduous process that involved penalties, and because of those reasons, would not be a good alternative for funding.” Meanwhile, without correcting these senators in the Feb. 9 meeting, ASOC President Chris Weeks told Honor Board that “the process was straight-forward, included no penalties, and that the only prerequisite for receiving funds from the account was to get a majority vote from Senate.”

Ironically, Senate’s debate about DEBI—a bill centered around dialogue and giving voice to students—fostered little dialogue and consideration of the proposal’s flaws. Honor Board sent back their proposal with a recommendation that Senate instead use the savings account as a “trial period.” Even still, Senate ignored Honor Board’s recommendations for clearer discretionary use of funds, according to the Feb. 23 minutes.

The whole thing feels like a mess. DEBI’s language of “opportunity,” “inclusiveness” or “empowerment” feels trapped in quad sits and teach-ins. In private, DEBI supporters email Greek organizations, urging the organization to sign a petition that rejects Honor Board’s “poor decision.” DEBI supporters invited Honor Board to an ostensibly private meeting, only to publicly ambush the board with a sit-in to persuade the board to pass the proposal.

DEBI has turned Honor Board into the villain of the story: striking down DEBI with its mighty fist by allegedly asserting the “unconstitutionality” of the student body fee increase. These sentiments are not a reflection of Honor Board’s inadequacy or poor decision-making; Honor Board clearly acted in an unbiased fashion when considering the student body fee increase and, still pledging their support for the idea of DEB, wanted it to be carefully thought out. They reached across the table and Senate swiped back. Instead, the resentment that turns overwhelming supporters into “DEBI downers” originates from Senate’s own failure to communicate with as much openness as they claim to promote.

Buried beneath the DEBI drama is the beauty that students care enough about establishing a safer campus that they are willing to fight for its proper implementation. In order to work together on this, we all need to take a look into the way we communicate when faced with dissent. Too many Occidental community members must chose between supporting DEBI or being labeled an obstructionist. If DEBI sponsors want to rally support for their proposal, they must first accurately address Honor Board’s critiques and respect ASOC’s checks and balances.

We should be mature enough to understand that a shared sense of support does not easily fade into the background. We are smart enough to know that advocating for a cause does not mean admonishing those who raise concerns about the ways in which it is advanced. We are democratic enough to challenge opinions without silencing them. And Senate has the ability to be an honest agent of change that can usher in an inclusive environment without equating a DEBI critique to a racist comment. They just have to lead by example, and that is something we can all agree on.

Henry Dickmeyer is a senior economics major. He can be reached at dickmeyer@oxy.edu or on Twitter @HDickmeyer.