Shortly after senior and COLORES President Ezra Marker was unintentionally outed as transgender by Lawrence University, they attended their first meeting about developing a new naming system for transgender students. Over a year and many meetings later, Marker is still unsure what — if any — progress has been made.
Senior and Lawrence University Disability Working Group (LUDWiG) President Alex Chand has spent much of the past several months creating and developing a new Disability Studies course. While the support of the ethnic studies department and the doctoral candidate aiding LUDWiG in this process have been essential, the time and energy Chand has invested in different initiatives cause her to feel as if she’s running a full non-profit organization.
Senior and former Lawrence University Native American Organization (LUNA) President Jessica Hopkins knows that LUNA will be asked to deliver land acknowledgements at campus events, but beyond this, she feels largely ignored by administration. When the group voiced concerns about the location of the new statue, Otāēciah, Hopkins felt as if administration worked around them.
In all our interviews with student diversity organization leaders, one theme consistently emerged: there is a disconnect between higher-level administration and students involved in diversity work. While everyone emphasized the importance of diversity and inclusion at Lawrence, their methods and priorities for this work often differ, at times even coming into conflict.
At the center of this conflict is a value disconnect, focused on the balance between student contributions to diversity work and the labor that goes into it. Embedded into the structure of Lawrence is a high value and reliance on student feedback and involvement in instigating change — but that often means the pressure falls on full-time students of marginalized identities.
“There is so much advocacy for student work on this campus,” said Marker, “but the dark side of that is that a lot of the work on this campus is exploited student labor.”
That labor takes many forms: For Chand, it’s working 10-40 hours each week to plan events, go to meetings, create strategies and do whatever other work is needed for LUDWiG initiatives. For Marker, it’s putting in the leg work — the proposals, the petitions, the research — to expand gender inclusive restrooms on campus and establish the Gender and Sexuality Diversity Center. For Hopkins, it was conducting meetings while also planning large events like the Indigenous Peoples Day celebration.
But it’s more than the hours — senior and former Black Student Union (BSU) President Sarah Navy explained the burden and complexity of this work. She is not just a student but “a leader in a community that is underserved by our institution as a whole,” which she feels can pull students in directions they should not be pulled. According to Navy, students are expected to do too much in order to feel welcomed and supported on campus.
Marker also emphasized the emotional toll of diversity work. In advocating for a new system for when to use a transgender student’s dead name versus real name, they have shared their personal story many times. For Marker, this is more than an anecdote; it is a traumatic experience which they have relived repeatedly as they tell the story in meetings with various administrators.
“It has taken my emotional energy, it has taken my physical energy, it has impacted my mental health in extremely negative ways,” Marker said. “[…] The time that marginalized students work to prepare for meetings, or go to meetings, or have interviews or whatever, send emails, that is time taken away from schoolwork, extracurriculars, social, exercise.”
Further illuminating this value disconnect is the common consensus between student leaders and administrators that students are often the ones who come up with ideas for institutional change — whether that be due to a lack of representation, time or support. Some recent examples of this include a LUDWiG initiative to increase the number of containers for the disposal of used needles and the student-led efforts to establish gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. Students then play an active role in pushing these ideas through, often feeling insufficient support from administration.
While no one denies that student leaders are instrumental in initiating change, the extent to which they should be involved is not agreed upon, even within the administration.
President Laurie Carter said that she does not think students should be burdened, but she also believes all members of the campus community have the responsibility to promote and prioritize diversity and inclusion. Assistant to the President and Secretary to the Board of Trustees Christyn Abaray thinks it is critical for students to come forward with ideas for change, but she does not think they should be responsible for implementing those changes. Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Diversity & Intercultural Center (D&IC) Brittany Bell also thinks student voices are necessary to instigate change, since they are most impacted by these initiatives — but she believes that certain students are being asked to do too much too often.
Likewise, there is no clear agreement among student leaders regarding the substantiality of their role. Marker tends to think it’s fundamentally not their job to initiate or implement institutional change; administration needs to be proactive in finding gaps and filling them. Navy agrees, stating that the only thing she’s obligated to do is get an education but also explained that she chooses to be involved because she cares. Chand also makes the choice to be involved due to the need for diversity work, which she understands through personal experience.
However, most student leaders agree that more could be done at a higher level to reduce the burden of their workload, and, as of now, the work that they do is often unsustainable.
“It doesn’t really ever slow down,” Chand said. “We can make the choice to be like, ‘OK, we’re going to set aside this project for a while’ — but then it just doesn’t get done, and nothing happens, and nothing changes.”
This reliance on student ideas and labor to push for initiatives has led some students to characterize the administration as reactive rather than proactive when it comes to diversity work. Although administrators can understand that perspective, they claim much diversity work happens behind the scenes — it’s just disconnected from the student body.
According to Bell, most initiatives involve many steps, which can draw out the timeframe between starting the project and announcing its completion. In responding to a major world event, for instance, many parties must contribute to the message, people must know the full story and the response must be sent out at the right time. Likewise, in starting a program, administrators need to find sources of funding, approve dates and connect across departments, all of which takes time to coordinate. However, if students are not regularly informed of the process, Bell said, it appears that nothing is being done, and even if it is, it’s moving too slowly or is simply too late.
Aside from the pace at which these changes are brought about, administration identifies poor communication as a potential root to the reactionary perception. Abaray explained that administration must continuously navigate the timing of announcing their projects: how solidified should an initiative be before it’s shared with the community?
While students agree that communication is a major problem, they also believe the issue runs much deeper.
According to Hopkins, it often feels as though the Lawrence administration only communicates with LUNA when they’re seeking a stamp of approval for a diversity effort, and “once they get what they want [from LUNA], they kind of stop.”
In a LUDWiG meeting, multiple students provided examples of accessibility needs being unmet, citing inconsistencies in medicine delivery and storage, dietary restrictions on the meal plan and issues with housing accommodations — all of which the students felt the administration should have considered before the problem arose. There is a more systemic problem, various student leaders said, that reaches far beyond just administrators, and starts with an ability to listen to other perspectives.
“I think it’s hard, because I think a lot of times, good work comes from listening,” Chand said. “I think it’s just really important that we learn how to cultivate empathy and develop empathy in students and good listening skills, so that we know how to listen and acknowledge experiences that are outside of our own.” Chand believes that providing members of the community with opportunities to listen and develop empathy is critical, and it is crucial for administration to proactively build a culture of respect, diversity, inclusion and care.
Carter also emphasized a need for cultural change. Based on her initial assessments of campus, Carter identified “pockets of support” for diversity work at Lawrence, which she wants to expand out to involve the entire campus community. This work began as conversations with student leaders and meetings with Cabinet about the role diversity plays in every position.
It continues with her announcement of guiding coalitions during her Matriculation Convocation — a concept explained in an email sent shortly after the speech. Through these coalitions, Carter stressed the importance of every member of the Lawrence community contributing to these goals. She also explicitly addressed student labor during Convocation.
“For our students, I have heard loud and clear that you feel pressured to not only alert the faculty and staff to the work required to best serve your needs but to also do the work. That stops here,” Carter said. “We need your ideas, thoughts and experiences. Your participation is desired and necessary for the success of this process, but you should not feel compelled to lead it.”
According to Carter, a large part of changing the culture and reducing the burden on marginalized students will involve non-marginalized members of the community taking a more active role in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion at Lawrence — a sentiment echoed by Bell in a separate interview.
“It’s hard to see students being burnt out or the cultural taxation that comes upon our students because they’re always asked to do things because it might impact them,” Bell said. “It’s like ‘OK, well, since it impacts you, I’m going to ask you.’ But sometimes all you have to do is observe and see what’s going on. You can see and be a firm ally.”
While the student leaders we spoke to generally support the idea of more students getting involved in diversity work, many also expressed doubts regarding the feasibility and implementation of this transition.
Chand emphasized the importance of centering marginalized voices in conversations about diversity, and that “non-marginalized students need to know when to step up, step back and amplify” marginalized identities. Likewise, Marker thinks it’s unrealistic to expect students who haven’t experienced discrimination to dedicate their time and energy to diversity work. Navy also stated that administration needs to learn more about the current reality of marginalized students on campus before adding more students who are not in that diverse community.
Substantial changes may occur under Carter’s leadership, but student leaders say it’s too early to tell. While all expressed hope for Carter’s tenure, they are waiting to see what actions are taken, with a particular eye towards who will fill the role of Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion.
Right now, the segment of administration that student leaders expressed the most confidence in is the D&IC, emphasizing Bell’s regular and proactive conversations and involvement with student diversity organizations. According to Marker, it feels as if the D&IC “can get us halfway to where we need to be, which is a lot.” In Marker’s eyes, Bell may be able to provide programming or education, but “she can’t exactly change the technical systems of Lawrence so my dead name doesn’t show up.”
Until these broader changes are implemented, much of the conversation about what can be done has shifted to focus on financial compensation, particularly for the student leaders who do the most work. The D&IC has already started implementing some form of this, largely for students who are contracted to do a specific project for them, Bell said. But compensation is still not widespread. However, other administrators, including Carter, hold the belief that diversity and inclusion work is a responsibility for every member in the community. Her focus tends to be more on diminishing the burden, rather than compensation.
Still, several student leaders, particularly Marker and Navy, question whether diversity work should be a student duty, emphasizing that their primary responsibility is to their academics. Further, the expectation of unpaid labor tends to exclude lower income students from involvement, several student leaders said. If the compensation isn’t monetary, Chand added, then student leaders need more structural, institutionalized systems to support their work.
Change may be coming, but for now, the disconnect remains; marginalized students still feel that they are performing an undue amount of labor, often at the expense of their academics, social life and mental health. The culture that all parties claim to want and the communication that is needed have not yet fully manifested.
Because every student diversity leader we spoke to feels that fundamental aspects of our campus need to change, the question remains: now what?