In her speech at the State of the University Address, President Joan Ferrini-Mundy stressed the way higher education works as a strong influence on the future. Higher education is one of society’s only institutions focused solely on preparing students, increasing capacities and improving practices to make a better tomorrow. This is why it was so important that President Ferrini-Mundy dedicated a portion of her speech to the University of Maine’s commitment to inclusive excellence. However, in the process of implementing a new position that would encapsulate the diversity and inclusivity efforts that are happening campus-wide, a white man was appointed as the leader.
Robert Dana, vice president for student life and dean of students at UMaine, had his title expanded to read “vice president for student life and inclusive excellence,” as UMaine attempts to increase their inclusivity efforts and implement new policies across all UMaine campuses.
But as Susan Gardner, the director of UMaine’s women’s, gender, and sexuality studies department and director of the Rising Tide Center, said in the question and answer portion of the address Dean Dana is a white man “through no fault of his own.” Yet, Gardner also stressed the identity politics that are tied to positions of influence such as the one Dana has been assigned to, and that for UMaine’s students of color, the choice to appoint a white man may raise questions about UMaine’s dedication to raising diverse perspectives and promoting individuals of color to powerful positions.
By introducing this new position, UMaine is shining a spotlight on its dedication to inclusive excellence. At the same time, they are setting a precedent for what these diversity and inclusivity efforts will manifest for the university and it’s students.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Maine’s population is 94.6% white. UMaine’s student body is also composed of a majority of white individuals, equating to 82% of UMaine’s population. As Maine’s flagship university in the center of the state, it can be hard to find diversity on our campus. But it is there, and positions such as the dean of inclusive excellence create important opportunities for institutions like UMaine to support individuals of color and provide powerful platforms for diverse voices, perspectives and ideas.
By appointing a white man to the position of dean of inclusive excellence, UMaine perpetuates society’s tendencies to favor privilege and limit the influence of people of color in the very efforts that are supposed to raise them up. This position’s intent is to lead by example and could give an individual of color a chance to have their perspectives heard for future UMaine policies or activities. The university has the resources to foster a diverse community, and this new role serves as a perfect opportunity for that work to be done on a fully recognized and direct scale.
In response to Gardner’s concerns, President Ferrini-Mundy responded that UMaine has an “unequivocal commitment to inclusive excellence as a campus,” and that the purpose of the position is to foster and shape campus-wide dialogues around diversity and inclusion, but provided no direct explanation behind the university’s choice to appoint a white man.
Although the appointment of Dana to the dean of inclusive excellence was a flawed choice by the university, it is also extremely important to note the level of importance President Ferrini-Mundy placed on UMaine’s dedication to diversity and inclusion during her speech. In recent years, UMaine’s students, faculty, departments and organizations have dedicated themselves to fostering a more inclusive and supportive environment. The Rising Tide Center, Multicultural Student Center and the Diversity Leadership Institute are just a few examples of organizations on campus that work to improve both institutional and community inclusion at UMaine. Recognizing their work and reiterating UMaine’s dedication to diversity, equity and inclusion is an important step in enacting change for UMaine’s future.
It is for that same reason, ensuring change in UMaine’s future, that the university should reconsider their choice for dean of inclusive excellence. Dana is a highly respected and valued member of the UMaine community, and works hard for the student body, but the full potential for the position of dean of inclusive excellence should be used by appointing an individual of color to an influential role in UMaine’s administration. By doing this, UMaine would essentially practice what it preaches, by clearly demonstrating to its students and faculty of color that they are valued and heard.