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Confronting Power Structures: a Quest to Diversify the Presidency

On Wednesday night, more than 70 community members crowded into Sharpless Auditorium to attend Confronting Power Structures at Haverford, a panel designed to educate students about race and gender representation within the leadership of the College. The panel was organized by Transformative Inclusive Diversity Engagement (TIDE) and Feminists United (FU), two Haverford student groups.

The panel is a part of the larger Diversify the Presidency movement, which began as a collaboration between TIDE and FU. According to this coalition, the Haverford Board of Managers is currently 69% men and less than 20% people of color, and the Senior Staff is completely white.

The panel featured three faces of leadership at Haverford: Howard W. Lutnick ‘83, Chair of the Board, Kim Benston, Haverford’s provost, and Walter Hjelt Sullivan ‘82, Director of Quaker Affairs. Sullivan also provides staff support for The Corporation, the Quaker group that owns the legal title to the college. According to FU co-head Juliette Rando ‘15, it was unintentional that all three panelists were white men, but the fact that this “accurately represented leadership of the school… made a point in itself.”

All three panelists expressed an understanding of the importance of diversifying positions of leadership on campus.

“Diverse views lead to rich discussion,” said Lutnick. “Rich discussion leads to better decisions.”

“Our campus is more comfortable for upper middle class white folks who are liberal,” added Sullivan. “In leadership, students need to feel… that their life experiences will be heard and understood.”

According to Angelique Spencer ‘17 and Dawit Habtemariam ‘15, both members of TIDE and FU, a homogenous leadership contributes to some of the issues minority students face at Haverford. These include a curriculum that does not feature enough voices of people of color, but a lot of “dead white men;” microaggressions from other students, often disguised as jokes; and a lack of awareness from the administration about issues that people of color face on Haverford’s campus.

“We need leadership that is aware of these issues,” said Habtemariam. “People of color and women have first-hand experience. We shouldn’t have to educate [the administration].”

“We navigate this space being hyper-aware of who we are,” continued Spencer. “[Many people of color on campus] only felt comfortable talking about these issues at We Speak. They didn’t feel they had support speaking out at other times and weren’t comfortable speaking to the administration.”

According to Habtemariam, outside of emphasizing diversity in its hiring practices, the administration should be encouraging discussions of race on campus, as well as trying to combat student apathy around these issues. He pointed to We Speak, an annual event hosted by the Black Student League (BSL), as a positive example.

“Students need to be participating more,” he said. “All students are involved in this discussion. Even not [coming to these events] shows an opinion.”

“We need to create a cultural change,” agreed Rando. “[Diversify the Presidency] isn’t an answer to these issues, but it’s a first step.”

Although the panelists agreed that Haverford does need to diversify, they emphasized that the current administration is working to address some of these problems.

“My colleagues [on Senior Staff] care deeply about these issues,” said Benston. “We are not a diverse group, and that limits us, but I do not think that precludes us from caring about the things at question today. We need Senior Staff to evolve, but while its evolving, it is not standing pat on these issues.”

Many of the questions, both those from the student moderators and from the audience, focused specifically on how Haverford could diversify its senior staff and board and the obstacles the College faces in doing so. However, according to Lutnick, the complicated makeup of the Board is a barrier to diversity.

Board members can serve four terms of three years each. At least twelve members must be recommended by The Corporation, and eleven of those must be Quaker. Although The Corporation is working on diversifying, at the moment, the vast majority of its members are white.  Additionally, the Alumni Association fills another six seats, although Alumni Association seats are limited to six years. However, the Board traditionally gives seats to past Alumni Association members, allowing them to serve the full twelve years. Therefore, according to Lutnick, only six seats are really appointed by the Board itself.

Habtemariam later said in an interview that the Board could still be doing more to diversify its membership, and that the process by which the Board is formed is problematic and makes adding new members who represent marginalized groups much more difficult.

“The historical argument isn’t justified,” he said. “We have a lot of qualified minority and women grads. It’s been 35 years [since Haverford went co-ed]. It’s not as hard as people think.”

Habtemariam also stressed that diversifying the presidency should not come at the cost of finding qualified applicants, something one student at the panel had brought up as a concern. Rather, the goal of the Diversify the Presidency movement is to ensure people who identify with marginalized identities, such as women and people of color, are given a “fair shot” in the hiring process.

In an interview after the panel, Sullivan said that Haverford may also need to shift the way it looks at qualifications for senior staff and the presidency.

“If we’re only finding white people who are qualified, we need to think about what our qualifications are,” said Sullivan. “If we always choose one vision of qualification at the expense of others, we end up with the same result.”

Spencer added that both Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr have had incredibly qualified presidents who identify with groups who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education, including Bryn Mawr’s current President Kim Cassidy.

“They’ve been able to do it,” said Spencer in an interview. “We can, too.”

Emma Lumeij ‘16 asked the panel how students can “best become a part of the ongoing project of making Haverford comfortable for everyone.” Sullivan was the first to offer a reply.

“Get on the committees and don’t see yourself as just a student added to the committee,” answered Sullivan. “Stand up and engage.”

“The Board is really receptive to student input,” said Rando, citing past instances such as when the Board added more concrete language about diversity to the strategic plan after a presentation from TIDE.

The Coalition to Diversify the Presidency will be continuing its efforts with student, alumni, and faculty/staff petitions to be presented at the next Board meeting, an alumni letter campaign, and a student march.