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Georgia Southern under fire for diversity crisis

Book-burning controversy highlights racial split in student satisfaction, culture clash between Armstrong and Statesboro

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ON OCT. 9, author Jennine Capó Crucet came to Georgia Southern’s Statesboro campus to read from her new book, "Make Your Home Among Strangers." 

The award-winning novel, which Georgia Southern selected for its First Year Excellence reading, is a collection of essays about Crucet’s experience as a Hispanic woman in America.

The essay she read dealt with white privilege, which struck a nerve with some attendees. 

According to Crucet’s statement she shared via Twitter, “[A] white student questioned whether I had the authority to address issues of race and white privilege on campus. Her hostile reaction to my work closely mirrored the exchange that I recount in the essay itself. It was very surreal and strange.” 

The discussion became heated as students began shouting at each other. After the event, as reported by the school newspaper the George-Anne, a video of Georgia Southern students burning a copy of Crucet’s book began to circulate on Twitter, as well as students ripping pages from her book.

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There was also a rumor that students showed up at Crucet’s hotel, which has since been debunked, but led her to be moved to different lodging. Crucet canceled her appearance in Savannah the next day, and the incident has since gone viral

This is shocking, but indicative of a cultural problem at Georgia Southern made evident in a damning report concluded over the summer by Dr. Damon A. Williams and his staff at the Center for Strategic Diversity Leadership and Social Innovation.

Connect was provided a copy of this report when it was released on Aug. 28. 

Georgia Southern hired Williams in the fall of 2018 after another viral incident, widely referred to as the “triggerish” incident. A black student received a text from a potential future roommate that used a racial slur in describing her to a third roommate, and the incident was picked up by various news outlets. 

At this point, Georgia Southern had already been in hot water for the largely unsuccessful merger with Armstrong State University, which took effect Jan. 2018.

So, Georgia Southern asked Williams to assess its diversity and leadership across all three campuses (Liberty is the third). Williams used several forms of data collection, including a survey and opening listening sessions, to get feedback from all three campuses, including students, faculty, and staff across all demographics. 

What Williams and his team found was definitive proof to the whisperings of discontent at the university. Participants at all three campuses reported low marks in the areas of satisfaction, feeling valued, and an institutional commitment to diversity. 

In fact, 46% of all respondents felt like they belonged on campus. On the Armstrong campus, only 36% of respondents felt a sense of value and belonging, and 55% felt satisfaction with the campus climate.

At Statesboro, those statistics were respectively 49% and 67%; Liberty campus reported, respectively, 84% and 80%. 

The report reads, “We believe GSU’s overall low scores in general campus climate, in belonging and valued and in institutional commitment are in part indicative of the pain, confusion and lack of understanding that resulted with the consolidation of the three institutions into one Georgia Southern University infrastructure.” 

In this way, the report gave validity to the feeling of loss of campus culture Armstrong experienced after the transition. 

Also troubling in the report, and essential to understanding the magnitude of the Crucet incident, is the discovery that white participants reported higher value and institutional commitment than Black participants.

“White respondents felt significantly higher value and belonging (50%) compared to Black respondents (37%) and compared to respondents whose preferred identity was not listed (30%),” reads the report. “White respondents also rated institutional commitment significantly higher (62%) than Multi-Racial/Ethnic respondents (55%), Black respondents (48%), and non-identified respondents (45%). 

The “triggerish” incident was frequently brought up in listening sessions, as well as a faculty member using a racial slur in class and a “watermelon ceremony” that was not explained in the report. 

Importantly, the report also cited an issue of diversity backlash at only the Statesboro campus. In the open comment section of the survey, respondents pushed back against diversity and inclusion.

“Serious comments included calling for ‘the building of walls,’ comparing ‘diversity and inclusion to a mental disorder,’ and calling for a stop to any conversations—for ‘racial and gender equality to be stamped from existence,’” reads the report. 

In other words, Statesboro is a less progressive campus than Armstrong, which creates tension between those campuses. 

This incident with Crucet is exactly what Williams refers to in the report as a diversity flashpoint, which they define as “a potentially explosive interpersonal situation between community members that arises out of identity differences and the conflict that can emerge as a result.”

At the town hall, Williams emphasized that, moving forward, Georgia Southern needs to focus on their major goals in terms of diversity and inclusivity.

“What I did see was there were three institutions that were all on different pathways to trying to figure out not just this question of inclusive excellence, but trying to figure out what it means to be Georgia Southern right now,” explains Williams. “Trying to understand what stays, what goes away, what am I a part of now?” 

Williams presented several recommendations to Georgia Southern leadership, namely creating a new strategic framework and prioritizing institutional diversity. However, he acknowledges that those are ultimately just suggestions. 

“Obviously, I’m not the president, nor the provost, nor a cabinet-level officer,so there’s limits to how many of these questions I can totally respond to,” says Williams.

“You need to articulate what is going to be your strategic diversity leadership framework, meaning, what is the big picture goals of where you want to go?” 

The Crucet incident, then, is a litmus test of sorts for how Georgia Southern would respond to its first flashpoint after the report. 

At the end of the day on Oct. 11, Georgia Southern President Kyle Marrero released a statement that many felt was too lenient.

“From what we have been able to determine, the night’s events were another example of freedom of expression and a continuing debate of differing ideas, which are tenets of our ongoing efforts to align with our values and initiatives encompassing exclusive excellence,” writes Marrero in the statement.

“Specific to the reported events of that evening, while it’s within the students’ First Amendment rights, book burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values nor does it encourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas.” 

Historically, book burning has represented censorship and unwillingness to hear the ideas presented in the book.

While the students were within their right to disagree with the ideas Crucet presented, it’s a dangerous precedent for the university not to condemn such an aggressive form of censorship. 

CS
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