Commission aims to create inclusive, welcoming climate

Ben Wolford

Six microphoned panelists faced about a dozen commissioners who took careful notes on everything they said. Their opinions are very important to the members of the Commission on Inclusion.

Charged by President Lester Lefton with finding and recommending strategies to make Kent State welcoming and inclusive, the commission, led by the Rev. Ronald Fowler, held its first public forum June 17 to hear what members of the campus had to say.

The invitees represented groups such as the Undergraduate Student Government, the Honors College and Labor Relations. They all had something to say about race and other relationships on campus, good and bad.

“I think they were very forthcoming and honest,” commission member Justin Hilton said of the panelists. “They said, ‘Look, this is what we believe, this is what we think and here’s why.’ And I think that was good because if you don’t get that, it’s very difficult to take a true assessment of where you’re at.”

The commission will make that assessment and develop recommendations over the summer and into the early fall, meeting with faculty, staff and students in future forums, Hilton said. But the first forum gave it enough information to gnaw on for a while.

The panelists spoke during the forum in confidentiality so as not to discourage honest input.

“For me, Kent State has been a very hostile environment,” a foreign language professor said.

One panelist said she’s heard Kent State referred to as “the plantation” with the library as “the big house” because of the limited contact between administration and the rest of the campus.

“The fact that Kent State is even referred to as a plantation is a problem,” she said. “It’s a shame that there even has to be a commission on inclusion.”

Other observations were less bleak.

A panelist from the labor relations department said it’s a challenge creating employment diversity beyond black and white from the surrounding area without going into Cleveland.

Another panelist said offering domestic partner benefits was a great step, but it should just be part of the employment package rather than a brokering tool.

“What happened today was a good, honest sharing of where we believe we’re at (as a campus),” Hilton said.

Eventually the commission intends to take that assessment of the campus’s cultural receptivity and turn it into recommendations for action, but Hilton said the members are trying to take it slow.

“I’ve been yielding to the leadership of Reverend Fowler,” he said. “Right now we’re in the acquiring-of-information stage, and we really haven’t moved to think about what possibly will be recommended.”

He said Fowler wants the members of the commission to withhold ideas until they get the full picture.

“I think that (Fowler) is quite intentional on keeping us in a place where we’re just listening with our hearts and our ears,” Hilton said, “and letting that help us figure out what direction we should go in.”

Some members of the forum’s panel, however, were skeptical that any change would come from the commission’s recommendations.

They were each asked by the commission if they thought anything would come of the recommendations. Two said no, two said yes and two said maybe.

“My intent is to believe that the commission has been given a task that can be accomplished,” said Della Marie Marshall, associate director in the Center for Student Involvement. “But in 18 years (at Kent State) I’ve been on these commissions, and I’ve helped write some of the reports. They’ve collected dust, and nothing has happened.”

Fowler responded to doubts during the forum.

“If I didn’t think anything would come of this commission, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

But past experience is a strong persuader.

Adrian Neal, senator of diversity for the Undergraduate Student Government, was the only student on the panel and said he hasn’t seen any positive steps toward inclusion in his years at Kent State.

“I don’t know if it’s that I haven’t been looking, but no,” he said. “There’s been no progress.”

Lefton said the campus community should look beyond past experience.

“Others are looking at past presidents; I’m a new president,” he said. “I see an opportunity to create an inclusive, inviting, open environment. If people want to stay mired in the past, they’re going to.”

Lefton has asked for an interim report from the commission set tentatively to be filed in September.

“I told them to take their time and do it well,” he said.

Contact principal reporter Ben Wolford at [email protected].