As we reported last week, St. Louis Community College Chancellor Jeff Pittman is setting a new precedent with a 50-point plan of action for diversity and inclusion and has named a director dedicated to carry it out in all four of its campuses. As Rebecca Rivas’ reporting made clear, Pittman is asking important questions about the college’s hiring practices and contracting for outside services. He is taking an honest look at the college’s approach to interaction with students, with an eye toward changing what needs to be improved or replaced.
Admittedly, the college’s new diversity action plan comes after decades of relative inaction on these issues and an overall lack of a coordinated plan of any action for the college’s four widespread and diverse campuses. Pittman was not daunted by that history when he arrived in July 2015. The new diversity action plan was drafted after the college held 23 community forums, took in 1,200 surveys and established a 30-member council to draft a strategic plan for the college. “For the first time in the college’s history,” Pittman said, “we are singing from the same hymnal.”
We see plenty of encouraging evidence that many institutions in the St. Louis region are singing from the “hymnal” of diversity and inclusion, even as we look with concern – and, often, dread – an inexperienced new Republican leadership at the state and federal levels. Our next governor, Eric Greitens, will be a former progressive Democrat who campaigned and was elected as a conservative Republican. It is extremely difficult to predict how he will lead on issues crucial to the survival and prosperity of our cities and their diverse urban populations, areas vital to the success of our states and our nation, no matter how much Republicans insult them as out-of-touch liberal elites. While even less predictable than Greitens in many respects, Donald Trump’s choices for cabinet members and advisors shows that he fully intends to reward the white nationalists who form his most rabid and vocal base.
While St. Louis and its residents are wise to prepare for political battles with Trump and controlling Republican majorities in Congress and the Missouri Legislature, we must also pay attention to our local leaders who are setting the right tone and affirm their leadership. It is certain that those same leaders will be hearing from people who are fed up with all of this talk about diversity and inclusion and expect the election of Trump to end it. Consider some of the actions called for in the community college’s bold new action plan, which include requiring all employees to complete an online diversity and inclusion course annually, incorporating a stronger diversity component in student orientation workshops, providing lactation rooms to accommodate student and faculty needs, and reviewing scholarships to examine ethnic makeup of recipients.
This reflects a real commitment to make the college more welcoming to minorities and women students. “You have to be very intentional about going out of your comfort zone to open and expand your mind to others,” Fuller said. Make no mistake: Not everyone wants to expand their comfort zones or take into account the experiences and intentions of people unlike themselves. These liberal, democratic (with a small “d”) values are under assault – in this state and country and indeed around the world – and we will indeed have to be “very intentional” to keep these values from being eroded and destroyed in the coming years.
We encourage Pittman and Fuller to hold the college accountable for fulfilling the action items in the diversity and inclusion plan, and we encourage everyone with a stake in the college to affirm and support their efforts. And we all have a stake in what they are trying to accomplish. The community college system, often disparaged compared to four-year universities is an integral part of a vibrant community, providing workforce training that in many cases leads to immediate jobs, as well as a low-budget entry into higher education, especially for poor and working-class students who also don’t have many examples of academic achievement in their families to draw upon. The St. Louis Community College system is an invaluable asset to the regional economy and is important to the success of individuals and their families.