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CSA passes resolution addressing low African-American retention rates

< a nearly one and a half hour discussion, the Carleton Student Associate Senate passed a resolution Monday that calls for a privilege training program for students during New Student Week 2008.

The resolution was proposed by Tom Duda ’08 and presented by Senator Eleni Schrimer ’08. While the resolution itself was “just out of the blue,” according to Schrimer, addressing issues of race on campus were not, said CSA Vice-President Pablo Kenney ’09. The document represents part of a process in response to the 2007 article in Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which cited Carleton’s low (66 percent) retention rate of African-American students. According to incoming senator Dominic Vendell ‘09, the resolution presented to the CSA noted this finding as an urgent call for the College to effect change on these issues.

Posted online on Thursday, the resolution took a four-pronged approach to addressing race. These include a campus-wide forum on strategies for addressing low graduation rates for black students; participating in reformulations of the RAD requirement as part of the ongoing curricular review; dialoguing upon the results of the Campus Climate surveys during Fall 2008; and privilege training program for students during New Student Week for 2008-2009 academic year.

It was the last of these measures of the resolution that sparked extensive discussion among the CSA senators and other students in attendance at the meeting, largely around the topic of the correct breadth of the diversity trainings, with senators divided between focusing exclusively and explicitly on white privilege trainings, or taking a more generalized, “diversity” approach. While Tom Duda, the writer of the resolution, said he “fully expected the Senate to debate the resolution’s language,” he did not expect the debate to be “as thorough and lengthy as it was.”

“Most of the Senate acknowledge the need to discuss diversity and privilege but there was some debate about whether to look at racial privilege, or other forms of power as well,” said Kenney.

Schrimer first suggested changing the “comprehensive diversity training” to a “white privilege orientation” and asked if such a change would be appropriate during the meeting. In explaining her move after-the-fact, Schrimer recalled, “I was definitely a proponent of the ‘power and privilege’ training” and the term ‘white privilege’ in the document.”

She added that “diversity trainings” can be what she termed a “feel-good experience.”

“There is a danger of just saying ‘diversity’—it lacks any real meaning. This is not just a coloring book: it’s how our differences accrue or disaccrue different power.”

Schrimer concluded by advocating for a “power and privilege” language, which is what appears in the final document – “a comprehensive power and privilege training program for all incoming students.”

Some senators took Schrimer’s analysis one step further, and arguing for the explicit language of “white privilege” in the amendment. Such comments further ignited the discussion, as a debated surfaced over whether the resolution was addressing a general diversity or measures strictly inspired by the low retention rates.

According to Vendell, while “all forms of power should be included in the education that is given to Carleton students,” white privilege is “especially impactful in perpetuating hierarchies,” a statement seconded by senators such as Whittney Smith, who encouraged the senate to make the document more demanding. Smith said issues of white privilege should be addressed, but in a non-combative manner.

Student attendee Chelsea Rae Prax ’09 also thought that white privilege was the key issue being addressed. She explained that while a more generalized majority privilege is felt around the world, white privilege should be the focus in America.

Yet others did not see eye-to-eye. Senator Jack Boller said that by including talk of white privilege, the document was in some ways implying that white privilege was the cause of low retention rate, a judgment he didn’t feel comfortable supporting.

Liz Alspach also had criticisms of using “white privilege” the document. While she explained that such training is “an essential part of becoming an informed citizen,” NSW is not the best place for such a term. “I don’t think it is fair to incoming white freshmen to immediately inform them that they have been advantaged their entire life, and we’re here to take it away,” she explained.

“A lot of kids haven’t heard of white privilege before they come to Carleton, regardless of their race, and the learning curve should be transitional,” Alspach continued.

However, she contended that “we have a serious problem on this campus and in our society,” yet expanded this to issue beyond race, including “class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and many more divide communities without just cause, and I am anxious to do my part to change that.” But, she stated, “I don’t see using the term “white privilege” in a CSA resolution solving that issue.”

Schrimer countered that while it is important to address all issues of diversity and oppression, at Carleton “race is a big one… especially because this has been prompted by the retention rate.”

The language that the CSA ultimately decided upon was Schrimer’s “power and privilege training” which served as a meeting-point between the two viewpoints. The New Student Week Task Force will now look at ways to implement such a training, according to Kenney.

Also in the debate, Senator Brandon Walker (’09) brought the CSA itself into the discussion, which eventually become one of the measures of the resolution. Walker stated CSA senators should hold themselves accountable for issues of privilege and power, and thus undergo a white privilege training.

Duda said that while he “did find it surprising” that the CSA had decided upon this new aspect of the resolution, “some of the comments senators expressed during the debate over the resolution suggest to me that such training is essential.”

The resolution is being presented by President Fleming at the College Council meeting on Monday. But, Duda underlined, this resolution is “not a quick fix.” Duda. Rather, he said, it is a commitment of the CSA to work quickly on improving Carleton’s graduation rate for black students, what he called “our campus’s top priority.”

“ If Carleton can spend $20+ million to build two new dorms, Carleton can certainly invest resources in addressing disparities in graduation rates,” concluded Duda.

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