University of Massachusetts Amherst: Building a Community of Dignity and Respect

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University leadership shared a message with the campus community on Aug. 31 reaffirming UMass Amherst’s commitment to creating a living and learning community truly defined by diversity, equity and inclusion. To ensure the community remains fully informed of our challenges and progress, the message from Vice Chancellors Nefertiti A. Walker, Brandi Hephner LaBanc and William Brady provided a detailed update on a number of ongoing campus initiatives.

That email is as follows:

Dear Campus Community:

With the 2022-23 Academic Year underway, we are writing to reaffirm our commitment to creating a living and learning community truly defined by diversity, equity and inclusion. This effort requires each of us to actively acknowledge differences in others and create connections based on our shared humanity. When we each make this effort, we strengthen our community.

This commitment to creating a community based on the values of dignity and respect is an ongoing effort and requires full transparency. Faculty, staff and students working together must collaboratively identify our challenges, develop strategies to address them, and monitor our progress to enact solutions. In fall 2021, we conducted a campus-wide survey to assess perceptions and experiences of inclusion, respect and belonging within the university. With 41.6 percent of faculty, staff and students responding, we have a wealth of data to inform and create strategic initiatives that further our goals of fostering an inclusive community.

Our work to create a community where we live our values is ongoing. This summer, incoming students were introduced to our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion values at “Ready for the U” orientation. In the next few days, as we welcome new students and transfers to campus, they will participate in “Welcome to the U” events, including Dear World, Many Voices and Convocation – all of which will facilitate the process of helping students find their place at UMass. And, as the entire university begins this academic year, we are prioritizing our values by inviting the campus community to participate in a series of educational and inspiring events, talks, panels, networking events and workshops dedicated to Belonging@UMass. This series will take place throughout the fall and will begin with Belonging@UMass Week, Sept. 12-16, sponsored by the Office of Equity and Inclusion. A highlight of the week is the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) conference, featuring remarks by Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, panel discussions with campus leadership on belonging, a United Against Hate workshop, and more.

Additionally, to ensure the university community remains fully informed of our challenges and progress, we are providing the following update related to ongoing campus initiatives.

Racial Justice

To assist in the ongoing investigation into the source of a series of hateful, racist emails that were sent to a number of Black students and Black student organizations during the past academic year, the university has engaged the services of the Ed Davis Company (EDC), a leading security consulting firm with extensive experience in cyber security and digital forensics. EDC’s services were retained in May after an initial investigation conducted by Stroz Friedberg Digital Forensics was unable to determine the source of the emails. While we are limited in what we can reveal about the methods of EDC’s ongoing investigation, the team of investigators, security and technology solutions experts has a strong record of inter-agency collaboration and has successfully worked on multiple high profile cyber investigations. EDC is working in close consultation with the UMass Police Department, the campus office of Information Technology, and the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office to support their joint investigation.

Shortly after the racist email incidents, the university formed the Black Advisory Council (BAC) last year. The BAC was launched in close coordination with the Office of Equity and Inclusion, and is co-chaired by Whitney Battle-Baptiste, professor and director for the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, and Wilmore Webley, associate professor and associate dean of the Graduate School’s Office of Inclusion and Engagement. This council of administrators, faculty, staff and students convenes regularly to address topics related to the Black campus community. The BAC provides education and guidance on Black issues and advises university leaders on matters related to positive campus climate for Black students, faculty, and staff. Its mission is listed here.

Additional campus initiatives to advance racial justice include:

Residential Life is using a curriculum encouraging students to contribute to positive social change in their communities, with a focus on building inclusive communities through dialogue and meetings, specifically targeting issues related to social justice, equity and inclusion.
A consultant was secured to work with staff to implement mindfulness and wellbeing practices for communities of color throughout the academic year.
The University of Massachusetts Police Department received a grant from the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) to host two de-escalation instructor training courses. The grants provide funding to support training, policies and procedures that encourage a de-escalation mindset, and other organizational change efforts that work toward the creation of a culture of de-escalation.
The UMass Amherst “Building Capacity for Transformative Racial Justice Practices” trained 28 professional staff who work in a range of student-facing roles to create and sustain more racially affirming spaces with the student groups they advise, supervise, teach and coach. The program received the “Outstanding Social Justice Collaboration Award” at the College Student Educators International annual convention.
Accessibility

As part of our commitment to providing access and participation in our campus life and community to all persons, the Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC) was formed last year. AAC, empowered by the chancellor, was established at the request of Access UMass via the Student Government Association and has led the way on a number of campus improvements that are currently underway, including:

Automatic door openers on prioritized bathrooms and exterior doors
Purchase of the Glean note-taking program for students
Improving online information about accessibility resources
Updating the campus accessibility map
New curb ramps and upgrade to audible tone crosswalk signals for approximately 15 crosswalks
Enhanced automation of the Disability Services accommodation portal
The campus has allocated $400,000 per year for the use of the Architectural Access Board (AAB) to fund accessibility projects and improvements to current facilities. The total FY22 contribution toward improving campus accessibility was over $4.7 million. We are dedicated to taking concrete steps to making the campus welcoming to all.

Preventing Sexual Assault

We also continue to make progress in our initiatives to prevent sexual assault, support survivors and improve campus culture:

Late last fall, the Survivor’s Bill of Rights was successfully adopted. The campus community is grateful for the steadfast commitment of Student Government Association (SGA) leaders who worked on this issue since 2015. The Survivor’s Bill of Rights gives a survivor agency by ensuring support systems and resources are available to any student even if they choose not to formally report the incident.
Ongoing efforts to prevent sexual assault include a training program on sexual misconduct awareness and prevention for all fraternity and sorority members. Following the program roll-out last spring, all Greek Life leadership will undergo mandatory training this semester. Attendance will be published in the Sorority and Fraternity Scorecard and national leadership has been called upon to help us with this ongoing effort. Additionally, Ashiah Richeme-Alcide assumed the role of director of Fraternities and Sororities in July. Her responsibilities include leading efforts to promote trainings and engaging with chapter leadership to collaboratively advance university values.
The Title IX Student Advisory Board, was formed last fall to provide guidance regarding policies, procedures and education efforts related to sexual misconduct. This fall, the group will expand its membership and will continue to meet this semester.
The results of a seven-year retroactive review of reported sexual-based misconduct by Comprehensive Investigations and Consulting (CIC) is expected in October. Based on their findings, the state of the law, and national best practices, CIC will make recommendations to expand sexual assault prevention efforts, increase reporting of offenses, and promote a culture of transparency, communication and safety for the campus community.
We are committed to continually work toward building a community where every individual experiences a sense of belonging. And although we have made progress on a number of fronts, there is always more work to be done. The frustration that some members of our community feel with the pace of change is understandable and serves as a reminder that we must never become complacent in confronting these difficult challenges. Each of us – students, faculty, staff and administrators – must be fully engaged in order to make meaningful progress overcoming the obstacles before us. Through ongoing dialogue, cooperation and collaboration, together, we can create a campus community defined by shared principles of mutual respect and dignity for all. As part of this ongoing work, below this message, please find a list of available university resources.

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