Campus message on cultural awareness and inclusiveness

April 22, 2015

To the Eastern Michigan University community:

The recent incident in which a group of students dressed as Native Americans as part of an off-campus party and the associated altercation with a community member is one of several situations over the last year in which issues of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity have became the focus of significant dialogue on our campus.

Regarding the most recent incident, the Native American Student Organization has expressed that a major concern is cultural appropriation. This is defined by Fordham Professor Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law (2005), as: “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

Other recent incidents have generated similar concerns: the movie being shown on campus, Occupation 101, was considered as having negative bias related to Israel; the protest over the showing of the film American Sniper for concerns it is negatively biased towards Muslims; concerns about civil and other rights violations targeting African-Americans related to policing practices in Ferguson and other communities; transgender and contra-power harassment as well as more general harassment concerns related to sexual orientation and gender identity. This list is not intended to be complete but rather to provide some sense as to the degree of scope and scale of the issues as we seek to understand, discuss and learn as a university community.

The University takes these matters and all matters of equitable treatment very seriously and is strongly committed to maintaining a respectful, inclusive and safe environment for everyone. I addressed these issues most recently in my campus message last December following events surrounding Ferguson.

The Eastern Michigan University community can be a leader with regard to understanding and providing productive paths forward on these most important issues. Our efforts must be ongoing and systematic as we aim to substantially increase awareness, education, and understanding for our campus and higher education as a whole.

We have multiple points of pride regarding our support of diversity and multicultural interests at Eastern. Some examples: our support of students of color as evidenced through the Men of Color Degree Completion and Retention Plan; our efforts related to support of undocumented students; the leadership we have exhibited in support of the LGBTQA community; and, the various support offices including the Office of Diversity and Community Involvement, Women’s Resource Center, Center for Multicultural Affairs, Disability Resource Center, Office of International Students, and many others.

The importance of this objective is outlined in one of the University’s five Core Values adopted in 2013 as part of the University’s Strategic Plan: Inclusiveness – We create an environment that supports, represents, embraces and engages members of diverse groups and identities.

Our richly diverse community truly is a great point of pride for all of us here at Eastern. Our university is distinctly and powerfully positioned to not only create a campus culture conducive to the co-creation of solutions by faculty, students, staff, alumni and our greater community furthering diversity and inclusiveness, but must lead in doing so.

This is why I am announcing that we will add a new position to the University’s senior leadership team: Chief Diversity Officer. This individual will serve as the senior executive on the leadership team responsible for efforts related to diversity, inclusion and equity. The individual will advise the president, senior leaders and campus units on policies, processes, and practices intended to foster a most diverse and inclusive campus where all members of the university community can thrive and contribute to the University’s mission and core values.

Further details about the search process and committee will be forthcoming. The University will conduct a comprehensive national search for this most important inaugural position and the search process will be inclusive of key campus communities (faculty, students and staff).

For all of you who work together daily to bring more diversity, cultural awareness and inclusiveness to our campus, your efforts are greatly appreciated. Going forward, we remain committed to education as the cornerstone for bringing greater understanding and acceptance of all cultures and backgrounds to our community and future generations.

Sincerely,

Susan Martin