Free speech is not only the foundation of Higher Education (HE), but also the bedrock of a healthy society. No one understands this better than Marquita Chamblee, Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at Wayne State University, who has led the way in promoting constructive discourse to bring people together.
Marquita met with Kitty Hadaway, GoodCourse’s Universities Lead, to discuss the importance of student safety, enabling constructive conversations between students, and responding to activism on campus.
My current roles are Associate Provost for DEI and Chief Diversity Officer at Wayne State University. We’re an urban institution in Detroit, Michigan, serving a very diverse student body. We’re the third-largest HE institution in the state.
It was a very roundabout path. As a student, I was in a STEM field largely dominated by White men, and I was often the only person of color in the room. At the time, many African American students at my university were protesting that their needs weren’t being met. So I became curious to know what my college was doing to enhance the African American student experience, and I went to the Dean’s Office to find out more. And he ended up offering me a job! So then, I became the first Coordinator of Undergraduate Minority Student Programs in the College of Agriculture at Penn State.
I’ve been fortunate to work with a colleague leading the Office of Multicultural Student Engagement. They do a lot of work with students from many different groups — particularly African American students from the City of Detroit. That office recently created the Multicultural Advisory and Programming Board, which endeavors to engage students in leadership development around issues of equity, inclusion, and student experience. We also recently hired an Intercultural Training Director, who works with staff and faculty across departments to develop cultural competence for the entire campus community.
Until recently, we didn’t have a specific policy toward free speech. But through our Diversity Campus Climate Survey, we learned that our campus community cares deeply about free expression. So we’re trying to help students get comfortable with differences of opinion — we’re just getting started hosting conversations about civil disagreement. We’re fortunate to have experts in various subjects who can facilitate these discussions. For example, we’ve had some tension among our students surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict — so we have colleagues who can lead students in discussions that can reach across that divide. It can be challenging for students to have these difficult conversations, but we hope to equip them with the tools they need to go out and build constructive dialogue.
That’s a really good question, and there are a few ways to look at it. Recently, there was a shooting on campus at Michigan State University, which heightened our awareness of physical safety. We’re known as one of the safest college campuses — not just in Michigan, but the whole country. But we also need to consider the psychological aspect: some of our students of color have been speaking out about our assumptions, asking questions like what safety means and who it is for. As an institution that’s been historically White, we need to help students of color feel like they belong here. We spend a lot of time thinking about building a welcoming environment and safe spaces so students can feel psychologically and emotionally secure. We’re engaging students to help them feel confident to express their concerns.
We have a program called Conversation Cafe to help bring students together. Most recently, we invited African American students to share their concerns but also to hear what’s going well for them. Our goal is to make students feel more connected to our institution. So our Office of Multicultural Engagement spends a lot of time creating spaces where everyone can feel safe — not just single-identity students, but also students with intersecting identities.
Covid created a sense of disengagement across all aspects of student life. Even after the pandemic, getting students back to in-person events has been a challenge. Look at our Conversation Cafes — before the pandemic, we had 40 or 50 students turning up, but only three attended our latest meeting. It indicates what we’re seeing elsewhere: many student organizations struggle to get peers involved, and engagement has fallen across the board. So it’s an area where we continue to work hard — reaching out to students, connecting with them, and drawing them back to campus.
About a year and a half ago, there was an incident in the residence halls which was handled poorly, and many students felt there was racism in the residence hall system. So students held a series of protests, and the President met with them to address these issues. This year, there was another racial incident that revived this activism. Our African American students are finding their voices, which helps keep us accountable as an institution.
We have a fairly active student body, especially with our Black Student Union. We try to engage with student activism, and we’re taking the time to look at a couple of things: firstly, to invite students into conversations as often as possible, and secondly, to learn from them and act on their recommendations. For next year, we’re working on an intergroup dialogue program that will focus on building dialogue across differences.