On December 6th, 2017 42 members from 13 institutions of higher learning gathered at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln to formally initiate a national conversation on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
To move the conversations occurring between members of the Major University Presenters into to a more formal arena, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Lied Center for Performing Arts, with the support of the University’s Chancellor and senior administration, invited MUPs leaders to Lincoln, Nebraska, for a three-day symposium. They came from East and West Coasts—Stanford, Berkeley, University of Washington, Dartmouth, universities of Florida and North Carolina—and from spots in between—Arizona State, Penn State, universities of Iowa, Michigan and Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—to share successes and obstacles on their campuses and to explore creative ways to move forward.
The Lied Center for Performing Arts Executive Director Bill Stephan opened the symposium by stating the need to tackle barriers to inclusion and equity together. Stephan noted that performing arts centers are uniquely positioned in their communities to address issues of social justice. Each presenter has a mission to entertain and to educate, and ought to draw from the richness of cultural diversity.
To begin the first full day of the symposium on Wednesday, December 7th, Lance Perez, UNL interim Dean of the College of Engineering and head of UNL’s Diversity Council, established a context for the discussions by recounting the slogan of an anti-racism campaign at UNL in 2013 after an incident of racial slurs on the campus: “Not here. Not now. Not ever.” Although good intentions followed the “Not here. Not now. Not Ever” rally, no immediate follow-through brought change. The following year the chancellor created the Diversity Council with representation from major organizations on campus. The goal was to create an initiative, and expand on the one-time event. A key component of the first stage of the initiative was the hiring of an external consultant, Halualani and Associates, to develop a diversity and inclusion strategic plan, beginning with measuring the curriculum and demographics of students, staff and faculty on campus. Stage two brought about diversity mapping to document all programs, key effective features, what is struggling and why. This spring the university will have a baseline to start the conversation—all of which demonstrates the serious commitment it takes to address issues of equity and diversity in higher education landscape.
Perez underscored the importance of a sustained and ongoing effort. “It’s not something you can delegate.” Perez introduced a refrain that echoed throughout the symposium: “We need to make diversity an initiative not an event.” Perez also noted the complex landscape of diversity that goes beyond race and ethnicity. Whether one is religious or not, lesbian, gay, transgender, or non-binary, dealing with mental or physical disabilities—all are to be considered.
Symposium participants responded:
Stancia Whitcomb Jenkins, NU Diversity Officer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, agreed that universities need to recognize diversity with resources. “It’s important to have a sense of place so it gets institutionalized,” she said.
Pat Tetreault, Assistant Director in Student Involvement, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said that the whole institution needs to be involved. “It needs to be intentional inclusion,” she said. “We need to educate and provide resources if we want to make a welcoming campus; the current political culture is going to require more efforts to make intentional diversity and inclusion.”
But civility has to be the guiding principle, said Tom Hogan, Professor of Practice, Human Resource Management, Penn State University, who audits diversity and inclusion on campus and works to align its strategy into the main campus strategies. “Civility is an enabler of diversity and Inclusion; there is a respectful way to discuss issues,” he said.
Continuing the conversation on “Why diversity? Why now? What must we do? Conceptual Frameworks for Diversity and Inclusion” were panel members Mike Ross, Krannert Center for Performing Arts, and Chris Benson, Associate Professor of Journalism and African-American Studies, both of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, ASU Gammage, Arizona State University.
Mike Ross offered a “meta framework” for the arts in today’s complex world. He focused on a “strategy of being” concept borrowed from colleague Jonathan Fineberg, which embraces a conscious commitment to seeking out life-affirming experiences. Ross spoke of the performing arts center as sanctuary, public square and creator of contexts for change by exchanging ideas, cultural backgrounds and experiences, and social and political perspectives in a safe zone that negotiates the divides between generations, religions, lifestyles and races: a place where difference is transcended. “The experience of art allows us to get outside ourselves to find ourselves and our connection to others,” he said. The end result can “lead to a robust, exuberant and deeply felt affirmation of life.”
Benson expanded on the theme. “It is essential, imperative, ultimate to see value in difference; it is the thread that binds our commonality.” Intimate stories, he said, connect with the audience; they help people teach themselves. In the face of critical social challenges ahead, it is difficult to know how to share values, he said. Performing arts centers offer not only artistic direction but commonality that contributes to deeper understanding, and they can provoke an audience to explore their own feelings. They are transformative, a place to reveal not hide, and in that way they can educate, elevate and engage, he said. Benson pointed to Hannie Rayson’s play “Inheritance” as a work that explores the social construction of differences, that probes traumatic memory, a moment of personal awakening, a moment of connection beyond ourselves. It offers moments of intervention as well as entertainment. “There are no walls of indifference or putting consciousness on lockdown,” he said. “Success is measured by conversations that stimulate.”
Jennings-Roggensack, director of ASU Gammage for 24 years, sees the center as serving both the multiplicity of community as well as the diverse student body. “Never before in the country’s contemporary time have our roles been more needed and vital in working together,” she said. She works with the athletic director so that every athlete on campus will have a cultural experience their senior year. From the play “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” to upcoming “Hamilton,” Jennings-Roggensack said “the work that we do opens the door to other people.” Diversity goes beyond the stage. Her organization helps fund a Broadway Fellowship program to help further careers on Broadway. And diversity in an artist-in-residence program with composer Martha Gonzalez has helped young people have a voice. As she navigates and negotiates collaborations, she asks these questions: What do you want, what do I want, and what do we want together?
Another symposium conversation topic focused on the role of campus leadership in establishing an organization-wide commitment, as exemplified by Penn State University’s All In campaign, shared by Tom Hogan, Professor of Practice, Human Resource Management at Penn State, and George Trudeau and Amy Dupain Vashaw, Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.
Hogan said diversity and inclusion need strong institutional leadership, and Penn State has that with the All In campaign. “Leadership and support at the highest level of an organization is critical; alignment and interlock are necessary for the success of a strategic plan.” And the foundation of a strategic plan requires fostering and embracing a diverse world. The aim is to advance the arts and humanities as agents of change in addressing complex global issues.
The All In campaign that kicked off Oct. 6, 2016, is not a top-down approach but an organic one, he said. It runs across all 15 Penn State units and embraces social science branches to assess outcomes and impacts. Short-term and sustainable fundraising is a major component. “We are trying to bring people together for this initiative,” he said. The goal is to expose, educate, influence and assess.
Amy Vashaw agreed. “This initiative has opened doors not normally opened to us,” she said. And in the process the performing arts center is helping to develop inter-domain courses.
How various performing arts centers engage students took center stage in a panel discussion titled Connecting with Students…or Not: Experiences and Experiments. Panelists were: Maria Laskaris, Hopkins Center, and Evelynn Ellis, Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity, Dartmouth College; Brian Jose, Florida Performing Arts, and Jessica Inman, Associate Director, Department of Student Activities and Involvement, University of Florida; Maureen Reagan, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Aaron Shackelford, UNC Chapel Hill.
Maria Laskaris: “Change is hard in a place that holds to tradition,” she said of her nearly 250-year-old campus. She stressed the importance of broadening the definition of diversity. “We did not have structures to make diversity in the student body welcoming. We need to address what it means to truly be diverse and truly inclusive.”
Evelynn Ellis: The assumption that if the student population became diverse, inclusion would follow, but the college was not prepared. “We assumed total voluntary assimilation. Diversity is hard knocks; traditions have to change.” Diversity gives riches and rewards if the campus lets it. The performing arts are a spiritual force, she said. “It is our responsibility; it is not a time to blink, not to find an alternative path but to build a diversity component,” she said. “The times are uncertain and there is no better place to do it than the performing arts.”
Jessica Inman: Of the 52,000 students, 83 percent report that they are engaged on campus in some capacity. Fifteen percent of the campus student organizations are committed to identity issues, such as religioun or cultural. There are five welcome assemblies on campus at the start of the year. “It’s important to know students and know what they want,” she said.
Brian Jose: It is vital to commit to inclusion. “We can all have the same experience but have different takeaways,” he said. The center rents space to different groups and makes sure their events are successful. “Through our student rentals, we are the town hall of the campus.”
Maureen Reagan: Research from a Krannert Center colleague suggests the possibility of applying models of student development to arts-based student engagement. The research explores how this area of educational psychology can be incorporated into arts engagement work, with its structure for notions of growth, progression, and increasing capability, judgment, and comfort with ambiguity. She also noted two classes on campus that incorporate direct arts experiences as part of the curriculum to create cultural and cross-cultural understanding.
Aaron Shackelford: For the 2016/17 season, Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey featured 13 performances by people from four Muslim-majority, non-Arab nations. The core goal was to convey how Islam is not a monolithic religion. There was also a component to measure implicit bias by recruiting to the performances students not involved in courses with a connection to Islam and then measuring the impact of the performance. He also stressed the importance of having artists on campus as a creative resource and outlet.
In a presentation entitled Connecting with Faculty, Charles Swanson, Executive Director, Hancher, and Michael Hill, Associate Professor of English, University of Iowa, discussed how Hancher promotes diversity through faculty initiative.
In 2011 Chuck Swanson connected with Lena and Michael Hill. That led to week-long residencies in 14 departments across the campus of a stage adaptation of “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. “It was a residence with a timeless feel,” he said. “I want it to happen but we can’t do it alone.”
Michael Hill told the presenters that the faculty will join them if they believe their academic mission is undergirded by what the presenters do. And he advised presenters not be hostile to student affairs committees because that creates a sense of competition that no one acknowledges; instead they should build bridges with the student groups. He said Hancher Performing Arts Center and the university hold a revered position because they offer possibilities that people might not otherwise be exposed to. “People are discovering their better selves because of the work performing arts centers do.”
On the final day of the symposium, Scott Stoner, Vice President, Programs and Resources, Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), talked about the overarching goal of APAP’s grant program Building Bridges: Arts, Culture and Identity--to create a greater understanding of and appreciation for residents in or visitors to American communities who have roots in Muslim-majority societies. This is done by identifying and engaging young people and other audiences in performances and interdisciplinary activities that focus on the arts and culture of contemporary Muslim societies. Projects engage faculty and involve a combination of campus and community partners to develop educational and experiential opportunities focused on Muslim societies. Non-traditional partners have also been engaged, such as military members and their families. Stoner also noted that artists, arts and cultural organizations are being drawn into strategies to help communities address acts of violence and destruction arising from domestic and global conflict. Four primary lessons gleaned from arts-led interventions with students through Building Bridges:
- Most college students are more likely to participate in similar initiatives but lack the level of knowledge and understanding to make them effective leaders or allies for change
- The ability to exchange stories and ideas that reflect one’s voice—including the Muslim voice—is a transformative means of connecting to a peer
- Creative activities and opportunities to engage directly with artists—including co-creation—have provided unexpected and profound avenues for discovering and valuing cultural differences
- Opportunities for self-reflection break down barriers and preconceptions
Stoner noted that knowledge and language are critical change factors and that religious literacy is a must to understand the range of identity issues among Muslims. Also, the focus should be on shared values and commonality rather than differences. And, finally, the telling of personal narratives through devised theater, for example, can be the most compelling and engaging part of the experience. Stoner illustrated this with Ping Chong’s LaGuardia project, “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity.”
While not everyone has a Building Bridges grant, Stoner said it does not have to take $200,000 to make this concept work. “Can we formalize a support network, create a group of artists and get them around the country?” he asked.
The symposium continued with presentations by campus delegates who are currently engaging in significant diversity initiatives at several universities represented at the symposium. Among them:
Ryan Davis, Associate Director of Engagement and Public Programs, Stanford Live and Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University, talked of the need for safe spaces in performing arts, a space where an actual conflict of ideas can take place. It is not just a matter of having to see, understand and interpret a cultural experience as the main group sees it, but rather to manage other people’s experience of you, to navigate the world then break down for others why you have to do it. “Redistributing that kind of equality of effort, that’s what a safe space is,” he said. Normalizing that effort of equality is a goal. For those who have taken on that extra labor, how can we support their resiliency through our artistic efforts? he asked.
Sabrina Klein, Director of Artistic Literacy, Cal Performances, University of California-Berkeley, retraced the conversation back to the word “Safe Space” and shared an evolution of the term: “brave space.” Artistic literacy is primarily an umbrella for engaging partnerships, she said, not just education and community outreach. Invitation, welcome and inclusion are the personal and intentional tools to give people a feeling of belonging. “Artistic literacy is our goal so people have knowledge and skill to have a meaningful relationship with the performance,” she said. That’s more easily done in the hyper-diverse Bay area, she added. Cal Performance offers networking and promotes artistic literacy as a basic human right. What’s the problem the artist is trying to solve and what are their tools? she asked. “We’re making a connection with our own and others’ humanity; it’s on a par with linguistic and numerical literacy.”
Christina Bellows, Associate Director for Patron Services, University of Michigan-University Musical Society, University of Michigan, said the presenters were asked a year ago to create a diversity inclusion program. They began the process by information gathering and researching what others were doing. One new program is an internship with a local underserved high school. Staff engagement has been challenging, she said, but toward that end everyone is invited to every meeting all of the time.
Willie Sullivan, Front-of-house coordinator, University of Michigan-University Musical Society, said they have not taken a survey of constituencies – full-time staff, student staff, volunteer staff, audience, community stakeholders—but a governing body and organizing management exist to develop the survey. He is curious, he said, about what will happen to survey information and what they hope to do with it. Going forward and overcoming inertia are difficult, he said.
Chris Lorway, Executive Director of Stanford Live and Bing Concert Hall, said that presenters should partner with people before the season instead of partnering with them after the season is chosen. “If we promote shows with other groups, it will help us.” It’s a trust issue of opening up the process, of letting groups come to the center to partner, he said.
Ken Fischer, President, University of Michigan-University Musical Society, named four principles of working with special groups: communication, cooperation, vulnerability and reciprocity (what are you giving to communities before you ask for something). Boards of directors used to “go it alone,” he said, but now they must move to partnerships and cooperation, to meet people in the community who can provide perspective and advice.
Jerry Yoshitomi posed the question: Are they entertainers or educators first? Is their role to challenge people?
Colleen Jennings-Roggensack said she does not believe the two are mutually exclusive, and turnover in administration allows for change in the long game if challenge is the issue. But presenters need to think about what they are going to stop doing if they are going to make time to nurture relationships with different communities. “Our mission is external to the university and sometimes internal. The balance shifts; it’s not equitable.”
Sabrina Klein put it this way: “We are educators and entertainers. Intentional communication must be about dialogue engagement, not just listening. We need time, coaching; we make mistakes and we learn from them. We need to understand the depth and complexity of the issues.
Professional development with a leadership coach is one way for the presenters to move forward, it was suggested.
Built into the agenda of the symposium were breaks from formal presentations in the form of gallery tours, shared meals, and most significantly, artist performances. Lied Center presented the MUPs with a performance by actor/writer/storyteller LeLand Gantt performing “Rhapsody in Black,” who shared a moving story of his personal journey in the performing arts and his encounters with racism in America. Also on the agenda was Tony-Award winning actor/playwright and spoken word poet Lemon Andersen who demonstrated the power of personal narrative and performance through a small-scale student writing workshop. Students from the University of Nebraska worked for several weeks in advance of the symposium with Lied Center Artist Director Ann Chang, and Lemon Anderson to prepare spoken word pieces that brought to light the personal, and at times harrowing experiences students carry with them through their journey at college. Their performance brought the MUPs face to face with their primary audience, anchoring the symposium proceedings in a common cause.
The symposium concluded with a public forum led by panelists Tom Hogan, George Trudeau, Ken Fischer, Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, Willie Sullivan and Christina Bellows. The topic was “Chartering New Pathways at our Nation’s Universities.” A complete recording of this forum and all presentations included in the symposium can be found on the MUPs website.