Becoming comfortable with the unfamiliar

Becoming comfortable with the unfamiliar:
A conversation with Karla Spurlock-Evans, dean of multicultural affairs and director of affirmative action

Senior Vice President for
Operations and Planning

karla.jpg (313722 bytes)The College's 1998 Strategic Plan called for a number of initiatives intended to enhance diversity at Trinity. In fact, diversity figured very prominently in the plan. Those of us who were deeply involved in the strategic planning effort, and those--including President Dobelle and the Board of Trustees--who approved the Strategic Plan as well as the allocation of significant resources to support the achievement of its key goals, believed that any plan to affirm Trinity as a national leader in liberal arts education for the next century must include steps to enhance the diversity of the College and weave multiculturalism into the fabric of the institution. One of the most significant steps taken in the context of these strategic goals was the hiring in August 1999 of Karla Spurlock-Evans, Trinity's first dean of multicultural affairs, reporting directly to the president.

While the responsibility for advancing the College's diversity-related goals rests on many offices and individuals--in fact, each member of this community of learning can play an important part--my colleague Karla has an especially central role and critical opportunity at this period in Trinity's history, and she brings to the task impressive experience, wisdom, and a deeply felt commitment to community and justice. At Trinity, she is empowered to help orchestrate the progress that is already under way on a number of fronts and lead new initiatives where progress has not been fast enough, and she is working with others to keep everyone focused on the prize. President Dobelle has said candidly, "Our community is textured by individuals with unique cultural heritages and personal identities, but we have not yet arrived at our destination: the point at which we truly believe--and demonstrate--that in our differences lies our strength."

Recently Karla and I had a conversation about her first year at Trinity.

Campanella: What prompted you to want to become Trinity's dean of multicultural affairs?

Spurlock-Evans: I am personally and professionally compelled to work towards creating communities that experience and celebrate diversity. After 14 years at Northwestern as associate dean of students and director of African American student affairs, I initially became interested in Trinity's position because I had for some time dream-ed of moving closer to Connecticut, where I was born and where my parents, sister, and extended family still resided. The more I learned about Trinity and about the way this position had been conceptualized, the more compelling I found it. What distinguished this job from others I had seen was the recognition that achieving diversity was a multidimensional task requiring coordination at multiple levels. I was particularly impressed with Trinity's concept of the position of dean of multicultural affairs after reading a report drafted by a faculty committee that outlined what the position should be (the CIT Report). The document clearly recognized that institutional transformation would be required to accomplish the goal of a multicultural environment and that a comprehensive effort would have to incorporate several strategies: academic and social support, curricular development, faculty recruitment, and the promotion of a warmer, more inclusive campus climate. When I interviewed at Trinity, I was impressed with the intelligence and cooperative spirit exhibited by students from various cultural backgrounds, the warmth and collegiality of staff and faculty, and the awareness exhibited by senior staff that the job they were seeking to fill was not a one-person endeavor. There seemed to be concurrence that the dean of multi-cultural affairs would galvanize change, but that everyone--faculty, students, and administrative staff would have to buy into a "master plan" for change.

As you prepared to take on this challenge, what opportunities and what significant challenges did you anticipate lay ahead for you?

This job offered me the opportunity to have direct input in shaping strategies for change. I knew that the year prior to my arrival had been marked by certain struggle and that I might be required to serve among other things as an agent of healing so that various constituencies--students, faculty, and administrators--could combine forces to productively address the challenge of transforming the environment. The great task before us is to create a climate that embraces diversity and encourages dialogue and interaction across lines of difference. Our major challenge is how to get students, faculty, and staff to step outside comfort zones, cross into unfamiliar territory, and become comfortable with the unfamiliar.

What surprised you most when you settled into the job?

I was surprised by the high energy level, keen intelligence, and sophistication of the politically engaged students. I was excited to observe that student leaders were stimulated by writers and intellectuals--that, for example, the students of Imani chose to bring a highly esteemed law professor and writer, Derek Bell, as the keynote speaker for their first annual student conference. I was also struck by the collegiality, warmth, and approachability of fellow administrators and impressed by the talent represented among faculty.

In Trinity I found a school that possessed bountiful natural resources for the task of becoming a fully multicultural campus. The challenge is devising strategies for transformation and mobilizing those individuals and groups who will effect change.

What was your first priority?

My first priority as I established an enlarged Office of Multicultural Affairs was to extend tangible personal and institutional support to students from multicultural backgrounds --specifically Black, Latino, and Asian-American students. The means for doing this included helping students in their organized efforts to manifest a cultural presence at Trinity and create a warmer social environment, assisting Student Services to explore the causes for and posit solutions to the problem of attrition among students of color, particularly Black and Latino men, and engaging with various offices to outreach more effectively.

How would you describe your role and responsibilities on campus, and what have been the most difficult challenges as you've embarked on your important work at Trinity?

I wear many hats: dean of multicultural affairs, affirmative action officer for administrative staff, and ombudsperson. I serve many functions: energizer, advocate, gadfly, intermediary, mobilizer, and mom. The most difficult aspect of this job is encouraging individuals and groups who are pushing for change and those who are receptive to change to overcome suspicion and work constructively together for a commonly shared vision of the future. The greatest challenge in this environment is that traditionally the school has not enjoyed much cultural diversity among staff, faculty, or students. There may not exist a deep-felt need among the majority to change a tradition that has seemed to many to serve the institution well in the past.

I am here to help galvanize and orchestrate change. The task, transforming the College to a place where all can benefit by encounters with those who are racially or culturally different or who are different along other dimensions such as sexual orientation or religion is not a job that can be accomplished by one person. This is a task that must be accomplished by a community. I think this reality and my role are quite well understood on campus.

Not many of our peer institutions have a senior officer whose prime responsibility centers on diversity and multiculturalism. But Trinity does. What's the significance of this, if any?

President Dobelle's decision to make this a senior position indicates not only a commitment to embrace multiculturalism as an ideal, but also to engage in institutional transformation that will assure real change. I am positioned to help determine institutional directions and shape policy. Not only am I able to partner with those who set policy as well as those who implement policy, I report to the president. Information about important issues flows both ways more quickly and I am empowered to move the College's vision forward more effectively.

For the last three years in a row, students of color have represented approximately 20 percent of Trinity's first-year classes, and the student body as a whole is now about 18 percent students of color. This represents great progress toward goals articulated in the 1998 Strategic Plan and certainly sets Trinity apart from most of its peers. What else do you think sets Trinity apart when it comes to matters of diversity and multiculturalism? Do you believe Trinity can and will serve as an example for society at large? Is it already, in some respects, playing that role?

Trinity has clearly established itself as an institution that recognizes the value of attracting and sustaining a diverse community of students, faculty, and staff. We are committed to interacting more fully with the city of Hartford, a goldmine for those interested in urban challenges and the multiplicity of cultural communities here. Trinity has committed significant resources--more than $220,000 in program funds for the Office of Multicultural Affairs alone. These funds are leveraged by funds from Student Services, the Office of the Dean of Faculty, and others on campus. Recent conferences--such as a retention conference sponsored last February by Student Services, a conference to encourage college attendance by Latino high school students sponsored last April by the Office of Community Service and Civic Engagement, and student-initiated conferences such as Imani's, as well as faculty- and student-sponsored programs and speakers--have sent a message to communities of color and progressive allies in the city, in the region, and across the country that Trinity is a dynamic center for engagement and exchange.

Trinity is important as an example to other colleges because we have embraced multiculturalism, acknowledging that we do not entirely know how to accomplish the task. We are aggressive in seeking out the ideas and experiences of others interested in making similar changes, and we have a firm belief that we can accomplish our goal. Recently I attended a conference of administrators from New England who have organized to promote multiculturalism and diversity on their respective campuses. One representative came up to me and fervently applauded the retention conference organized by Sharon Herzberger, Trinity's vice president for student services. This administrator felt that faculty and administrators from first-ranked liberal arts colleges turned out in large numbers because they were drawn to Trinity's emphasis on getting it right. Rather than posing the challenge negatively, the conference held high aspirations for achievement and success for students of color on campuses where such students had previously expressed feelings of isolation and alienation.

What role do the students play in advancing the College's diversity agenda?

Students are critical in challenging the College to move forward on its agenda. Students provide energy and urgency. Here for a relatively brief period, students nevertheless experience college as an important time for personal and intellectual growth. Creating a rich, embracing environment supportive of student development is critically important. After all, unlike faculty and staff, students cannot retreat to their own feathered nests. If they are to flourish, they have the choice to make the College environment livable or to leave. Practical necessity and youthful idealism power their demands for rapid transformation.

In April 1999, before I arrived, President Dobelle a sent a long letter to students on the subject of multiculturalism at the College. In that letter he wrote, "There is ample evidence that we still have far to travel. Some people at Trinity may not understand why others feel so strongly that the College has not gone far enough. I do. I understand that in a country where not all citizens enjoy the same privileges--or respect--it is imperative that institutions and communities like Trinity serve as examples for society at large. I am concerned that too many students of color are either struggling academically or otherwise not very happy at Trinity. The latest graduation and retention analyses suggest strongly that, indeed, while we may be a welcoming institution we are not yet an institution that is as supportive of its increasingly diverse student population as it should be."

As you reflect on your first full year as dean of multicultural affairs, describe the foundation you think has been laid for continuing progress. What makes you optimistic?

What distinguishes Trinity is not that we have solved problems relating to making Trinity fully multicultural but that we are willing to face difficult issues head-on. Other colleges may have confronted similar challenges earlier; many of these have retreated from efforts to address enduring concerns, discouraged by failed attempts or disheartened by the current national climate of timidity and retrenchment. While Trinity may come to the effort of becoming fully multicultural later than some other schools with which we compete, Trinity is coming to the task with vigor and optimism and hopefulness. We don't pretend to know all the right answers, but we are beginning to ask all the right questions. We are approaching the task of diversifying with a faith that Trinity College can get it right.

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