Office of Diversity & Inclusion works with students ‘seeking to understand’
After taking steps to look at diversity in a broader sense – such as economic diversity, gender issues, and sexual orientation – The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has altered the name and programming focus of one of its offices.
The Office of Diversity & Inclusion supplanted the Office of Minority Affairs in the fall of 2011. The new name, explained Director Robert Solomon II ’88, better reflected the school’s policy and the scope of what the office was doing anyway.
“One of our goals (at Moritz) is to better prepare everyone for a global society, a more multicultural society,” Solomon said. “In order for that to happen, there really has to be an exchange of ideas, interaction, and discussion.”
Andy Gammill, a 2L and co-chair of the student organization OutLaws at Moritz, agreed that the administration historically has been supportive of all of its diversity groups. OutLaws, one of Moritz’ several student affinity organizations, promotes understanding of legal issues that affect the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities.
“I think it’s great to officially include other types of diversity under the umbrella of the office,” Gammill said. “It’s a great signal to send.”
Michael Abromowitz, a 2L and president of the Jewish Students Law Association, said he appreciates the decision to change the office’s name, even if the inclusive policies already existed. Because he was not a racial minority, Abromowitz felt cut off from the Office of Minority Affairs.
“The Office of Diversity & Inclusion seems to have a far more welcoming presence for many students,” he said. “The change in the name alone has been instrumental in including more groups, such as JLSA.”
Solomon said the office had worked regularly with various racial and ethnic minority student organizations at Moritz, but there was room for improvement in engaging with faith-based minority groups.
The office plans to sponsor more collaborative events between Moritz’s affinity groups in order to create an open forum for group discussion, which Solomon says is the biggest challenge facing most students. “The challenge is getting people who tend to be skeptical about diversity issues to actually come and engage and see that there is no agenda,” he said. “The whole idea is just to communicate and reap the benefits of interacting on a diverse instead of homogenous level.”
Skylar de Jong, a 2L and president of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society, said he has sensed animus toward the group, which is centered on the Mormon faith. “I think many people have prejudices against our faith that are often based in misunderstanding,” he said.
De Jong said that the group sought out opinions about members of the Mormon faith and learned that his peers felt the members of the society were “somewhat sexist, racist, and prejudiced toward the LGBT community.”
“I was shocked to hear this, but I had noticed that many people spoke in hushed tones about Mormonism when around me,” he said. “There still seem to be many who want to ask questions but don’t muster the courage, which is sad.”
A new student initiative, SPEAK, seeks to collaborate with the Office of Diversity & Inclusion to bring Moritz students together for a dialogue several times a year. SPEAK, which is a conglomeration of several student organizations and faculty, echoes Solomon’s vision and looks to break down the walls between different affinity groups.
Executive Director Nikki Baszynski, a 2L, said she helped start the initiative after hearing several complaints of students speaking in ways that were not sensitive to the identities of others.
“It’s not productive for us to just complain about things like this, and it’s not conducive to a good learning environment,” Baszynski said. “What we see are these barriers, whether they are societal, social, or institutional.
“What SPEAK wants to do is develop short-term goals for breaking those barriers down so that 10 or 15 years from now we’ll have that diverse experience that (Grutter v. Bollinger) promised for us.” In the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School by a 5-4 decision. In the Court’s majority ruling, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor asserted that a compelling interest at hand lay in “obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body,” therefore advocating for racial and social diversity in the nation’s institutions as a way to further education.
“The advantages of diversity that Grutter v. Bollinger promise don’t happen just by being in a diverse environment,” Baszynski said. “We must be open and honest when we talk to develop meaningful relationships.”
Solomon said that in collaboration with SPEAK, he plans to conduct a “diversity roundtable” a couple of times each semester for students to come and learn from different perspectives. The idea is still evolving, but Solomon said the central theme is “seeking to understand, rather than seeking to be understood.”
“The whole idea is being able to talk about deeply held beliefs or opinions and to be able to hear a different perspective,” he said. “You can come away from it saying you don’t agree, but that you at least understand why others feel the way they do. It’s developing a sense of empathy and understanding.”