Tough points highlighted at MLK Day campus forum

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University seized the opportunity on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to take a litmus test of intercultural and race relations with “Navigating Difference: A Campus Conversation About Race and Inclusivity.”

A team of three moderators from different parts of the university invited faculty members and a few students present to speak at the Monday afternoon discussion. The forum came amid the university’s other events and activities on the holiday, encouraging students to participate in the Day of Service on the first day back for the spring semester before classes begin.

Discussion moderator Maggie McCampbell Lien, associate director of student engagement for intercultural programs, said that despite only four students showing up, attendance fulfilled her expectations.

“Outside of these walls, it may seem like race is something that you’re not really supposed to talk about … but today we want this to be a place where you can feel comfortable talking about it,” she said in an introduction.

Participants were first asked to personally reflect on their perceptions of the university: where they thought the school is doing well in terms of providing the campus’ slogan “culture of compassion, responsibility, advocacy and justice,” and where there’s room for improvement. They then spoke in small groups before sharing their findings and key points with the cohort.

Faculty members present applauded the programs that expose students to different cultures, student groups that emphsize service, academic initiatives and encouraging the conversation about race relations on campus. Especially in light of current events in national news, those present voiced their support of continuing the conversation on those themes.

One hurdle that many faculty said they faced was difficulty in encouraging student expression and participation. Some suggested that faculty should better learn to provide the proper resources and support for students that need it and learn to facilitate related conversations in their classrooms. Others encouraged hiring more diverse faculty.

Participants discussed options for continuing that conversation regularly – and with more representative student participation. Fritz Polite, assistant professor of sports management at the Harry F. Byrd Jr. School of Business, told participants that he didn’t expect to see many students back on campus during the holiday and only spoke with three of his own students.

While in small group discussion, Polite said he chose not to come to campus on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when he was a freshman at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa – and missed Rosa Parks speaking to the students there.

“I was unable to realize the opportunities, and I just don’t want that to happen to our students here,” he said after the discussion. “I think there’s a momentum that’s building. … The next step, I think, is the involvement of the students.”

Along with landing on the first day of the semester, nursing student Anna Smith said the long list of priorities coming back may have put the discussion on the back burner for students that might’ve otherwise made it a point to attend.

Miles Davis, dean of the school of business, shared his own thoughts during the conversation about Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech and offered to talk with participants past the allotted time before serving as keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Jr. Service of Remembrance. He later said the university’s Jan. 18 celebrations have continuously evolved since he joined the university 15 years ago as the first black professor in the school of business.

“I’m thankful that Shenandoah University … often provides the type of environment where people can come and speak to their issues of concern with us,” he said after the discussion. “You have people from different backgrounds coming together to engage in dialogue about living out ‘the dream’ … that would not have happened in 1963.”

Davis said he would be talking at the later tribute service about students finding the kind of authentic leadership that King embodied, which he said was rooted in self-reflection and evaluation.

“If you want people to truly follow you, then you need to do what has to be done to transform you…to make you worthy of being followed,” he said.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com