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FAYETTEVILLE -- Plans to boost diversity and inclusion at the University of Arkansas include developing a institute within the university to engage faculty members and provide outreach beyond campus.

The UA Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access and Leadership Support Institute is among several initiatives being worked on, campus leaders said at a town hall-style event Monday, which was held after a student last month posted to social media an image of himself in blackface.

Chancellor Joe Steinmetz told a crowd of about 130 at the student-organized event that "perhaps the thing we must do is we have to step up the education that we do on this campus on this issue," adding UA has "expectations when it comes to these areas of diversity, inclusion and equality."

Yvette Murphy-Erby, UA's top diversity officer, said at the meeting she plans to establish a student "diversity ambassadors" team.

Students who volunteer for the program could help with campus initiatives and "help us stay abreast of what's happening," Murphy-Erby said. She said more details will be released in April about the initiative.

The institute would serve all of Arkansas and requires approval from state higher-education authorities, Murphy-Erby said.

"We believe it's important for faculty members to share their expertise and also be engaged in research related to diversity and inclusion," Murphy-Erby said, adding that the work would help with assessment of campus diversity efforts.

The event Monday was organized by the Black Students Association, the Associated Student Government and the National Pan-Hellenic Council.

The National Pan-Hellenic Council distributed a statement Feb. 26 on social media stating the blackface post "negatively affected the Razorback community" and condemning "such distasteful actions."

The blackface post included the caption, "I hope this offends someone." The post also included a reference to the hit movie Black Panther, a superhero story with a mostly black cast.

Steinmetz said Monday the student making the post "chose to depart voluntarily from the university shortly after this matter arose." He said UA has an ongoing student conduct process and, citing student privacy, declined to comment further about the student.

On Feb. 24, after the initial blackface post began to be shared, Steinmetz posted a message on social media stating the university supports an inclusive community and a "diversity of people, ideas and perspectives," calling these "core values we share despite insensitivity displayed by any individual."

In a later social media post, he added: "Degrading and harassing messages create an environment that does not foster respectful dialogue/positive educational environment & is not acceptable at the UA."

The 1,268 black students enrolled at UA this past fall made up about 4.6 percent of all students. The total has decreased from 1,334 black students in fall 2015.

Over the same time period, some other minority groups counted separately have seen increases, including multiracial students, up to 924 students this past fall from 818 in fall 2015. The number of Hispanic students increased to 2,225 this past fall, up from 1,874 in fall 2015.

Brianna Griffin, a UA finance student who attended the event Monday, said "everybody on this campus has seen some type of racism."

She said the Monday event showed "our concerns are being heard and that steps are going to be taken." She added, however, she wants to ensure incoming students are able to have their concerns heard immediately.

"I just want to make sure this is a priority on campus, this isn't going to get swept under the rug and onto the next thing," said Griffin, 21.

Murphy-Erby said Monday while she isn't able to respond immediately to all students with concerns, "we will make time if it's an urgent need."

Griffin said she hoped to hear more about any discipline imposed by UA on the student making the blackface post, but understood the privacy requirement.

At the event Monday, Charles Robinson, UA's vice chancellor for student affairs and formerly the university's top diversity officer, said, generally speaking, if he were assessing a student conduct case with no safety threat his first thought would not be to expel a student.

"My first inclination is to educate this person to get them to understand how this particular rendition, this particular posting, was offensive to people," said Robinson.

Robinson, who is black, also formerly led the university's African and African American Studies program. He called expulsion "the last resort."

Steinmetz defended the university's response Monday but also read a new statement that had been considered but not released: "The disgusting imagery and words posted online last week are reflective of an individual's attempt to incite -- but failing to -- further hatred."

NW News on 03/14/2018

Print Headline: Diversity, inclusion talked up as UA answers blackface fuss

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