Last spring, students protested the desecration of the Intercultural Center, the Administration’s neglect of survivors of sexual assault, and support for students from underprivileged backgrounds, among other issues. With high tensions in the campus climate, several talks and meetings were held in order to discuss the possibilities of next steps.
With Swarthmore assuming some of the responsibility, the College was ready to provide the student body with more support. In order to do so, an Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development was hired.
That dean is Liliana Rodriguez, who has served as the director of the Davis Cultural Center at Williams College, as well as the Director of Diversity Recruitment at Williams. She says in those positions she accumulated experience negotiating cultural relations and tensions.
As an undergraduate student at Williams College, Rodriguez studied Psychology. She went on to receive an M.A. and later a Ph.D. in Psychology. Her specialties in the field include identity development, organizational culture and climate, and cultural psychology.
As a dean, Rodriguez feels there is a need to change the way that the Administration approaches residential life, Greek life, and student activities. She is insistent that diversity cannot just be a side project and that the community needs to think about “infusing structures that already exist with diversity, instead of doing it as an extra-curricular.”
Rodriguez said that the institution needs to “constantly think about holding itself accountable,” and that factors such as faculty diversity, curriculum diversity, experiential learning, and intergroup dialogue will help the institution address its diversity, inclusion, and community issues.
When asked how she would mediate tension between the College and the student body, Rodriguez pointed out that managing this relationship is part of her responsibility as a dean. “The nice thing about my job is that my actual job description is about holding the institution accountable,” Rodriguez said.
“Keep in mind that culture change is hard,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve been diversifying, like seriously, since the 1980’s, and we still have major intergroup tensions.”
Rodriguez explained that discrimination is still rampant and affects large numbers of people. She said she believed the kinds of cultural changes that are needed will not be brought by laws and that the attitudes of communities have to change. Rodriguez is here to help make that change possible.
Rodriguez believes that it is important to get intergroup dialogue going because people change by understanding each other’s personal stories. She believes that there is a need to dissect social identities in a semester course. Preferably, each course would be broken down into very small classes. The classes would involve required readings, but they would be centered on people’s individual experiences. Focusing on individual stories will help everyone make sense of racial, ethnic, class, and power relations in their lives.
However, not everyone will be on board with sitting in on a class that forces them to admit their privilege and power. Rodriguez addresses this concern by stating that the institution must articulate the purpose of this type of program. “The purpose of this isn’t only to make students of color or low-income students or LGBTQ students feel better. It is actually about learning the skill sets needed to work in this world, to lead in this world, which is what we expect from Swatties,” Rodriguez said.
One of the challenges Rodriguez foresees with her job is the need to take immediate action. “Part of me wishes I was here last semester because I think it was a really critical moment, and I hate having to not understanding the emotions and frustrations that were there firsthand,” Rodriguez said.
She said she hopes the student body will have patience so that she can have time to identify the real problems facing our community at present. Rodriguez plans to meet as many members of the community as she can by reaching out, and she asks that others reach out in return.
When asked about how the internal problems the College is facing can be addressed differently, Rodriguez explained that many colleges are having trouble with issues of diversity and community. She maintains that colleges in general suffer from a “lack of curricular commitment to diverse perspectives,” perspectives that she said she believes should be infused into every department. She pointed out, however, that some colleges are beginning to commit financially.
Rodriguez is also looking forward to “presenting a new residential life plan and presenting the idea for a new Student Activities Office, and bringing affinity groups together, among other things.” She states that Swarthmore has many specific student groups but notices that those groups do not necessarily interact with each other.
“There’s no coalition of marginalized peoples and groups working on things together at the systemic level,” Rodriguez said. Rodriguez hopes to support the student body in creating a stronger community through dialogue, through connecting student groups, and by encouraging the community to make an effort to be better about holding themselves accountable.
Rodriguez recognizes another challenge of her job is figuring out which issues to prioritize. She suggests that the College can begin by providing facilitation skills and dialogue programs and continuing to recruit a diverse array of faculty, staff, and students.
Photo courtesy of Swarthmore College