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Official: All must be welcome

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

SUNY Cortland’s new chief diversity officer James Felton talks about race relations in the college and the United States as a whole at his office in the Miller Building on Wednesday.

James Felton envisions an atmosphere at SUNY Cortland where every student has an equal chance at success because of the college’s inclusiveness, encompassing everything from the programs offered to the attitude of faculty and fellow students to an atmosphere of cultural awareness.

“We need to think about ways to be welcoming and responsive for all constituents, how to create a living, learning and working environment that is fair to all,” SUNY Cortland’s chief diversity officer said last week.

Ten months into his tenure, Felton said students, faculty and administrators give him support, but the school has a ways to go to meet evolving demands. Felton’s job is to create the strategy to get there.

The college’s goals align with the larger SUNY system’s goals to improve undergraduate minority recruitment, have a faculty that is truly representative of its students and to create plans across the campuses that foster inclusiveness.

Regina Grantham, an associate professor in the Communication Disorders and Sciences Department, said she thinks SUNY Cortland is on the right track with its hiring of Felton.

Over her 25 year tenure, Grantham says she has noticed the college making inroads in its attention to diversity.

“I think … they want to make certain, one, that we have faculty that looks like our students because that helps them feel as though they belong, and having administrators … who look like them,” she said.

About three years ago, says Felton, and part of what drew him to SUNY Cortland, the SUNY administration adopted a threepronged policy across all 64 schools to:

• Employ a chief diversity officer.

• Develop a diversity inclusion plan.

• Diversify the faculty.

As a result, Felton is first tasked with getting a pulse on the college community and finding out what students and faculty feel would make their experience a more inclusive one.

Felton will start with a campus climate survey in the 2018-19 academic year. Felton is also looking to see how college policies address what to do in the event of bias, including “micro-aggressions,” such as students of color being singled out by a teacher and asked to represent the minority viewpoint on a certain topic, or a white woman clutching her purse tightly when a black man gets on an elevator with her.

Felton also envisions holding town-hall style meetings to discuss social issues, including panels of experts.

Felton brings the ideas with him from Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, where he served as the college’s first chief diversity officer before coming to SUNY Cortland.

Felton hopes to create inter-group dialogues on social identity like race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. Several faculty members expressed interest in training to facilitate those discussions; he wants to launch the program in the fall.

SUNY Cortland has about 26 percent enrollment from historically racial or ethnic minorities, he said. About 30 percent of the United States’ population is something other than white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Seth Asumah, chairman of the Africana Studies Department, said SUNY Cortland has done well attracting students of color since he joined the campus in 1988, when that population stood at just 2.5 percent.

However, he said, it’s not just about numbers, but also what’s being done to improve attitudes, perceptions and initiatives. “It is very important to know that diversity is everybody’s responsibility,” Asumah said. “Because issues concerning race, ethnicity, class, culture, people with disabilities, age; diversity is everything about us.”

These groups have been marginalized because of systematic barriers to achievement, Felton says.

The six-year graduation rate for minority groups is about 65 percent, he said, compared to 80 percent of the majority population.

Barriers to inclusion can be everything from a student going through their classes every day and never seeing a professor who looks like them or shares a similar “socially lived experience,” says Felton, to a student who can’t find a barber that knows how to do their hair. Or it could be a student who can’t find a religious congregation that matches theirs.

These changes don’t happen overnight, he said, but he wants a shift in thinking.

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