ST. GEORGE — In alignment with a statement the Utah System of Higher Education’s released Thursday – which reaffirms its commitment to work in alignment with the 16 institutions of higher learning to dismantle racism – Dixie State and Southern Utah universities discussed their own commitments to further expanding opportunities for underserved and underrepresented students.
In their statement, the Utah System of Higher Education stated education as the greatest tool for dismantling racism, oppression and marginalization and committed to working alongside its institutions to intervene in reducing opportunity gaps for underserved and underrepresented students.
The statement comes as a response to the racial and social injustice being highlighted across the country since the death of George Floyd and was also released within hours of Gov. Gary Herbert banning chokeholds in the state.
Tasha Toy, the chief diversity officer for Dixie State University, told St. George News the university is in the midst of finalizing their plans for 2020-2025, which similar to its 2015-2020 plan, has an actions-based, focused outreach when it comes to inclusion in diverse and underserved individuals.
“It’s not just for our students; We are very cognizant that it has to also come to our faculty, staff and administration,” Toy said. “Those are the things that we are very central and committed to and that is part of what we’ve been doing all this time.”
In considering Dixie State’s history, such as confederate symbols on campus that have been removed and controversial terminology, Toy said there is an understanding of the university’s past and what that means for Dixie.
“We’ve changed everything but our name and our actions reflect that,” she said. “If you think about that and look at our numbers, we have the highest – one of the highest – percentages in the state when it comes to diversity among our students and underserved.”
Dixie State has a number of initiatives that go beyond race and ethnicity, such as an LGBTQ+ resource center, women’s resource center and a veterans’ success center. They also have a food pantry and are launching a new initiative for food disparities.
“We as Trailblazers are trending toward those things, and know that our name is part of our history and that we are going to do the work of celebrating diversity and inclusion with our actions,” she said.
Over the last week, Dixie has been holding forums with their faculty, staff, community alumni and students talking about what has been going on and how to move forward.
“Workshop and educational experiences are good,” she said. “Marching and protesting is good. But on the other side of it is, what are some of the other things that are long-term as an institution of higher learning that we can encourage in the direction and be the lead in?”
The university is using this time as an opportunity in order to continue past initiatives and also take action.
“The nation and the world needs to heal, but in that healing there needs to be action and that’s where we are now,” she said. “How do we treat each other? What is that we can do to make our campus and Washington County and beyond better and stronger? And also understanding that everybody has an opinion, and it’s fine to have various types of opinion. But there’s a respectful way to do that and you can still be a citizen of the United States and DSU.”
Southern Utah University President Scott Wyatt told St. George News that it is their responsibility as a university to help students of any background to be successful in life.
“We’ve made a particular focus because of where we live and made a special focus on drawing more students of color to SUU. In the last five years, we’ve doubled the amount of African American students. We’ve increased the number of our Hispanic and Native American students.”
The university has also, in the last five years, added an inclusion and diversity center and a chief diversity officer, whose job is to help keep people informed about issues and find ways to help students, staff, faculty and community members be successful.
“In just the last five years, we’ve seen an enormous amount of energy put in this area, and we’ve got a long ways to go. These are challenges that have developed over centuries, and they’re going to take a while to fix,” he said. “We’re delighted to be part of this effort and committed to continue doing it.”
Despite the challenges facing the nation and across the world, Wyatt said the fact that the students have elected students of color to serve as their student body president shows the extent of understanding and acceptance.
Wyatt said he grew up having never met an African American until he was 14 years old.
“Now that I’m a university president and have the opportunity to interact with all of these students, I actually feel cheated as a kid,” he said. “I feel cheated as a child for not being able to have a group of friends who were from diverse backgrounds – racial groups, ethnic groups – because I just absolutely love these African American students and African students and Hispanic students and the list continues on.”
Wyatt said a main importance to him is free speech and to support the exercise of free speech.
“I believe as people speak that we have a chance to talk through feelings and disagreements. If somebody wants to protest and everybody shouts them down, we missed an opportunity for a group to express their opinion and then to engage in a meaningful conversation to try to find what we have in common and what we don’t have in common and see if we can influence each other.”
The purpose of a university is to welcome people who don’t understand these things, who might not be as sensitive, he said.
“Because we want to have a chance to help engage and help us all learn together, that’s our point. No one should be embarrassed if they don’t understand some of these racial issues,” Wyatt said. “We all, at some point in our lives, start learning about this. And as we’re patient with each other, we’ll all get there.”
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