Three students come forward about an exclusive environment that has persisted on the SMC campus, igniting the discussion on whether reporting these incidents is enough to rid our classrooms of discrimination.
By Kiera O'Hara-Heinz
Visiting Opinion Writer
Classrooms, especially those associated with the core Lasallian values, should be an environment where students can learn without fear of repercussions or exclusion. However, this has not always been the case for many students at Saint Mary’s.
A conducive learning environment must come with the inclusion of the identities different students bring to the table. Without inclusion, classroom discussions become narrow and unrepresentative of the true nature of our world. It is no secret that colleges across the country are being called to address the racial, gender, religious, sexual, and other forms of discrimination that have become normalized in the classroom.
In this pursuit, there is difficulty in finding the balance between an inclusive classroom and a classroom that protects academic speech. Protecting academic speech, however, does not mean protecting the outward declaration of discrimination against another group. The tension between the freedom of academic speech and creating a safe, inclusive environment can be tricky, even for the most experienced professors. However, every student must feel valued and seen when entering a professor’s classroom.
Recent events on campus have made us question whether there are adequate means for students to address situations where professors and other students air harmful beliefs.
The Collegian has been informed of a professor who has repeatedly violated the inclusive environment all classrooms are expected to be. Though the paper has decided not to publish this professor’s name, we wanted to bring to light the experiences of SMC students and use the professor’s behavior to explore the way Saint Mary’s deals with unsafe classroom spaces.
Ranya Stanzaino, a junior at Saint Mary’s, has felt generally accepted and appreciated in her classes at SMC; however, she notes that this is not always the case. Stanzaino recounts an incident in class during a discussion on gun ownership, where Stanzaino argued that not all Californians should have guns. The professor responded that he “hoped [Stanzaino’s] neighbors own a gun.”
Additionally, Stanzaino alleges that the same professor argued that private schooling is better than public education and was “surprised” to find out that no students in the class had attended a private school in high school. More shockingly, Stanzanio recalls when the professor said that although the concept of slavery is wrong, the writers of biblical justifications against Fredrick Douglass had “convincing arguments.”
Brent Dondalski, a Senior at SMC, distinctly remembers taking a Seminar class with the same professor. Dondalski alleges that the professor did not provide a safe and supportive environment for students. Instead, he would make inflammatory comments about the Defund the Police movement and utilize a biased form of teaching. Furthermore, Dondalski alleges that the professor “explicitly stated his support for Donald Trump on the second day in class.”
Dondalski argues that the professor selected biased content and organized their class in a problematic way. Instead of collaborating with different students to critically think about texts, two vital elements of Seminar, Dondalski felt that there was an argumentative nature to the class, especially because the professor’s personal opinions would often be prioritized. There would be lots of uncomfortable situations when students would disagree with a professor while discussing religion and politics.
Another student, who agreed to share their experiences with the professor in question with the condition of anonymity, reports they have never seen a professor be so “so outwardly bigoted.” The student recounts how when the class discussed Martin Luther’s Freedom of A Christian, the professor denounced “infidelity, bestiality, and homosexuality” as similar “sins”
The student elaborates that the professor in question also argued that children who do not come from a traditional family with defined gender roles “have something wrong with them.” The student, who identifies as queer, does not feel that the class is a place where their identity is celebrated or even welcomed and has gone through the formal filing of a Bias Incident Report on the professor.
A professor’s personal views cannot be regulated, but it is important to note that academic freedom, in this case, has led to the violation of student identities in spaces where they should be affirmed. Inflammatory comments regarding texts do not create the appropriate environment for students to learn.
The only means students have to address behaviors similar to this professor is to file a Bias Incident Report. After they have submitted their claim, the way of addressing the issue lies within the control of the Bias Incident Report Team (BIRT).
According to Evette Castillo Clark, the Dean of Students and Chair of the Bias Incident Report Team, the team's role is to review reports and refer to Community Life, Public Safety, and Human Resource offices. Reports concerning student conduct are referred to Community Life, reports involving crime or safety-related concerns are referred to Public Safety, and reports concerning employee conduct are referred to Human Resources. Castillo says that outside of BIRT and these offices, no one can gain access to the names of those involved in BIRT reports and that many BIRT reports are filed anonymously.
Castillo trusts the accountability of her colleagues in these offices saying, “when we do refer any reports of concern that they are handled appropriately, timely, and professionally.”
Sharon Sobotta, the director of the Center for Women and Gender Equity and a permanent member of SMC’s Bias Incident Report Team, says that BIRT is helpful on a campus-wide level to look at the sociopolitical environment on campus and to track trends of biases and microaggressions. This information can then be used to create targeted campus-wide education programs and inform SMC of resource needs.
According to Sobotta, a lot of education is still needed to inform the Saint Mary’s community of the BIRT reporting process. Part of this education, she says, is taking some of the fear and misconception out of BIRT. Over the years, she has sometimes heard of BIRT being used as a verb, with faculty expressing fear of being “BIRTed” for doing something they thought was academic freedom.
Sobotta hopes to remove the fear around BIRT reports and encourage individuals to view them as learning opportunities.
“It is an educational process,” Sobotta says. “So if you are the recipient of a report I think it is an opportunity to get educated and see what you can do better”.
Overall, Sobotta wants to encourage community members to be kind and empathetic.
“I always want people to think ‘what would happen if we did this in a more inclusive way’,” Sobotta says. “I cannot think of an example where making a slight modification to our speech or using a different way to explain something is going to harm us.”
BIRT is an adequate resource for students who experience discrimination within the classroom, yet there is little else a student can do when their classroom is not a safe, identity-affirming place for them. Every student interviewed remained in class with a professor who continually disrespected their identity and those of their peers, forcing us to question what else SMC and other schools can do to rid our classrooms of discrimination.
Melanie Moyer '22,