Columbia College’s acceptance of the Boone County Courthouse murals is shameful and indicates that they continue to remain tone deaf about diversity, equity and inclusion.
The institution claims to be “committed to ensuring that each and every student, faculty, and staff member feels safe and valued at Columbia College” and to “maintain a safe place for open discourse; support activities that promote diversity and inclusion; and overall, foster a sense of community that welcomes all,” according to its website. However, the acceptance of these murals and other absences speaks louder than their rhetoric.
For example, the college’s strategic plan contains goals of educational innovation and improving the student experience. However, absent from that strategic plan is any mention of diversity, equity and inclusion, which often foster innovation because various perspectives can introduce new ways of thinking.
I attended Columbia College and obtained my bachelor’s degree. During that time there was only one African American staff person that I felt comfortable talking to, and that was Mrs. Verna Harris-Laboy. Unfortunately, Mrs. Verna, as many of us affectionately called her, left Columbia College almost 20 years ago. Since then, I am not aware of anyone who has since been hired that is able to make the personal and communal connections that she did with Black, Latinx and other students.
Moreover, for an institution that boasts of 20,000 students, not to have a diversity, equity and inclusion office in 2022 is very telling. Yet, inevitably, they will rely on an ad hoc committee to plan some type of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and diversity events.
Conversely, Stephens College, which is much smaller and happens to be a short distance away on College Avenue, opened its Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in 2019. This unit was “charged with leading our collective efforts to support and sustain a community dedicated to social justice and welcoming to all.”
Stephens College hired alumna Shaashawn Dial as its inaugural DEI Director. Shaashawn’s position also includes being a member of the Senior Leadership team, which reports directly to the president. As a Black student at Columbia College, I used to wonder, where would I go if I needed to speak with someone who looked like me? Spoiler alert, Columbia College has no answer for that. By the way, at Stephens College, that person would be Dial and her office. Even Mizzou has an entire unit dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion.
During class breaks at Columbia College, I recall wandering halls that were filled with photos of old, white men. These photos, combined with the absence of a diversity office, caused me to feel out of place or as if I didn’t belong there. Despite many years of having high proximity to Columbia College, like attending Jefferson Jr. High (now Jefferson Middle School) and being raised in the public housing not far from Columbia College, I felt as if I crossed an invisible boundary. And yet in 2022, Columbia College has an international office but nothing for the BIPOC students who are U.S. citizens.
Meanwhile, very soon, the photos of old, white men will be joined by images of white men shooting Native Americans. The murals also have images of nooses hanging from trees to remind Black students of the sordid history of Boone County and to “appreciate being allowed to cross invisible boundaries” to attend Columbia College. And maybe, just maybe there is a desire that the history is reinforced and why Mrs. Verna was not replaced. Maybe that is why there is no Dial or a diversity, equity and inclusion office.
So, Black students at Columbia College look forward to the upcoming “piece-work” diversity programming. But if you need someone to talk to, maybe Dials at Stephens College or the staff at Mizzou can slip you into their schedules. That’s the best I can come up with since things have not changed at Columbia College since I graduated in 2003.
Dr. Nathan A. Stephens is a Columbia native and two-time Mizzou alum, who now lives in Champaign, Illinois.