Safe Space or "brain drain" at University of Alaska?

Did you know that the University of Alaska is the only state university system in America that does not have sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policy? All of the other 49 state university systems include sexual orientation as a protected group, and almost half include gender identity and/or expression in their non-discrimination policies.

At Thursday's meeting in Anchorage, students Tristan (UAF), Mark (UAA) and Lauren (Juneau) mentioned this fact when they asked the UA Regents to add sexual orientation to the university system's policy. UA students have been making this request at almost every public Regents meeting for over a year. Pat Gamble, the new UA President, met them in the lobby.

"I've got a Board in there who are basically my bosses," joked Gamble, "and if I'm to influence them in any way, I need to know more about this. We should set up a meeting so I can learn more."

The Regents said earlier this year that they would take up the students' request during 2010. Hopefully, they will and Gamble will be a supportive influence.

Meanwhile, the students have done their homework by collecting facts on university non-discrimination policies around the country and incidents of LGBT discrimination at UA campuses, and have honed their speech-writing skills. By asking politely at meeting after meeting, they show their determination to do what needs to be done. They rock!

To show you just how they rock, two of the presentations given at the meeting are posted below. Here is the testimony that Tristan gave at the Board of Regents meeting:
Hello! As you know, my name is Tristan Walsh. I am here representing in part the University of Alaska Fairbanks Gay-Straight Alliance. We are here to renew our offer of co-operation and partnership with the Board of Regents in updating the University of Alaska Non-discrimination policy.

As you all know, the policy currently lacks language protecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students, staff and faculty. As I brought to your attention last meeting, the University of Alaska is the only statewide university system to not have these protections in their non-discrimination policy. All other 49 statewide university systems include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies. I have emailed a compilation of these non-discrimination policies to you to provide easy access. For the University of Alaska to not have this simple addendum is a severe drawback to a state that has to fight brain drain and increased challenges in recruiting talented staff, faculty, athletes, and students.

The language that we seek to change is to include the phrase "sexual orientation". In defining the term, we strongly propose that the term encompass the additional phrases of gender identity and gender expression. Transgender students and staff are often the ones who face the most persecution or misanthropy in the workplace and school. The UA system already has transgender students, and they face difficulties daily on our campuses. Again, I would express our dedication in helping to outline these terms and what exactly it entails for the university. Frankly, it means making our university competitive with outside university systems when it comes to recruiting staff and students. Almost half of the outside state university systems also include gender identity and/or expression in their language.

On our end, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Gay-Straight Alliance has been doing our own work to make the university a safer place. Called the Safe Space training program, we are seeking to create tools for staff, faculty and students to address issues faced by LGBT students and staff. Working with the Department of Multicultural Affairs and Diversity, as well as the Women's Center, it seeks to equip an educational institution with the tools it needs to understand and communicate with its LGBT students: the issues and circumstances such as coming out, dealing with homophobia in the residence halls or workplace, and providing the ability to deal constructively with an LGBT student population that will likely only increase at the university.

This brings me full circle to the subject of the non-discrimination policy. This will be a capstone measure for the policies already being created by efforts such as the Safe Space program. We'd really love for you guys, or just one or two of you, next time you're in Fairbanks, please drop in. The door is always open and we'd love to show you how the program works and how people are trained and what effect it can have. Their work can only go so far if they are not helped by the Board of Regents in official university policy.

In closing, I would like to highlight that these proposed changes are in fact not that radical. They in fact would be aligning university policies that already exist, and updating the university's policies to the same standards found in the secondary school districts. In closing, I'd like to cite a particular policy it will agree with:

"The University of Alaska inspires learning, and advances and disseminates knowledge through teaching, research, and public service, emphasizing the North and its diverse peoples".

So I'd really like you to come by some time at UAF or UAA or UAS and see how truly diverse this university really is, and why that's worth protecting. Thank you and have a good day.
And here is Lauren's testimony to the UA Regents
Hello, my name is Lauren Tibbitts and I am an incoming freshman for UAF; I am representing both the Juneau Gay-Straight Alliance chapters and, in part, the UAF GSA club, in the effort to amend the Non-Discrimination policy.

While making my list of colleges to attend this coming year, I had, at first, wanted to attend UAA. This way I could remain close to my family and it was cheaper than attending a school out of state. It would also be ideal for my involvement in many social causes, including the Gay-Straight Alliance and other gay-rights and equality groups, as I am well-acquainted with many members of the diverse LGBT community in our state.

I had applied, unaware that Alaska is the only state whose university system does not cover sexual orientation in their Non-Discrimination policy. After learning this fact I immediately looked elsewhere for my post-secondary education; I was willing to pay more money to attend a school that would not make me compromise my morals just to save on tuition costs and other expenses. I spent hundreds of dollars to apply to five other schools that did include sexual orientation, at the very least, in their own discrimination policies before I heard of the campaign the UAF GSA was leading to amend the policy.

As I learned more about what the UAF chapter had been doing, my Juneau GSA chapter decided to get involved, hosting events and writing about the lack of equal protection in our state on our networking sites, local newspapers, talking to whomever would listen. In the end I had personally gathered a pledge from almost one hundred students who decided they will not attend a University of Alaska school if the policy is not amended. Using only the projected tuition figures for this coming school year, that is a sum of almost $535,900 that the university system would not be getting because of a lack of protection for the LGBT students attending at the different campuses.

It is very important that the policy is amended to include sexual orientation, and that the term cover both gender identity and gender expression as well; in fact, I'm not the only one it is important to. I am here today because of the gracious businesses and individuals in Juneau who donated to my fund to come here in order to give this testimony.

In the coming school year I will be serving as the UAF GSA chapter president and am committed to seeing the amendment pass and cooperating with the Board of Regents to find language that would adequately provide protection for all students. I am not the only one with a vested interest in seeing the amendment go through, either. At your February meeting you heard the emotional testimony from a UAF student, Karen, whose roommate made her life a living hell because of her orientation, and whose RA was either uninterested, because of a lack of impetus to quickly resolve the situation, or unequipped to deal with the situation due to the absence of sufficient support from the overseeing Board of Regents. Either way, it was a horrendous experience for Karen, who is but one student attending the university.

When a student applies and is accepted to a university, there is a level of trust given by them to the university--trust in that their new home will protect them from people who would do them harm, trust that they will be safe there. Karen trusted the university to help her in her hour of need but she fell through the cracks; her RA simply told her to 'talk things out', as if either party could have convinced the other of their point of view and resolve the situation that way. Unless you declare equal protection to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, we will never know the true numbers of harassment cases on the campus regarding these three things. We will never fully enable the students to thrive while in the university because we do not give them the assurance that they are and will be safe from emotional, verbal, and physical harm.

Students will look at applying to schools the way I did--choosing, if at all possible, to go to a university that does include sexual orientation at the very least in their non-discrimination policy over one that does not. If people do not want to come here, of course you will not be able to attract the highest caliber of students, faculty and staff. No one wants to be at a university that is sub-par, and with the 49 other state-wide university systems whose policies cover orientation, students have a veritable buffet of choices to choose from. How can we expect to convince them to attend our state's schools if they have better options?

No comments:

Copyright © 2008 by Bent Alaska.