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Changes to Hendrix Office of Diversity and Inclusion spark confusion


Students at Hendrix College in Conway say they’re concerned after the school restructured its Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

The office is designed to have three people in the office. But right now, there’s only one employee–and no one seems to know exactly what’s happening.

Chiara Bunting is a junior at Hendrix and chief of staff of the Student Senate. She says marginalized students aren’t adequately supported at the school.

“I certainly have love for this school, but as a student of color it can feel very exclusive at times.” she said.

Hendrix is a predominantly white institution. The majority of students are from white, middle class families around Arkansas and neighboring states. Bunting says being a person of color in this environment can be exhausting.

“It definitely feels like us students of color have to overwork to make sure that we’re getting represented in the way that we would like.” she said.

Bunting and other students found support in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, or ODI. Students say it’s a resource for anyone who needs extra support, connecting them with scholarships, leadership opportunities, and mental health resources. In a recent panel discussion about race and belonging at Hendrix, students said the office served as a lifeline at times.

Kesha Baoua used to work in ODI at Hendrix. She was the college’s second Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion and the Chief Diversity Officer, and held the role for three years. Baoua’s retirement was announced in a campus-wide email last December. It said Baoua realized she needed more time to rest and recover after taking time off in November. She retired the next week, and the college closed for winter break.

When students returned to campus, the student-led Multicultural Development Committee published an Instagram graphic alleging the college had no current plans to fill the role after Baoua’s retirement. The graphic also said the Office of Diversity and Inclusion had been renamed “Multicultural Student Services” and would now operate under the Student Affairs Office.

Hendrix senior Somi Mathews is the Chair of the Multicultural Development Committee. She’s worried the redesignation means the college won’t rehire the position.

“It could very easily go, no Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion. Which is why we’re advocating as strong as we are right now.”

Mathews says the title of Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion is a huge deal. That role held a seat on the Senior Administration Team and had a level of protection that other staff members don’t have.

“She could push back against authority, she could push back against the president, she could push back against the dean. She had this level of [protection]. And now we have no one–we have no protection at all. We just have a coordinator.”

The post quickly spread across social media. Students sent emails to the college’s president, Karen Petersen, asking her to hire a new Chief Diversity Officer immediately. Little Rock Public Radio reached out for an interview with Petersen, but a spokesperson said “we haven’t been able to get any time on [her] calendar”.

Petersen did hold a meeting the Monday after the graphic went out to address the situation. Petersen has always insisted she cares about diversity. But her behavior is leaving students confused.

At the meeting with students, Petersen became defensive when students asked questions about when the empty Chief Diversity Officer position would be filled.

“I never in any conversation with anyone said we weren’t going to replace that position, ever,” Petersen told students. “I don’t know what it will look like, I don’t know where it will be housed. I don’t know what the entire focus will be because I don’t know exactly what we need yet.”

Petersen has been president of the college for less than a year. She said she’s still learning about what Hendrix needs.

“I could see what we were doing well, but I also want to know what we’re not doing so well so we can get better at that.”

Petersen says this kind of restructuring always happens when a new president takes office. But her verbal promises haven’t assuaged students’ worries.

When other senior administrators have left Hendrix, they’ve been replaced with someone to fill their position in the interim. Right now, three of the ten senior admin positions listed on the Hendrix website are filled by an interim administrator. The Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion position has been removed from the Senior Administrators webpage altogether and no-one has been hired in the interim.

None of the 10 listed administrators are a person of color.

Somi Mathews, the student Multicultural Development Committee chair, says that’s a problem.

“If we don’t have that voice of a person of color that is advocating for us then we have no one advocating for us other than the students, who are pretty much powerless when it comes to issues like this.” Mathews said.

Hanging over the whole situation is the state of DEI at higher education institutions across the country. A new law in neighboring Texas bans Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs in state institutions. The Arkansas Legislature hasn’t announced any plans to pass a similar law, but the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville announced plans to dissolve its DEI division last summer.

Even if DEI were banned in state schools, in theory, Hendrix wouldn’t be directly impacted since it’s a private, liberal arts school.

In the meantime, there’s only one employee left in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Karisa McAlister’s title has been changed to Multicultural Student Services coordinator, and she does not have an official seat on the Senior Leadership team. McAlister declined to speak with Little Rock Public Radio, but students are worried that she won’t have the resources to do her job without support from a designated Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Petersen assured students that the school will take action, but didn’t give a concrete timeline.

“I’ve said nothing but we’re going to make a decision, we’re going to make a decision, we’re going to do a replacement, we’re not going to do it until I know exactly what that should look like.”

But for Hendrix junior Chiara Bunting, this doesn’t resolve her immediate question. She still wants to know what the future holds for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the students and staff who rely on it.

“When you come here as a student of color you kind of have this expectation that the school is really gonna prioritize your voice and it definitely, especially this past year, does not feel like our voice is being taken effectively into consideration.”

Note: Maggie Ryan is a graduate of Hendrix College.

Copyright 2024 Little Rock Public Radio. To see more, visit Little Rock Public Radio.

Maggie Ryan
Formally KUAR, news from the staff of content partners Little Rock Public Radio at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. They are a NPR member station.