Nineteen months after the promise of a Diversity Vice President made in the winter of 2018 by administration, two new advisors to the president have been added to the 2019-2020 presidential cabinet – Stephanie Guster and Alan Parker.
Guster, an associate professor in the School of Social Work, will take on the title of Senior Advisor to the President for Diversity with an emphasis on race. Parker, a professor in the School of Religion, will serve as the senior advisor for sexual integrity.
“To me, diversity is something that just totally enriches a learning experience, a higher ed experience,” Smith said. “It’s another whole form of learning that I think prepares somebody for functioning well in the world. So I felt that Southern needed help and guiding us as a campus down a path that would help us make positive use of our diversity.”
During the 2018-2019 school year, the university planned to hire a singular Vice President of Unity and Inclusion. However, due to compounding factors, including a large graduating class in December 2018 and May 2019, as well as a drop in enrollment, the addition seemed financially unfeasible for the university, according to Southern President David Smith.
“I found myself near the end of last school year looking at a significant deficit budget for the current school year,” Smith said. “It suddenly hit me. I can’t add a position.”
But while the university went into the summer with no solid plans for the future of the position, two donors agreed to fund the position for two years, a likely cost of around $200,000, according to Tom Verrill, senior vice president of financial administration.
“The donor said to me, ‘I think you need this position,’” Smith said. “‘I am committed to trying to make this possible. I will raise the money. I will personally donate money, and I will help raise whatever other money we need to fund this position for two years.”
Plans for the position came after a history of racial tensions on Southern’s campus.
Though the administration had already begun drafting what roles a VP focused on diversity might look like prior, one such incident occurred on Feb. 3, 2018, when a Snapchat account with the handle @sau_stories posted a picture of the annual Black Christian Union cultural night captioned with a racial slur. The picture was then shared throughout Twitter where it received backlash from students, alumni and many others in the outer Adventist community.
Southern’s administration then released a video addressing and apologizing for the racial history of the institution, in which the Diversity VP position was promised.
“I apologize for not trying harder to understand these issues and the challenges that have kept students of color from having the experience they sought and deserve,” Smith said in the video.
Smith said he has worked to prioritize the discussion on race since his inauguration in 2016 at Southern, which was ranked this month as the number one institution in the southern region in terms of diversity by the U.S. News and World Report.
“I was very interested to find out what Southern was doing about its [diversity]. How is Southern serving it, using it?” Smith asked. “I view [diversity] as something very positive, and it didn’t seem to me much was happening. … So, I felt that Southern needed help in guiding us as a campus down a path that would help us make positive use of our diversity.”
Now, under the revised framework, two advisors fulfill the duties of the larger position for the next two years.
Guster, the Senior Advisor for DIversity will specifically focus on racial diversity. She will chair the Diversity Committee and will aid in a monthly employee cultural conversation, while also leading the annual diversity retreat initiative with Oakwood University and foster relationships among the different ethnic clubs on campus.
Guster holds a masters in social work, and – during her time at Southern – has worked with the SOAR Initiative that works to promote discussion and action about race on campus.
Guster was also one of the three finalists for the official VP position before it was put on hold due to funding. According to Smith, the school received around 60-70 applicants from a wide variety of backgrounds who were subject to a lengthy screening process.
“My goals include collaboration with Student Association, develop[ing] strong connections with each ethnic club [and] collaboration with the International student committee for inclusivity in our conversation beyond only black & white concerns,” Guster wrote in an email.
The Senior Advisor of Sexual Integrity, Parker, will oversee the work of the Committee for Sexual Integrity and will facilitate the creation of subcommittees that will tackle different topics such as pornography and the LGBTQ community.
“I hope students will understand what the Bible says about sex and will understand how the church relates to sexuality,” Parker said. “I hope that students will feel that this campus is a safe place to talk about sexual issues and to find help in their sexual journeys.”
With the addition of these positions, students have expressed their opinions on the functions of the new advisors.
Senior Janae Cornwall, BCU president, said she is glad that, at least for the moment, the VP position was split because the official title may have been more intimidating to students.
“I think having more of a diversity advisor is a better rule than just a diversity vice president because, of course, having a certain title will affect how students perceive the person,” Cornwall said. “So, someone that would be like the diversity vice president may not seem as accessible to students, but a diversity advisor might seem, you know, more on their level, someone they can come to.”
Latin American Club President Julio Hernandez, a senior finance major, thinks that the advisors are just a first step to solving a nuanced issue.
“I think it [adding a diversity advisor] was great,” he said. “ I think things had occurred in the past that [made it] a crucial step. I’m not saying that that was going to solve our issues…but it’s a good step.”
Similar to Hernandez, alumnus Phillip Warfield said adding the positions is progress but there is more to be done.
“I believe that what they’re doing is a great first step,” he said. “But I don’t want this to become something that we can just settle with and be happy with. I want this to just become a quick interim thing and let’s get the real VP in here as soon as possible. I won’t say that I’m disappointed. I’ll just say that I am still waiting.”