How colleges seek equity in virtual and physical design

One example: UC Berkeley is considering moving its police department off campus

Colleges and universities can create a greater sense of equity and diversity by rethinking the design of physical and virtual spaces, a panel of higher education leaders said this week.

For instance, administrators at the University of California, Berkeley—having previously examined academic buildings—are now reviewing how to better allocate community and cultural spaces, Mia Settles-Tidwell,  the assistant vice chancellor and chief of staff, Division of Equity & Inclusion, said in a webinar hosted by design firm Studio Ma.

Leaders are considering moving the university police department off campus, and out of its current location in a centrally-located building that overlooks Sproul Plaza, the campus’ hub of activism and protest, Settles-Tidwell said.

“The juxtaposition of that where we’re supposed to have free speech, what does that say?” said Settles-Tidwell, adding that the university may shift police funding to mental health care and other preventative services.

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The university also is planning to develop a natural area for Native American students, to recognize the campus sits on land that once belonged to the Ohlone tribe, she said. “It’s important that designs speak to equity, diversity and cultural fluency,” Settles-Tidwell says. “It’s not about being competent about everyone’s culture, but being fluent and taking a humble approach.”

Increasing equity in Greek life

At Washington University in St. Louis, designing more equitably has led to a reimagining of Greek life, said Robert M. Wild, the interim vice chancellor for student affairs.

A few years ago, when a fraternity was removed from campus, administrators—rather than simply turning the vacated house over to residential life—asked student groups to reenvision how they might use the space.

The result was the creation of a cultural community for black students designed around the African American diaspora that now sits in the middle of fraternity row.

“It has been a great success, and it has paved the way for similar changes we may be able to make as we think about the future of living and learning,” Wild said. “Many universities struggle with the issue that predominantly white fraternities and sororities hold all this space.”

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Lori White, the new president at DePauw University in Indiana, said she is renovating the bathrooms in the president’s house to make them gender-inclusive, a project that includes removing the male and female symbols from the doors.

On taking her new post, she also noticed the oil paintings in the president’s office did not represent the university’s diversity. She plans to return those to campus museum and replace them with pieces the reflect a greater range of cultures, said White, who became the university’s 21st president in March.

“I went to the building where the portraits of former presidents are and one-through-20 looked nothing like me,” White says. “We have to  think about all the symbols we have on campus that either call people in or tell people that they’re not wanted.”

Developing virtual diversity

When COVID-19 closed campuses, Berkeley, like many colleges and universities, loaned devices, hotspots and other technology to students who didn’t have the ability to access online learning.

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Now, administrators are using an equity lens to plan which students will return to campus in the fall to make sure no one group has greater access to labs and other specialized campus resources, Settles-Tidwell says.

Berkeley has opened both Black and Latinx campus centers in recent years, and educators are creating similar spaces in the university’s virtual environment. For example, they have provided emotional support for LGBTQ students who are taking classes from home but who may not have come out to their family members.

“We’ve looked at each individual group and named the inequity and tried to come up with the solution,” Settles-Tidwell says.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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