About this time last year, a Snapchat post landed George Washington University in national headlines.
In the photo, posted last February, sorority members of GWU’s Alpha Phi chapter smile and hold up a banana with a caption that reads: “Izzy: I’m 1/16 black.” The incident sparked a year-long policy review by university officials and listening sessions where students aired grievances and offered suggestions to the university’s board of trustees.
Now, George Washington is drafting anti-discrimination and harassment policies for the 2019-2020 academic year.
Student activists have called on university administrators to create a more diverse and inclusive campus. George Washington lags behind the national average for black and Hispanic student enrollment.
Nationally, colleges and universities have an average black undergraduate enrollment of 15 percent. But only 7.1 percent of undergraduates at GWU identify as black. Hispanic students make up 10.3 percent of the student body at George Washington, while the national average is 17 percent.
University officials introduced the policy proposals to faculty during a private meeting in November. The policies will define what constitutes discrimination and harassment and outline steps students can take to report incidents to the school. Officials said they hope to finalize the policies by May.
“Students felt the existing policies didn’t provide clear definitions and access to resources, so we wanted to make the policies easier to use, easier to understand and create pathways to action,” said Caroline Laguerre-Brown, who as vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement spearheaded the effort.
The policies expand a list of protected characteristics — defined as “traits, characteristics and beliefs protected from unlawful discrimination” — to include gender identity or expression and sexual orientation.
Some students and professors expressed concern about what they regard as vague language in the policies.
“It sounds like a feel-good policy, but considering these broad definitions, I don’t think the drafters thought much about its practical application,” said John F. Banzhaf III, a GWU law professor.
Following in the steps of other private universities, single-sex sororities, fraternities and athletic teams will remain that way at George Washington under the anti-discrimination and harassment policies.
Leaders from some student groups lamented that university administrators have not sought their input. Administrators said they intend to widen the circle of student groups they work with as the policies are refined.
“It’s integral that marginalized groups have their own spaces on campus and a sense of community,” Kiki Deo, president of Allied in Pride at GWU, said. “Sometimes, it’s the only place students can express their true identities, and it wouldn’t be happy if those spaces were invaded.”
Still, many view the policy proposals as a step in the right direction.
“It’s opening the door for honest conversations between student leaders and administration about inclusivity and other issues we struggle with,” said Jeremy Lee, president of the Asian American Student Association at GWU.
In December, the Student Association at GWU passed a resolution supporting the policy proposals.
“It’s a reassuring step forward for the university to define what discrimination and harassment are and what they look like in practice so we can be more transparent in combating these issues,” said Ashley Le, president of the Student Association.