August 15, 2020

NCC President Mark Erickson on overcoming systemic racism: A journey that begins within

“In the moment we’re in right now, I think it’s incredibly important to say out loud and mean it, Black lives matter,” said Northampton Community College President Dr. Mark Erickson.

The statement is important, he said, because considering the history of the United States through present day events, there is ample evidence to prove that there are still people who don’t believe that statement to be true.

Acknowledging his own white privilege, Erickson said he never felt as though the value of his life was questioned and that the focus of the current conversation around systemic racism shouldn’t veer from the lives of the people whose value has been questioned.

“For us to articulate loud and clearly, as a college and as a community, that Black lives matter, fits for me,” Erickson declared.

Directly addressing systemic racism against African American people is something he considers to be a pressing matter. He said it is time to be “brutally honest” in asking what role the school’s leadership may play in redressing the issue, both on campus and in the community.

Erickson believes we are at a unique moment in the history of the country and, by extension, a unique moment in the history of the college where people are coming together in ways that will allow for major changes to be made, with the hope of putting an end to the racism and discrimination that has been a part of the American landscape for a long time.

NCC’s goal, as described by Erickson, is to create and maintain an equitable and welcoming environment for all students and staff.

“We want, at Northampton, for you to be authentically yourself here,” he said, “and honored and celebrated for being that person.”

Over the past year, a committee consisting of NCC students, faculty and staff, has been developing a strategic plan to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. Based on what the committee found to be the most pressing matters in their open discussions, a draft plan was prepared, but the recent wave of police violence against African Americans inspired a pause in order to reexamine the plan to ensure its boldness and aspirational goals.

Once the committee has finalized their plan, the definitive version will be presented to NCC’s board of trustees for their approval. Although, ultimately, Erickson said, implementation of the plan would fall on college leadership. 

In the days following the death of George Floyd, Erickson issued a statement of sympathy, vowing to take immediate action. He engaged the board with a preliminary version of NCC’s diversity, equity and inclusion plan and received an endorsement to proceed.

Erickson said that conversations must occur and more work must be done to confront systemic racism and oppression in the most comprehensive way. He considers these items to be a starting point:

1. Revising the curriculum to ensure a more inclusive educational experience.

NCC does not offer a degree in African studies. Only nine schools in Pennsylvania do; Lehigh University and Lafayette College are among them.

The addition of applicable course programs is something the school may consider, Erickson said, but he thinks of the issue more expansively. He described the gamut of course programs offered by NCC as “Eurocentric,” and would like, in general, to make each one more culturally enlightening.

“Our hope is to have everybody look down at their own curriculum and figure out, ‘How do I make this curriculum more inclusive?’,” said Erickson, “How do I draw in other pieces that represent a much broader spectrum of the human experience then what typically is being taught? So, that no matter who you are as a student at Northampton, you see yourself in that course. You see history that pertains to you.”

Erickson noted that there are courses in diversity at NCC. The history program offers a class called The Black Experience, which “closely examines the influence that people of African descent have had on the development of the United States.” NCC also offers a liberal arts degree with a concentration in women’s and gender studies.

2. Becoming a leader/convener in our community to spearhead conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion.

Erickson believes that helping students understand and appreciate difference in others is an educational imperative and that students who graduate and enter a diverse world without having developed empathy for people different from themselves will fall short.

Anyone who has attempted to offer perspective for a doubter of systemic racism knows that it is not an easy task. It is important to “meet people where they are at,” Erickson said, otherwise change will be resisted.

Erickson encourages “courageous conversations,” the concept of which is akin to the affinity groups suggested by the Rev. Dr. Gregory Edwards in a recent interview with The Commuter.

“I wouldn’t call them safe spaces, I’d call them courageous spaces where people can talk authentically about what they believe,” said Erickson, “and engage in dialogue with others in the hope of expanding their understanding of their own experience.”

We are compilations of our experiences, he explained, and it is possible for someone to be a good person yet unsophisticated in the way of empathizing with people different from them.

Erickson suggested the possibility of embedding a component into the College 101 course that would expose every student to a courageous conversation.

College 101, also known as College Success, does cover diversity in at least one chapter, as does Intro to Communication, but perhaps not as aggressively as the country needs at this moment.

In addition to updating course content, Erickson envisions structuring a series of school activities that will lead people down a perspective-broadening path that will make them say, “A-ha! Look at this world around me, it’s far more interesting.”

3. Ensuring images at all our locations accurately portray the strength of our diversity and promote inclusion.

Current public discourse concerns statues and other symbols that hark back to the era of slavery in the United States and whether it’s appropriate to keep such monuments as the nation attempts to evolve.

“I certainly don’t want to glorify anybody who represents something antithetical to the values of the college,” Erickson said, in the event of an image on campus being exposed as controversial.

He said any such issue should be accompanied by a conversation and called these “teachable moments,” a time to discuss the meaning and history of the symbol or tribute in question. That history, he said, can still be taught without celebrating someone who stood for something that conflicts with NCC’s dedication to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Another conversation is focused on the inclusion of monuments that celebrate the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans and other people of color in the U.S.

It is important to make sure that all around campus there are visual representations that aptly reflect the diversity of the NCC student body, said Erickson, so that all students see the campus as a place where they are represented.

4. Developing an Affirmative Action Plan to hold us accountable for increasing faculty/staff of color.

It is a challenging time for the college to be adding new positions, Erickson said, but college human resource personnel are working to enhance hiring methods to make all possible efforts to diversify NCC’s staff so that the workforce more accurately reflects the student body.

In 2019, NCC’s 9799-student population was 54.5% white, 12.8% Black, 24% Hispanic, 2.5% Asian, 3.1% multiracial and 2.5% undisclosed, according to data provided by Senior Director of Institutional Effectiveness Dorothy Schramm. NCC’s significant Hispanic population helps to make the school the most diverse college in northeastern Pennsylvania. (Some lists of the most diverse colleges in Pennsylvania may not reflect that standing if they do not take two-year institutions into consideration.)

The college has initiated implicit bias training for hiring committees. Other steps being taken to improve the fairness of NCC’s hiring practices include considering the locations where jobs are advertised and how job descriptions are written, to be sure no one is excluded, Erickson said.

Erickson said that NCC has made some progress in diversifying the staff over the past 10 years, but there is more progress to be made.

In the 2019 fall semester, NCC faculty and staff was 74.7% white, 4% Black, 5.7% Hispanic, 1.5% Asian, 0.5% multiracial and 13.4% undisclosed, according to statistics provided by Associate Director of Human Resources Brian Shegina.

Currently, there are no people of color on NCC’s 15-member board of trustees. Board members are volunteers selected by Northampton County’s eight school districts. In 2012, NCC students protested a meeting during which new trustees were being appointed, calling for people of color to be represented.

“It would be nice to have greater diversity represented on the board,” said Erickson.

The president’s Cabinet currently consists of 20 positions. Two members of the Cabinet are Black, one member is Hispanic and the rest of the members are white.

In January, the dean of Monroe Campus, Dr. Matt Cornell, announced his retirement. Cornell became dean in 1998 and will officially retire on Sept. 4. On Thursday, it was announced that Allison Fitzpatrick will be the new vice president of Monroe Campus, assuming Cornell’s post, according to NCC administration. Fitzpatrick was selected from a strong field of candidates in a national search. She is praised by Erickson as passionate and experienced, “with a demonstrated record of strategic community college leadership,” although her addition to the Cabinet will not change its current ethnic diversity.  

5. Creating a climate survey for our faculty, staff and students to inform the development of a strategic plan.

The original draft of the plan for diversity, equity and inclusion was informed by the diversity committee’s open conversations. Because of the intensified national conversation about racism, Erickson said he and the committee will reevaluate the strategy previously laid out, with a survey that will help them proceed with consideration for the entire NCC community.

While that aspect of the school’s effort develops, action has already been taken in other ways.

On June 1, Erickson emailed NCC personnel, inviting them to attend a series of workshops to examine methods of recognizing and understanding implicit bias. The workshops were well-attended, with up to 50 participants in each, Erickson said.

Every member of the president’s Cabinet participated in a similar program, as did the board of trustees. Erickson said he would like to see more of these types of sessions implemented, not just with faculty and staff, but also with students.

Another group of 20 NCC faculty members, selected by NCC’s Chief Diversity Officer Scott Blair, went through the University of Southern California’s equity institute, an eight-week course where participants examine issues on their campus and converse with national leaders on the best way to confront them.

6. Completing our strategic plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion by early fall and sharing it prominently with our campus community and beyond.

As previously mentioned, a draft of the plan for diversity, equity and inclusion was in place, but Erickson and NCC’s diversity committee decided it was best to reevaluate their strategy in order to proceed most effectively.

Preparatory actions that will help NCC faculty honor and implement the official plan upon its release are underway, including the workshops about racism and bias, conducted by Blair.

Blair was hired two years ago and is the first person to hold his position. His talent and expertise, Erickson said, will help to push the school and its faculty in the right direction.

“The responsibility is on all of us, but especially those in positions of influence and privilege, to deconstruct these systemic barriers that have, for too long, created deep divides in our communities,” Blair wrote in a June 4 open letter to his colleagues.

Although Blair holds the title of the chief diversity officer, Erickson holds himself accountable and said as president he must be active in reinforcing messages of diversity and inclusion “every step of the way.”

7. Assessing our Campus Safety Office to ensure we are appropriately training and practicing “community based” engagement.

In 2015, the NCC Student Senate voted unanimously on a resolution favoring a transition from campus security to a uniformed campus police force. After much debate, in 2018, the board of trustees decided to employ armed guards to patrol both Monroe and Bethlehem campuses. Preparedness in the event of a school shooting was a key point in their decision.

In 2020, armed officers patrol NCC. While referred to as public safety officers, by appearance, there is little to distinguish them from other police, other than the words printed on the doors of their cruisers.

The purpose of the public safety officers, Erickson assured, is to protect people on campus and not to “catch people doing stuff.” He characterized the officers as a helpful resource for the community and spoke of their conduct in high regard.

“I don’t want anyone on our campus carrying a gun that I don’t have absolute confidence in,” Erickson asserted.

While he praised the efforts of the public safety office, he said it is worth reexamining their procedures, as with all other facets of the school in this time of reflection. Erickson believes that Public Safety Office Chief Keith Morris is also committed to that approach to campus safety.

The training of NCC’s public safety officers, including firearm safety, is described as extensive by Erickson, who underwent a day of their training to gain an understanding of the process. He described participating in an active-shooter simulation, in which paint-filled pellets were used to indicate who had been shot and where split-second decisions had to be made. The simulation was stressful, he admitted. 

“I learned that those are tough jobs,” Erickson remarked.

Instances of officers drawing their gun would be followed by a full investigation, Erickson said. Safety officers wear body cameras and, according to Erickson, there are 400 surveillance cameras between NCC’s three campuses.

Morris reported, since becoming chief in March 2019, there have been three officer commendations filed, praising the work of a public safety officer and two complaints filed, both of which were customer service related and redressed by the public safety office to the satisfaction of the complaint filers.

An example of the job description and requirements for candidates to be hired as public safety officers can be viewed here, as posted by NCC staff to Higheredjobs.com in September 2019.

To make a commendation or to file a complaint about an NCC public safety officer, please visit this link: https://www.northampton.edu/about/public-safety/officer-commendation-or-complaint.htm)

***

Erickson vows that he and college leadership are committed to these efforts for real change.   

“What we’re saying here is what we mean. It’s not just an attempt to meet the moment given what we’re expected to do,” Erickson said. “It’s authentic.”

As the college’s administration embarks on their journey to combat institutionalized racism, President Erickson encouraged every member of the NCC community to embark on their own journeys as well.

Chris Devlin

Chris Devlin, editor of The Commuter, is a freshman at NCC.

View all posts by Chris Devlin →
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