Northwestern task forces seek to create change on campus. Do they?


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Task forces have been used in recent years to look into specific issues at Northwestern, and then determine what needs to be changed because of them.

Davis Giangiulio, Reporter

When reviewing Northwestern’s biennial senior survey with the Division of Student Affairs, Assistant Vice President for Inclusion Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson noticed Black Students were less satisfied with their undergraduate education than their peers. However, the data did not specify why.

“If we were going to try to improve something, then how would we know what to improve?” Brown-Henderson said. 

The search for those answers resulted in the creation of the Black Student Experience Report Task Force, which Brown-Henderson would later chair.

The Black Student Experience Task Force is just one of many task forces started in recent years to target specific issues on campus. Members come together to review the topic and eventually deliver recommendations to administration on what they conclude needs to be changed. The task forces try to make impacts with their suggestions, and years later, some reforms have already come from their reports. 

Medill Dean Charles Whitaker chaired the Black House Facility Review Committee. The group first came together in 2015 after outcry surrounding proposed changes to the Black House. 

“There were people who were part of the Northwestern Black Alumni association, as well as colleagues who thought that I would bring the proper perspective,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker and his fellow committee members conducted listening sessions and public forums to determine which characteristics of the Black House people valued. Brown-Henderson said they also used surveys to discover key themes that could transform into recommendations.

Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies Prof. Héctor Carrillo, the former co-chair of the Gender-Queer, Non-Binary and Trans Task Force, said they went into their job with big ideas already in mind.

“Housing, bathrooms, facilities, culture, to health insurance,” Carrillo said. “It was quite a bit of work in terms of managing the process that involved so many people. In the end everybody came together with a good understanding.” 

 However, not every task force works exactly how these are structured. 

Program reviews, such as that for Multicultural Student Affairs in 2014, involve two external expert reviewers and two internal reviewers. They look into a program’s strengths and weaknesses and make recommendations. Megan Blackwelder, associate vice president of program review, said external reviewers use multiple means to do this.

“The self-assessment provided by the unit under review, quantitative and qualitative data on key operational and performance metrics, expertise of the field under review,” Blackwelder said. 

But typical strategies, like gathering feedback from stakeholders, are still used, Blackwelder said.

Some recommendations from task forces have been implemented. MSA’s recommendations of increasing faculty and staff relationships in the ethnic studies department and communication to the University community have been accomplished, according to a University database. 

The University has implemented Carrillo’s group’s request for Wildcards to print first-year transgender and nonbinary students’ chosen names and to create an all gender bathroom intiative. Brown-Henderson said the recommendation of an academic support hub helped create the Academic Support and Learning Advancement center and increased support for Multicultural Greek Council organizations. 

However, not all recommendations get implemented. While the Black House’s renovation can partly be attributed to Whitaker and his colleagues’ suggestions, he said programmatic recommendations were left untouched. He even said they were told explicitly when they submitted their report that programming recommendations wouldn’t be implemented.

“I would say the focus has exclusively been on the renovation,” Whitaker said. “If the Black House is really to fulfill its mission, it really has to have strong programmatic function as well. I don’t think that part of our report was necessarily taken to heart.”

Some ideas, like reinstating a dean for African American student affairs, have yet to be discussed, according to a University database. 

Whitaker said he expects to never see a dean for African American student affairs again, as he thinks administration believes MSA is an umbrella that covers that role too. There’s also been no consideration of creating a Black House advisory board, another suggestion of theirs, he said.

“Our thought was that if it was really supposed to be a functioning facility at Northwestern, it needed to be more than just a show piece,” Whitaker said. “Rightfully so, people are very proud of the renovation, but I think in the minds of many people the work here is done.”

But Whitaker was clear he was comfortable with the position the task force was in. They made their efforts to highlight what they believe are needed changes, and it’s now out of their hands. 

The process for implementing these ideas isn’t universal. Blackwelder said for program reviews, implementation agreements are made after reports are delivered, but other task forces vary on a case-by-case basis. 

“There is no formal governing process or unit,” University spokesperson Jon Yates said in an email to The Daily. “The details of task force assembly, review, timeline and implementation of recommendations is determined with appropriate institutional oversight.”

After reports are delivered, most task forces stop meeting, according to former members. Some are involved as outside activists, but they do not reconvene as a collective force after their reports are delivered. 

Carrillo said that the job primarily lies in the hands of people who benefit from these recommendations. 

“The current challenge would be to make sure progress continues,” Carrillo said. “It’s also incumbent to the groups of students, staff and faculty themselves to make sure the recommendations continue to be put in place.”

He hopes that activism will force the University to proceed. 

Brown-Henderson said she finds both frustration and pleasure in the relevancy of the Black Student Experience Report. She said she is discontent because it shows these changes have still not been implemented, but hopeful because it shows their work didn’t go unheard.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight, particularly not within the academy,” Brown-Henderson said. “I’m really grateful to have been here long enough to see some of the currents shift, even if it’s really slow.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @GiangiulioDavis

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