What. Should. Be.

The Quest to Build a More Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive SIPA

By: Andrew Chang, Lindsay Horne, Ali Matalon, Cait Murray, Teresa Perosa and Bethany Waggoner

As another year in Morningside Heights draws to a close, we congratulate the Class of 2020 on surviving their first year of graduate school at SIPA and the Class of 2019, who graduate today!  For many of us here — first-generation students, underrepresented students of color, non-traditional students or those otherwise overcoming barriers — this path likely once seemed an improbable experience for our lives.  But, we made it y’all!

Who We Are

We are student-leaders and activists; student-group leaders; peer advisors, PAs, RAs and TAs; past and present members of SIPA’s Diversity Committee; and students who have organized, protested and been active members of the SIPA Diversity Coalition (a coalition of students and organizations who have been fighting for social justice, equity and diversity at SIPA since 2014).  

A Quick Dedication:

  • As students who have persisted and thrived--in spite of countless challenges along the way--we are grateful for the ways students have responded to frequent lack of support for underrepresented and non-traditional students: by building a tremendous community and formal and informal mechanisms to support our collective mental health. 

  • We see the ways that students have responded to gaps in our education--by organizing our own programs, events and conferences (including the first-ever SIPA Intersectionality Conference in April 2018). 

  • We honor the ways that you have supported each other, facilitated our own critical educations — and how we collectively became the teachers, counselors, mentors and leaders we needed.

This organizing and community-building have been integral parts of our learning at Columbia, and we write now to honor this journey and pass on some of our lessons. 

Why We Are Writing:

In the coming days, we will launch a student-developed Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at SIPA.  This report sheds light on the state of our school--from our positions as students at this institution. With this plan, we aim to raise the floor and pass forward institutional memory, while honoring the histories of student organizing and resistance. We provide achievable and urgent recommendations for change that multiple generations of SIPA students have put forth. Ultimately, the plan’s purpose is to confront deeply entrenched inequities at SIPA and beyond, and to ensure that future students aren’t subject to some of the same disappointing experiences we have endured — experiences that are too-often normalized and dismissed at SIPA.

More specifically, this document is our call for SIPA to:

  • Critically recenter and transform its curriculum;

  • Dramatically and measurably increase faculty (and staff and administration) diversity and multicultural competency;

  • Increase resources and staffing to improve student diversity and need-based financial aid;

  • Improve support services and campus climate for underrepresented and marginalized students

  • Transform SIPA into an institution that is truly equitable and diverse

This is not a vision of What.Can.Be. at SIPA. It is a vision of What.Should.Be: an ambitious, moral and proudly-idealistic vision for one of the world’s top policy schools.

Areas For Reform

The Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at SIPA lays out observations and data regarding serious areas of concern we have witnessed and experienced in our time at SIPA.

  • We examine troubling evidence on the state of student and faculty diversity at SIPA; and raise critical questions about our policy and international affairs curriculum. 

  • We question why, unlike so many of our peer-institutions, SIPA does not have an explicit, program-wide commitment statement on diversity and equity, a comprehensive strategic plan, or a high-level administrator (let alone a single staff person) fully-dedicated to equity, diversity and inclusion. 

  • We also document ways that the climate at SIPA is often inhospitable or unwelcoming for students of color and other nontraditional or underrepresented communities. 

Figure A: Findings from a SIPA Students of Color (SSOC) Survey administered in Fall 2018 demonstrate that nearly half of respondents have directly witnessed or experienced oppression and/or discrimination while at SIPA

Figure A: Findings from a SIPA Students of Color (SSOC) Survey administered in Fall 2018 demonstrate that nearly half of respondents have directly witnessed or experienced oppression and/or discrimination while at SIPA

Our Vision: What.Should.Be.

In the 21st century, policy makers, public officials, and nonprofit and private sector leaders alike must grapple with increasingly complex and intersectional socio-political issues. As our country and world experience deep social transformations, we make a simple, yet radical proposition: our institutions must change, too. 

Public policy institutions have proven they have the capacity to adapt when it comes to issues of emerging technology and global finance. Yet, they fall short when it comes to addressing critical issues of diversity, justice and oppression within their spheres of influence.  This dissonance reveals the obstacle is not a matter of capacity, but rather of priorities. 

With this in mind, we call on SIPA’s administration to expand its ambitions and join its students in challenging business-as-usual by pursuing “What.Should.Be.” Specifically, we call on SIPA to:

  • Hire a Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion who will establish, in collaboration with students, a SIPA-wide equity statement and comprehensive strategic plan.

  • Increase resources and support services for underrepresented students, and enhance transparency and mechanisms for students to address instances of discrimination and harassment.

  • Improve student diversity — by increasing resources for the proactive recruitment and retention of underrepresented students of color and by expanding funding for need-based financial aid.

  • Improve faculty diversity  — and diversity at all levels of leadership — by increasing resources and benchmarks for hiring more women and faculty of color, while finally offering tenure to some of the extraordinary faculty of color already at SIPA as lecturers.

  • Critically recenter SIPA’s curriculum by establishing a mandatory core course requirement on power, equity and oppression; and ensure all core requirements are taught through a critical and intersectional lens.

The strategies outlined above won’t fix everything. They will, however, set SIPA on the path to becoming a more vibrant, inclusive, diverse and equitable institution: where students from around the world gather to cultivate the knowledge, skills and network we need to be change makers in our communities.

Next Steps

This effort is about building a better future. We each chose SIPA and will proudly walk into the world as its graduates. As alumni, we want every future SIPA student to have an experience that builds them up and prepares them for leadership in the world. Yet, the painful reality is that we too often see ourselves and our colleagues torn down by discrimination and discouraged about our ability to impact systemic change. Though it would have been easier on us personally to not have to fight to help make SIPA better for future students, accountability is a labor of love.  Moreover, we demand better of SIPA not to complain or cause trouble, but as a form of activism and public service we each commit to undertaking everywhere we go: to use our privileges and voice to challenge our institutions to do better. 

Although many of us are graduating this weekend, the struggle doesn’t end here.  Following the launch of the Strategic Plan, we will vigorously seek to engage and challenge SIPA’s administration to bring our vision to fruition. We take this opportunity to seek your participation in building and maintaining momentum over the summer and next academic year.

If you too have the audacity to envision a diverse, inclusive and equitable SIPA, please sign this petition to add your voice to the growing number of students, alumni, faculty and staff who support this movement.  We also encourage you to contact us if you would like to add your ideas and recommendations to the student-driven Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at SIPA.

In solidarity, 

The Diversity Coalition of the Class of 2019; and Dedicated Students for a Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive SIPA