New Neighbors in Slayter Union: Here’s What’s Happening on the Fourth Floor

Timeline of Renovations

While students soaked up the last of the summer sun, changes were underway on the hill. During the summer, a group of faculty and staff involved with the Slayter fourth floor space met to discuss a series upcoming changes. Renovations of the Slayter fourth floor space were to follow previous shifts of administrative departments, from a three building ‘Bermuda triangle’ of student resources, to more of a ‘one stop shop.’ These initial meetings included a few student representatives who were on campus at the time, and as they returned to campus, more students were invited to feedback sessions where they were shown blueprints and asked to share their thoughts. The next part of the process involved the Student Development team moving into the former CWGA space, and an eventual refurbishing of student community spaces over the course of the coming year.

On October 5 at 3pm, Thomas Witherspoon, Julie Tucker, Eric Farley, and Matthew Vetter from CLIC kicked off these meetings with a group of student leaders from across the C3 community in the Shepardson College room. At this point, progress slowed.

When she first saw the plans, Rhea Patil ‘19 said she was hesitant because it didn’t seem like a lot of students “…were being consulted about how the fourth floor was going to look.” The current president of Outlook then used her insights to attempt to describe the source of the frustration. “Having the CWGA next to administration was worrisome, because usually the space is used for students to relax and have conversations, but also sometimes protest and talk about things that we aren’t happy about- it felt like policing in some sorts even though that wasn’t the intention.” Armando Roman ‘19, a studio art major and the president of La Fuerza, said he attended this first meeting and then chose not to continue, explaining “I just felt regardless of any student opinion the university had a clear direction for what they were going to do with the space.

Other students were concerned about the elimination of student org offices all together, or the consolidation of offices that currently have their own locations. However, Julie Tucker, Assistant VP for Student Development, has since reassured that “Outlook’s office will remain unchanged.” The offices in the far hallway will not be touched, although, “currently the Doobie has two spaces, so CLIC has been in touch with them about how they might reconfigure so that we can make space for SHARE.”

Specifically and as a whole, these concerns have not escaped the attention of members of administration. For example, in a conversation with Tucker, she shared, “When we presented the initial plans to students, and they saw the floorplan, I think they had some ideas how it could be changed. The final floorplan we settled on was largely driven by student input on where they wanted the offices located versus where they wanted the gathering spaces to be.” The student feedback paused talks and led to recalibration. The new plans were brought back to student groups in various settings for additional evaluation.

Over the past few months, the student body then received three emails from administration involved with the process. In the first, Thomas Witherspoon introduced the “…renovation of the CCCE and CWGA to create two new student meeting spaces and new staff offices”, writing that “One of the new meeting spaces will include a kitchenette and will function as more of a student common room or gathering space, with both soft seating and flexible furniture. The second space will likely function more like a conference room.”

In the second, Dr. Kennedy addressed further the reasons for the move, describing how student resources had previously been spread between Doane, Beth Eden and Curtis. She concluded with the following, “The shuffle won’t actually be finished until next summer when the Centers for Cross-Cultural Engagement and for Women & Gender Action settle into a re-designed fourth floor Slayter space…we’ll want students to partner with the staff in those offices on design throughout the spring.”

Finally, in February, Jenny Pearlman added an upcoming update. “When classes resume after break, the service-related offices of Financial Aid, Housing, Student Accounts and the Registrar will all be located on the first floor of Doane.” These emails brought the rest of the student body into the know, but questions remained. And though organized opportunities for student feedback had reached a momentary interim, the frustrations surrounding the move continued.

Yet despite the ups and downs, the changes slated to take place hold a lot of potential. One issue with facilitating the needs of diverse student groups is vying for time and space to hold meetings, an impediment to community building the renovations hope to remedy. In the space where the current CCCE is, new windows will let light in on the new student spaces, which will be open to students throughout the day but also reservable through CCCE/CWGA for organizational use. An attached kitchenette will provide an additional resource for hungry students and staff, or organizations wanting to spice up their meetings.  The staff offices that currently reside in the middle of the hall will slide down closer to where the CWGA is to make room for this, although Julie Tucker shared with me that “One of things we really like about CCCE is that there are those offices and students frequently congregate outside there for informal conversation and access to resources, so we’re going to replicate that down by Marilyn, Thomas, Edna, Neica and Jennie.”

A nearby conference room, designed to fit 10-12 students, will also be able to be reserved. The Shep College room will continue to be available to anyone on campus, but the larger gathering space and the conference room will give first priority to CCCE and CWGA and student orgs. As summed up by Rhea Patil ‘19, “for Outlook and ASA and MSA, the smaller C3 organizations, this will really give us the agency to pick our times and know that this is the area where these things can happen, I’m excited to have all these resources in one place and accessible to other students.” Julie Tucker in turn is most looking forward to seeing “…how initiatives and activism and conversation can happen across campus with the creation of a larger space. I think I’ve heard Denison students talk about how we may have numerical diversity on campus, but are we interacting with one another, are we learning from each other about our backgrounds? I think a space where some of that could occur could be a really special thing about Denison.” Erik Farley, the Dean of Student Leadership and Community Engagement, who remembers the space fondly as a highly involved student during his time at Denison, says the changes have him excited about “…new space available for students to utilize and collaborate with others who have similar missions”, and how it will “allow admin to be more intersectional with programming.” Finally, Dr. Laurel Kennedy adds, “I think there are some specific functions this floor has played, some of which I didn’t know before.” Her excitement towards the changes stems from a desire to let her “…interactions with students to shape and influence what I do…We’ve never been so able to do things on behalf of students.” However, Kennedy also acknowledges “There are some things that students want right now that I don’t know how to provide.” One outcome of the increased proximity might be that student voices are more accessible, and that the prerogative of of administration to hear their needs is better facilitated.

Minority identity fatigue and the importance of identity-based community

As put by Encyclopedia Britannica, a minority group is defined as “a culturally, ethnically, or racially distinct group that coexists with but is subordinate to a more dominant group.” These groups perceive unique treatment throughout society, but even more so on college campuses where a variety of general stressors are already present. For instance, while discrimination typically focuses on major events of bias “…more recent work has begun to examine microaggressions that occur in daily life… which can be social or environmental, verbal or nonverbal, as well as intentional or unintentional (Sue et al., 2007).” For students who fall under this categorization, identity-based stress can “…interfere with their college adjustment and integration into the university community (Smedley, Myers, & Harrell, 1993).”

This issue is prevalent to the C3 orgs situation for several reasons. For minority students, time, space and comfort play a vital role in cultivating a positive college experience. Particularly at predominantly and historically white institutions, developing a culture that is receptive and intentional in responding to these needs is essentially to ensuring not only student academic success, but issues of mental health, fostering diverse dialogue, and broadening campus culture. Yet despite these ongoing efforts by the Denison community and alike, going about your day on a campus where you might be feel ‘othered’ can be exhausting.  This can lead to identity fatigue, and the need for a space to retreat to and find understanding within communities of peers who share their experience. In other words, students with minority identities need space.

As the Associate Dean of Students and Director of Multicultural Student Affairs, much of Thomas Witherspoon’s work has him engaging with both traditional students and those who feel disconnected from mainstream community. A former student, he recognizes that the Slayter fourth floor area has “always been a safe space where you can just come and get away.” Since returning to Denison as a staff member, however, he says he’s “seen this floor as a space where students who represent CCCE and CWGA come together to congregate, plan, organize, and really just be in community- sometimes that means sitting around talking and laughing, and sometimes it means really reflecting on something that’s happened on campus, or in the world.” Such conversations are increasingly important. But so is finding a place to let your guard down and relax.

In October of 2017, on campus data mirror OneTwentySeven.blog polled students on their opinions towards the following question: All multicultural student organizations should be given designated lodge/ meeting space, even if it means taking space away from other student organizations. Their responses were recorded on a 7 point scale, with 1 indicating strong opposition and 7 demonstrating strong support. The following graphs are composed of the resulting data, and reveal several interesting considerations.

Graph courtesy of Oliver Gladfelter

Graph courtesy of Oliver Gladfelter

The first observation that can be made is that there is a clear difference of opinion towards the questions when responses are separated by white and nonwhite populations. People of color are much more likely to agree with this proposition, whereas students who are white are on average fairly neutral. This demonstrates an allied mentality amongst minority populations, in the issues they prioritize and needs they share. When taken a step further, the graphs show that once an individual has become a part of one of these identity-based communities, having a space of comfort to congregate and come home to is even more of a priority.

For many, this is what the fourth floor Slayter space has become.“The makeup of the students who really tend to congregate there are domestic ethnic minorities and international students,” explains Armando Roman ‘19. “A lot of students have made the space a good place on campus to be themselves and spend time with friends.” The fourth floor space has “been created by students as sort of a community gathering space, where students come together,” reiterates Yuri Aster ‘20, a student worker in the former CWGA, Craig Freeland ‘19 reaffirms this, adding “I feel like when I’m here I know that it’s a safe space and that there’s a lot of people who are like-minded or have an attitude that differs from the rest of the student body.”  

What’s next?

“I think some students continue to have reservations about administrators being in Slayter to begin with… although it’s very common on other campuses to have the VP, the Dean of students located in the student union, to have that close proximity and then be a resource to students as well. I think at Denison that’s a culture shift, that’s not something we’ve had,” says Julie Tucker. In past years, student surveys had showed a positive feeling towards the faculty members students saw every day, but less so towards the administrative members who were housed in buildings isolated from them. In terms of a solution, Tucker spoke of “…continuing to build and strengthen relationships between students and staff, for students to see staff members as people and passing them in the hallways and having those informal conversations of “Hey, how’s your day going today?”

Rhea Patil ‘19 seemed to share these thoughts from a student perspective, stating “I personally think that Denison’s administration is different than other colleges, which I see as a good thing. I think they’re very one on one if you have a concern as a Denison student… I think they just need to work on mentorship and how they’re being accessible to students beyond just physical spaces. I think we need to get through this transition period.” After all, as Craig Freeland ‘19 concludes, “I don’t have a problem with the fourth floor changing- I don’t think any students really do, if it’s going to change in a way that benefits us.”

On this vein, chances for student input are far from over. Julie Tucker outlines the trajectory as follows: “Moving forward we’ve got a conversation with staff coming up, where we’ll be talking about what does these changes look like for the rest of the spring.” Staff members will also be asked to nominate students from the fourth floor spaces to be involved with further conversations. Next will come a series of meetings about what Tucker referred to as the ‘fun part of the process,’ relating to the aesthetics of the space. There’s talk of new technology, such as bluetooth speakers and flexible furniture. Finally, On March 9 from 2:30-4:00, the Red Frame Lab is holding a visioning session for ‘Imagining CCCE and CWGA student space’. This is another chance for students with a stake in the matter to apply their thoughts towards constructive change.

Although new wallpaper and a few fresh coats of paint do not address the issues of representation and respect brought up by minority student advocates, or remedy the administrative desire to see eye to eye with student body, a much needed aesthetic spring cleaning is not a bad segway into conversation on these deeper issues. As the heart of our home on the hill, the Slayter union is a place we all lay claim to in some way. The renovations have sparked conversation, and encouraged those involved to consider new perspectives. By not only making room at the table, but ensuring all voices are heard, perhaps we can build both programming and places that contribute to the success of a school of students with experiences as diverse as their dreams.