By Cheyenne Alexis and Ally Krupinsky
Students who frequent the Center for Diversity & Community (CDC) are moving forward after a fall semester that saw complaints, multiple resignations and a drop in attendance.
Lena Tran, the former intercultural program coordinator, and Lynae Tucker, a former CDC graduate assistant, resigned last October. Adetokunbo Oredein, the former CDC director, resigned in December.
This semester, Lamont Sellers, associate vice president for diversity, and Kim Grieve, dean of students and vice president of student services, have stepped in to help plan programming, lead monthly meetings and encourage collaborations among student groups.
Olivia Mann, a senior criminal justice and sociology double major, said she’s happy with the transition plan.
“The biggest and most obvious issue that we’re facing right now is the fact that we are out our CDC staff,” she said. “There’s also definitely some residual tension, because last semester was tumultuous in many ways, and that’s definitely exasperated by national and political tensions.”
Diedra Gatzke, a junior accounting major, said the problems facing the CDC are “normal ones.” Student organizations in the CDC are in a good position with support from Sellers and Grieve, they said.
“There’s been good communication between me and other students and the administration,” Gatzke said.
Though the transition hasn’t been easy, Sellers said he appreciates how students are stepping up.
“Between the graduate assistants and the work study students, as well as just the students that have a genuine concern and appreciation for this center, really have stepped up and are making stuff happen,” he said.
Several students who stopped going to the CDC in the fall have started spending more time there again this semester.
Xavier Wright, a senior media & journalism major, said he “just recently” started going back to the CDC.
“It kind of feels like it used to,” he said. “I mean, we’re missing Lena, so that’s a really big part of the CDC that we’re missing, but other than that, it kind of feels like it’s a safe place again, or it’s home.”
Mann attributes the drop in attendance last semester to a “rocky” transition after Tran’s departure, which led to less programming.
“I think there was definitely some very real grief when she was gone, because it just wasn’t the same space,” she said. “We lost a lot of compassion and we lost a lot of passion.”
Tucker said multiple students who approached her during her last week were “very upset” she and Tran were leaving.
“Clearly Lena was a pillar of that center and the go-to for most students,” she said.
Wright said Tran was the “backbone of the CDC.”
“She was doing the best she could, but she couldn’t take care of everything, and she couldn’t force other administrators to do the work that they had signed up for,” he said. “I think that Lena leaving really kind of sped up the deterioration (of the CDC).”
The monthly meetings, led by Grieve, help with event planning, budgeting questions and overall collaboration.
Grieve said the meetings are going “pretty well” so far.
“When the director and the coordinator both resigned, then I just stepped up and made sure that spring semester, we still had lots of activities planned,” she said.
Micci Abbott, a senior sport media marketing major, said she likes the CDC monthly meetings.
“I feel like a lot of what’s happening in the CDC now is what should’ve been happening the whole time,” she said.
Kevin Nam, a junior economics and computer sciences double major, said he lowered his expectations for the CDC after Tran left. He was pleasantly surprised by how everyone adjusted, he said.
“I think ultimately, in the end, the CDC is run by students and students only,” he said. “The community and the culture we talk about that we like to celebrate are created by students. While Lena did play a role in creating that, I think the CDC stands on its own legs as a community.”
Abbott shares a similar view of students’ roles in the CDC.
“I think that the students make the CDC what it is,” she said. “Having positive and helpful administrators is very important, but I don’t think that any one CDC staff member makes the CDC what it is.”
‘A very necessary change’
Though no one person defines the CDC, some students say one individual did have an impact on who felt comfortable spending time there.
Multiple students interviewed by The Volante cited reoccurring issues with Oredein, specifically regarding his behavior toward women.
After declining to provide his contact information through Sellers earlier this month, Oredein was contacted by The Volante via Facebook messenger Feb. 11, 12 and 13. He declined to comment Feb. 13.
Mann said she thinks Oredein’s departure was a “very necessary change.”
“I think now that that change has been made, we can move forward and strengthen the Center for Diversity & Community in a lot of ways,” she said. “I’m very disappointed that the change didn’t come sooner, because there were a lot of students who felt it was necessary for a very long time leading up to it.”
Abbott said Oredein had a tendency to make women feel uncomfortable.
“It made the CDC feel like it wasn’t the place where anybody could be themselves or be safe or come up there to have a place to just hang out,” she said.
Grieve and Sellers declined to comment on allegations against Oredein, citing personnel issues.
“I really can’t comment at all on that,” Grieve said. “They’re all employee issues, so I can’t really talk about those. But if there are any issues, they are always dealt with.”
Sellers said the only tension he was aware of from last semester occured between students.
“There was a time that some students expressed concerns about other students, and some things that were said and things that made some feel uncomfortable with being in the space or coming to participate in the ways that they had previously,” he said. “That was the only real concern that students expressed to me.”
Abbott witnessed multiple instances of Oredein’s inappropriate, and sometimes sexual, conduct she said. One was when he touched her hair while she was doing homework in the CDC.
“He was walking past me… and he put his whole hand over my bun on my head and just shook it and then walked away,” she said. “And it has just been an issue my entire life, people wanting touch my hair and like, almost pet me, when I am just a human being and not an animal at a petting zoo. And if there was anywhere where I expected not to have that problem, it was in the CDC.”
In the moment, Abbott froze, she said. She later told Tran, who included the incident in an email to USD Human Resources Sept. 1.
A couple days later, Abbott said Oredein called her into his office. She said he offered a “fake apology” and said he was trying to get something out of her hair.
After that meeting, Abbott said she felt “manipulated,” because Oredein was the director of what was supposed to be a safe place.
“Everyone who stopped going up there, who I know, has an experience where he made them uncomfortable,” she said. “And so I feel like with just the sheer consistency of what was going on, that the administration could’ve gotten more involved.”
Other situations that made Abbott uncomfortable around Oredein deal mostly with comments regarding her mother’s and her appearance. She said she didn’t tell anyone other than her friends about her experiences until Tran announced her resignation.
“A lot of people in the CDC felt like there was nothing to worry about with Dr. O because Lena will keep us safe. Like, Lena is the heart of the CDC and Lena’s been here longer and Lena knows more and we don’t have to worry about anything as long as Lena’s here,” she said. “Everyone was kind of like, ‘Lena is like the protector of the CDC and we’ll be fine.’ And then when we found out that she was leaving… everyone was like, ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do.’”
After Tran left, Abbott stopped going to the CDC as often, she said.
Wright made the same decision around the same time. He said “a lot” of students’ issues were ignored by administration.
“Administration specifically, there were things that they were doing or saying to us as students that they should have known better not to say or do to us, especially for being the leaders for the Center for Diversity & Community. It’s one thing to be in an administrative position and make racially- or sexually-charged comments toward us, but it’s another thing when you’re leading a center that’s focused on diversity and inclusion and safety,” he said. “And I think some of the administrators either didn’t have the full understanding of that, and others didn’t really care.”
Tran said Oredein didn’t participate in the Multicultural Leadership Institute in September because of concerns from Tran and students.
“I didn’t feel safe around him, and I surely didn’t want him near my students,” she said. “I had a formal complaint. (Sellers and Grieve) understood, they knew and they thought this was probably not a good idea. We were in a remote area, and based on his behavior… I did not feel safe for myself, my students or anyone else that would have been there, specifically females.”
Sellers said he couldn’t confirm or deny complaints as the reason Oredein was absent from the retreat.
“That really wasn’t something that I had heard,” he said.
Mann said the biggest issue she saw with Oredein was his lack of education in certain areas.
“He had a very specific area of passion – which is completely understandable,” she said. “He definitely said some very insensitive things, particularly about the LGBT community at times… it ended up being very hurtful for some of our students.”
Wright said he wasn’t surprised when Oredein left.
“The way he was treating the position, it didn’t come as a shock that he didn’t have plans to stick around,” Wright said. “When he left, he didn’t say goodbye, so that right there tells how active he was with us and involved in us.”
Gatzke, though they weren’t very close with Oredein, said his resignation wasn’t “unexpected.”
“I could kind of seeing it coming, just because he never really seemed too comfortable in the position, but he still did a great job while he was here,” they said.
Additional stories regarding the search for a new CDC director and program coordinator, Tran’s departure and inclusive excellence will be published in the following weeks. If you have anything to add to this story, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.