Student voices leading to structural change

Many students may only spend about four to six years at the University of Utah, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a profound impact while they’re here. In fact, it is former U students who opened the door for the creation of the School for Cultural and Social Transformation (Transform), said Kathryn Bond Stockton, the school’s inaugural dean.

“Transform’s story is one of student voices, structural change and collective action,” said Stockton. “It began with an open dialogue on racial climate, which led to a structure—a brand new college—which continues to support a two-way flow between community knowledge and academic study.”

On Nov. 20, 2015, the U held an “Open Dialogue on Racial Climate” in the ballroom at the A. Ray Olpin Union. Several hundred people, most of them students, showed up to voice their concerns to university leaders. At the time, it was U President David Pershing and Senior Vice President Ruth Watkins who led an actions-based response and immediately asked Stockton to create a list of what could be done to address the concerns expressed by students.

“It was because of that open dialogue, and because students showed up and spoke truth to power, that we have the 13 immediate responses—which have all been put into motion or fully implemented—and that we were able to build Transform,” Stockton said. “Indeed, as students called for changes that would matter for BIPOC students’ sense of vital belonging at the U, they mentioned their concern that ethnic studies programs were being defunded across the nation. They worried that rollbacks could happen at the U—to ethnic studies, specifically, and also to the centers that support their activism.”  Stockton added, “All this was huge. These student voices led to a major structural change, even in ways they could not foresee.”

Within a few weeks of the open dialogue, Stockton and a group of faculty members in ethnic studies and gender studies began developing a proposal for the school. In just six months, the proposal passed through six decision-making bodies without a single negative vote.

Now in its fifth year, Transform is one of just a few such schools in the country to house ethnic studies and gender studies (now both full departments), alongside a disability studies program and a pacific islands studies initiative, in a unified college. It offers two majors, numerous minors, a graduate certificate and a new certificate in pacific islands studies, while currently engaging hundreds of students.

The Transform team, to support its striking growth, has hired 11 new faculty members—all from diverse, underrepresented backgrounds—and secured the U’s first-ever academic Mellon Foundation Grant ($600,000), which has aided in the development of the robust Pacific Islands Studies Initiative.

“With this unique model, we are truly a school for intersectional inquiry,” said Stockton. “We like to say, ‘to act, we must think.’ At Transform, we are studying everything everyone is currently debating—shifting sexualities, changing genders, dynamic immigrations and emergent struggles against all racist thought and actions—as we foster real-world thinking for change. And none of this would have happened without our passionate student voices, acted on by dedicated, visionary faculty, staff and leaders who worked to listen.”