Point Park reacts to pending changes to Office of Equity and Inclusion

Officials release more details on the plans; SGA Executive Cabinet cites issues with university’s handling of situation

Written By Amanda Andrews and Jake Dabkowski

CORRECTION: In the first article reported on this development, Managing Director of Marketing and Public Relations Lou Corsaro said that this change was happening upon the request of the Office of Equity and Inclusion. That was incorrect and led to an erroneous report in last week’s issue of The Globe. The Office of Equity and Inclusion did not solely initiate talks with the President’s Office

The Point Park community continues to respond and react to last week’s leaked development that the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) will soon be undergoing significant reorganization.

At the Student Government Association (SGA) legislative body meeting on March 7, the SGA executive cabinet revealed that they had learned the Office of Equity and Inclusion would not exist as it currently does by next academic year. OEI has three main components: student accommodations, compliance with the law — which covers the Title IX Office — and diversity trainings and events, all of which will be moving to different departments across the university, including OEI personnel. 

“It’s happening the way they say it is,” SGA President Dennis McDermott said. “They’re moving everything to these different offices, they’re moving the Office of Equity and Inclusion to everywhere. And I’m at a loss for words… I usually can find a way to speak and say something about some of these things, but it’s just kind of odd because it doesn’t make sense what they’re doing.”

Last week, Managing Director of University Marketing and Public Relations Lou Corsaro said to The Globe that the OEI had “initiated” the talks for these changes. That was incorrect and later contradicted by President Don Green who has said that what had been conveyed was an “unintentional…miscommunication.” 

“This is really an organic discussion between a variety of staff members and over a fairly long period of time, which ultimately allowed us to put together a variety of different perspectives and be able to organize a strategy around it,” Green said. 

Discussions between the OEI and the president began in December, and he said he has met routinely with the office since that time. Green, who took over direct oversight of OEI in January, said that those initial talks had not revolved around shifting different facets of the office to other departments. 

Besides OEI staff, Green said he has also consulted Provost Dr. Michael Soto, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Keith Paylo, the Senior Vice President of Finance and Operations Bridget Mancosh, the faculty assembly and staff assembly. 

“Apparently, they did unveil the details in a faculty assembly of which I could not have been present at that time,” McDermott said. “So there is a way that these details could have been known to me [earlier] … but it seems to me that the faculty were not fully aware of what was happening even after that meeting.” 

Head of faculty assembly and animation professor Jonathan Trueblood declined to comment. 

“There may be a matter of emphasis where the disconnect is,” Soto said. “So for example, at the last faculty assembly, I shared how accessibility services were moving…from that division in OEI back into Academic Affairs and explained how we are going to be beefing up those services for students and for faculty and staff. I didn’t discuss that under the rubric of dismantling the OEI because frankly that’s not how we see it.”

One of the changes is that accommodations and accessibility services, currently under Assistant Director of Accessibility Amanda Avampato, will be moving back to the Center of Student Success, where it was previously housed before OEI. 

Avampato declined to comment.

Molly McClelland is the Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs and Student Success and said the Center for Student Success (CSS) had learned about this recently and welcomed this new development.  

“And for us, I think it’s a little bit of a homecoming. Though the responsibility was in the Office of Equity and Inclusion, we’ve maintained a weekly meeting with that space because there’s such a connection between the advisement of students, the support services that we offer, academically in tutoring, academic coaching, and then the accommodations piece of it,” McClelland said. “So we had continued to meet and just really recognized this needs to be done differently. There’s a way to serve students differently.”

The administration has maintained one of the core reasons for the move was because OEI was overwhelmed with a spike in accommodations requests in the last two years. 

“Prior to the pandemic, it was normal for the university to receive about 150 requests approximately for accommodation,” Green said. “And this year, we will have over 430 requests, so the requests for additional accommodations just kind of exploded. And in that work, we saw all of the members of the staff of the Office of Equity and Inclusion, who were constantly having to respond to the dramatic increase in those requests for accommodation and the work that would need to be done around those, especially around testing. And so one of the things that Michael Soto and I were talking about was how we would better provide those accommodation services to our students.”

“So as part of this planning effort, we are also rethinking the work that takes place and that needs to take place and how do we fill the gap that’s there,” Soto said. “So we are bringing back some staff support to the testing center. And a lot of the logistical support work that serves students there will soon have some additional help. And we’re also probably going to loosen the direct student caseload work by bringing in another person into the Accessibility Services Office so that we can continue to serve the growing caseload that President Green mentioned, but also so that we can be a little bit more mindful and strategic around faculty development and helping them to manage classrooms and to manage the learning environment, in which students with accommodations go about their studies.” 

The other parts of OEI — compliance and diversity — will now be under different umbrellas too. The university is seeking to hire an in-house lawyer, referred to as general counsel; Green said that Vanessa Love and Vincent Rugani, who both have roles in managing the Title IX Office, approached him with interest that they be advised by general counsel due to the nature of their work. 

“I believe the President and I are on the same page,” Love said. “To clarify, compliance and prevention and education are normally separated out. Compliance can be under an equity umbrella, but it is usually separated from the prevention and education piece. Point Park University will have a stronger compliance program if it reports directly to a general counsel as there are numerous legal issues that come up in compliance work.” 

Michael Thornhill and the diversity trainings and events will move to the Center for Inclusive Excellence (CEI), which had been created before the coronavirus pandemic. 

Thornhill was not immediately available for comment, but administrators acknowledged that there will be some hurdles in getting the campus community to recognize this as the new space for diversity.

“During the pandemic, the CEI became the one-stop-shop for navigating an unprecedented crisis, and a lot of that had to do with providing the technological and instructional triage, and so it was no longer able to be a place where students could explore and learn and grow,” Soto said. “And we hope to return it to that kind of environment. Since my days as a student are well behind me, we’re going to have to get a lot of student input to build it out, so that it provides a welcoming and effective space for them.” 

Most students were unaware of the planned changes to OEI before The Globe’s article last week, including an anonymous student familiar with the workings of OEI. This student has requested anonymity out of fear they might face retaliation. 

“I know the office is a very accessible part of campus,” they said. “It’s on the first floor of the Student Center; it’s right across from SAIL. I know they have chairs in office, like candy, they have signs that say this is a safe space. Just knowing that there’s one spot on campus you can go to with concerns about whether it’s Title IX or diversity, someone in the office will hear you. One of the four will. It’s really comforting to know that.”

They also added that OEI had not discussed or addressed the changes happening with any students coming in the last week. 

SGA’s Executive Cabinet has been pushing for more student inclusion in these talks and the process. On Friday, March 11, McDermott and several members of his cabinet met with Green, Paylo, Soto, Thornhill, Rugani and Dean of Student Life Michael Gieske. 

“I am not convinced after the meeting that they had with me that this will be a long-term solution for any of these… except for compliance,” they said. “Compliance moving on to general counsel in-house lawyer for the university will benefit them.”

On Monday, March 14, SGA’s Executive Cabinet drafted a press release that intends to emphasize the necessity of student input on any changes. They cited special concern with the timing of OEI’s reorganization and that they were not specifically reached out to about the office’s dispersal. 

“This plan was planned to go in place in July when no student was on campus. Why? Why did they not consult a single student on this issue?” McDermott said. “We asked them that. Why have they not consulted a single student on this issue? And the answer from Don Green was that that was accidental. We forgot. Forgot to include the student government, forgot to include a single student in the process… I think that’s just egregious and I said it during the meeting with Don and I’ll say it again: I think it is an excuse I would have expected from the former administration.”

President Green emphasized that despite some of the negative response, he still believes that this is a change for the better.

“We’re not trying to hide anything. In fact, if anything, we’re just trying to serve our students better,” Green said. “I am firmly committed to equity and inclusion. It’s an important part of who we are. For the future, we need to serve all of our students, and I want to make sure that we do that… the intent here is to increase the performance and to be able to provide greater services to students.”