By Amethyst Martinez
The university has lost a majority of diversity, equity and inclusion employees over the past eight months with departure reasons ranging from general unhappiness to job eliminations.
The most recent of those to part with the hollowed out department is the Center of Diversity and Inclusion’s Assistant Director Shaun Williams.
No university communication was sent out regarding his departure; instead, an email was sent to the university community on Jan. 26 redirecting all CDI inquiries to Heeyoung Kim, Rider’s chief diversity officer. Four days prior to the email, Williams was listed as the point person for Rider’s Black History Month programming from CDI. After Williams’ abrupt departure, he was quickly removed from Rider’s website.
However, multiple students involved with the center agreed that his exit was not shocking. A history of disorganization and misgendering from Williams has been noted despite his position requiring him to work closely with LGBTQIA+ students and overseeing SafeZone training, a program used to educate staff, faculty and students about LGBTQIA+ issues.
Williams was unable to be reached for an interview after multiple attempts by The Rider News.
A nonbinary junior at the university involved with the Multicultural Student Leadership Institute, who wanted to remain anonymous to protect their privacy, stated that Williams consistently misgendered and deadnamed them, a term used to describe the usage of a person’s birth name instead of their chosen one.
In emails viewed by The Rider News from Williams, the junior’s deadname was used, along with the incorrect pronouns in multiple emails. Another email shows Williams apologizing for the errors.
In a SafeZone training, the student alleged that although they had introduced themselves with their pronouns and had a pin stating them, Williams continuously used the wrong one.
“It was only Shaun that was messing up my pronouns,” the junior said. “Everyone else was really respectful of them in that room, but Shaun specifically, [it] almost felt like he went out of his way not to use them because it was so clear. I had something that said my pronouns, I introduced them. And he was still wrong.”
In SafeZone training, a pinnacle factor of the presentation discusses pronoun usage and the importance of it.
Amy Atkinson, assistant director of the Academic Success Center and a SafeZone facilitator, stated that at least four of the slides shown in the presentation discussed pronouns.
She also said that she heard issues of misgendering at the CDI and across the university from students in prior semesters. She stressed the importance of recognizing and using the correct pronouns, especially from people in leadership positions.
“It’s not just about a respect, it’s also about embracing a person and what’s important to them,” said Atkinson. “I’m a part of the LGBTQ+ community, and I know what it’s like to be worried about even letting someone know that part of yourself for fear.”
The junior also mentioned they had been misgendered by Kim, who was put in the CDO position this summer after the departure of Barbara Lawrence, former CDO, and Pamela Pruitt, former CDI executive director.
Tristan E. M. Leach, president of Spectrum, Rider’s LGBTQIA+ organization on campus, who uses they/them pronouns, also mentioned that Williams repeatedly misgendered them when Spectrum and the CDI would work together.
“It was really persistent,” said Leach. “I’m very honest and open about my sexuality in general. So I’m not sure what the missing link was.”
Leach, another SafeZone facilitator, said that they would also avoid hosting training sessions with Williams due to his history of misgendering.
“I was very wary of conducting a SafeZone training with Shaun because of a reputation that he had been building,” said Leach. “I had been hearing some trainers being misgendered by Shaun in front of groups of people that we are trying to educate and engage, and it was just very odd.”
Another MSLI student, freshman psychology major Chaniya Thomas, also mentioned both Kim and Williams misgendering students.
“We shouldn’t have somebody who isn’t used to [using pronouns,]” said Thomas.
Kim, who sat down in an interview with The Rider News on Feb. 6, stated that she was “guilty as charged” for the misgendering claims, but said she is “horrified” everytime she misstates a person’s pronouns.
“I’m practicing, and I believe that’s the same for the older generation folks, that we’re trying but don’t know how to fix those associations. It’s hard to kill those associations,” said Kim. “I’m always conscious of trying not to do it … I’m not even close to perfect, I know I make the mistake. The only thing I can say is, I’m trying.”
Leach said that it was disheartening hearing that other students have also faced misgendering from CDI workers, especially as president of Spectrum.
“I truly wish that I had been the only person who had been on the receiving end of a lot of this stuff, because it’s so unfair,” said Leach. “It’s so hurtful, because when you’re a queer person, anywhere, you know that every other queer person in the room has had at least a very similar experience to you.”
Before Kim was jostled into the CDO position, she already worked in the Teaching and Learning Center, where she taught faculty about the importance of DEI at the university.
Rider has recently ramped up DEI efforts in a time where universities nationwide have faced criticism and political pressure for DEI expansion, from adding the CDO role in 2021, electing a Student Government Association president with a main focus on DEI and recently adding an NAACP chapter.
In an interview with The Rider News in June after the departures, Lawrence, who was unable to be reached for this story, expressed concern for the university’s DEI work.
“It is a tremendous loss for Rider right now,” said Lawrence. “I think it speaks to where their real priority was with the diversity work, which wasn’t what I think people thought.”
Kim’s role at the university is a combination of Lawrence’s old position along with Pruitt’s, whose main focus was the CDI. She also continues to work as the director of the TLC and as a professor.
Pruitt, who worked closely with Williams in the CDI, declined to be interviewed for the story.
Disorganization within the CDI
Alongside misgendering claims, disorganization within the CDI was widely mentioned among students who spoke to The Rider News, such as poorly planned events, or lack thereof, from the center.
A sophomore peer leader at the center, who wished to remain anonymous, said that things were much more organized while Pruitt still worked at the university.
“It went downhill once she left,” said the sophomore. “When we did have events, you could tell it wasn’t much thought put into it or [Williams] didn’t know what he was doing, and he left it all up to student workers.”
In an interview with The Rider News in September, DonnaJean Fredeen, Rider’s provost, mentioned that Williams would be taking on more responsibility after Pruitt’s departure.
“We want all students to feel that they can come in [the CDI] and be a part of it, but Shaun will be taking a little more ownership,” said Fredeen. “We’re wanting to empower him to really do that day-to-day work.”
However, the anonymous student said that Williams fell short of the responsibility in the months following.
Fredeen declined during a Feb. 2 interview to engage in discussion about Williams’ departure.
The sophomore stated, “They had everything planned out, really…Then once [Pruitt] left, Shaun, of course, he was the one that had to take over … I guess he wasn’t really trained on how to do everything because Dr. Pruitt leaving was so out of the blue.”
Leach also mentioned disorganization when Spectrum and the CDI would have partnerships, especially after Pruitt’s departure from the university.
“It started to become very clear to me that they were scrambling when Dr. Pruitt left summer of this year,” said Leach.
Students also mentioned massive failures during the annual MSLI trip in November, during which they were brought to the Chauncey Conference Center in Princeton, New Jersey, to learn about professional development and leadership skills. Issues included poor planning on Williams’ part, along with Williams accusing the group of students of smoking cigarettes, a claim that he retracted to the group the next day.
“We couldn’t even get through some of the activities we were supposed to get there because it’s so disorganized,” said Thomas. “Nothing was planned out properly, down to things being messed up when we got there.”
The anonymous junior also mentioned disorganization for most MSLI events in general at the university. MSLI is a program for freshmen and transfer students, under the umbrella of CDI, to help students from diverse backgrounds adapt and thrive at the university.
“Nothing ever stayed on track,” said the junior. “We’d be told one thing, and then something else would be happening. It was definitely kind of hard to keep up because it was constantly changing.”
The future of DEI
A big concern is the current political climate around DEI at higher education institutions nationwide and the upcoming presidential election in November.
“As we think about our DEI work here on campus, we have to be forever diligent about the political forces that can have an impact,” said Fredeen.
Despite issues within the CDI, Kim promised that change was happening behind the scenes in a Feb. 2 interview with The Rider News.
“This climate of higher education, change takes time,” said Kim. “But what I want the student body to understand is, if they don’t see their immediate changes, that doesn’t mean that we’re not working on it.”
Damon Williams, a DEI specialist who came to campus last semester, created a report for the university on where it can improve in terms of inclusion on campus. Rider received that report recently, and Kim and Fredeen have been reviewing its content for where DEI can be strengthened.
Kim and Fredeen also announced a new position with a goal hiring date of two months: director of the CDI, which would oversee the center.
“You need thoughtful, thoughtful change,” said Fredeen. “And that’s the way Heeyoung has been approaching [it].”
Fredeen said that, with the director position hiring, the university is looking forward. When hiring, the plan is to make a task force that considers the vision of CDI for 2024, and how to bring that to fruition.
“I’d rather do it the better way than rushing it to show the outcomes,” said Kim. “That’s not me.”
Spectrum President Tristan E. M. Leach is a features and entertainment editor for The Rider News. Managing Editor Jake Tiger and Copy Editor Bridget Hoyt are both tutors for the Academic Success Center. Leach, Tiger and Hoyt had no part in the writing or editing of this story.