The Allies Institute program, a four-day diversity and social justice retreat held annually by the university in January, is taking a year off while a new Diversity Coordinating Committee reevaluates the program to encourage more cross-campus collaboration.
Students involved in Allies are very worried that this gap year choice will slow the momentum of increasing diversity and retention of a more diverse student body on campus.
Junior Jon Henry said he was questioning the year-off idea.
“[In Allies,] you come together as a group and share a lot of personal experiences and really connect with a lot of people from across campus that you may not have connected with because of normal socioeconomic barriers that tend to exist,” Henry said. “You make a very strong and safe network of people, and you become friends with everyone you’re with.”
Henry said the creation of the Student Alliance for Sexual Diversity, and his position as president of SASD, were directly instigated through the Allies program.
“They already have the program developed, so why not continue it until you have the new program developed,” he said.
Glyn Hughes, director of the office of Common Ground, said part of the reasoning for reevaluating the program was because of the introduction of offices such as Common Ground, the Center for Civic Engagement, and the Living Learning Communities, which have been brought to campus since Allies was started in 2003.
“Over the last eight years,” Hughes said, “those offices have been created and we’ve gotten expertise on campus in those areas.”
Hughes said these new offices and programs also meant that the Allies program’s beginnings in the UR Chaplaincy were less grounded that when it was originally created by Camisha Jones, former arts and education director of the Chaplaincy.
“When the new chaplain came on,” Hughes said, “part of his charge was to focus the Chaplaincy’s energies and strengths in a way that complemented the other offices that existed on campus.”
Hughes said the committee had sent out letters to former Allies last spring explaining that the Allies program was going to continue in some form, but that it was being overhauled.
Hughes said the committee had then issued a survey to former Allies at the beginning of this semester and had organized two focus groups with himself, students, and university chaplain Craig Kocher.
Hughes and Kocher explained the ongoing plans of the administration with the students and sought student feedback.
Kocher said the focus groups served as a starting point toward future plans.
“The plan is this year for a team of administrators and a team of students who have been a part of the Allies program in the past to work together,” Kocher said.
“We want to do something very tangible in the spring. It won’t be the Allies program, and it may not even be at the same time, but it will be a program that will be a bridge into the following year.”
Kocher also said Jones had been involved in the transition process last spring and she had left the university of her own accord.
He said a big part of the student-administrator partnership would be to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of the program.
Henry said he thought the administrators would do a good job evaluating the program moving forward.
“I don’t think any program should just be given a blank slate and never have to change or evaluate,” he said. “My biggest thing is I don’t want the gap year to occur.”
Junior Johanna Gehlbach said she was equally concerned about the gap year and its effect on students.
“I think it would be a shame for the admission office to keep working on making each new class more diverse,” Gehlbach said, “only to have this gap where we’re going to lose all this diversity now. It’s going to lose all of the momentum that it’s built over the last seven years.”
Gehlbach also said she thought if the administration didn’t take on this initiative in the way the students would like, that the Allies themselves would be looking into putting on the program themselves.
Henry said he thought a year off might affect student retention on campus.
“Without Allies, a majority of students would have transferred,” Henry said. “I think without this program, this incoming program of first-years, or sophomores or juniors, could lose this final form of connection they have to the Richmond community.”
Hughes said the university was committed to reevaluating and continuing the program so that the transition year wouldn’t hurt students.
“I think that we’ve got the institutional commitment and the resources,” he said. “The students are clearly invested in ensuring that the program doesn’t lose momentum. We just have to think about what’s the best way to ensure that doesn’t happen.”