This past week’s spring 2016 Southern Regional Honors Council conference was a huge success. In my view, the organizers easily outdid previous years’ conferences in terms of organization, plenary speaker, and quality of presentations and panels. It’s going to be a tough act for me to follow up on next year when we host it up here in the mountains.
Of course, the mere act of placing the conference in North Carolina will likely have an impact on the event’s attendance and tone. Following the passage of the NC legislature’s HB2, numerous other professional organizations have recently scrutinized their decisions to host events in the state, several opting to cancel such events. The law, whose immediate intent is to strike down a recently-approved Charlotte referendum allowing transgender people the right to use public restrooms matching the gender they identify with, goes further, containing language that essentially legalizes discrimination on many grounds, including on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.
“It occurs to me that we had best read some sort of a statement addressing HB2,” one of the other members of the SRHC’s Executive Committee mentioned to me near the close of our meeting this past Thursday. In the hour after that meeting adjourned and the start of the conference’s first presentations, I wrote such a statement, which I later read during the general business meeting the next afternoon, to considerable applause:
As many of you know, the North Carolina state legislature recently passed HB2, a piece of legislation that was quickly signed by Governor Pat McCrory. This bill’s effect is an unprecedented curtailment of the power of municipalities, counties, and other local districts to enact anti-discriminatory laws offering protections stronger than those provided at the level of the state. HB2 facilitates legal discrimination on the basis not only of a person’s gender and sexuality but of any other characteristic or identity. Several groups have already brought suit against the state, challenging the law’s constitutionality, and Roy Cooper, the state’s Attorney General, has vowed to not defend the law.
We recognize that this legislation has the potential to profoundly impact attendance at, and engagement with, next year’s Southern Regional Honors Council meeting. With this in mind, I offer my personal pledge to work with all local partners, sponsors, and businesses to ensure that all attendees are afforded equitable treatment and opportunities during their stay in Asheville. Asheville is a welcoming community that embraces difference and diversity, and I will work with local advocacy organizations to craft an inclusive and supportive conference experience for all who attend SRHC in 2017.
On Friday night, giving further thought to a 2017 conference theme (something about mountains? That’s the go-to theme up in these parts), it came to me that we could do more than to make the conference incidentally inclusive; we could design the conference to focus on diversity, difference, equity, and inclusion intentionally, as the conference theme itself. Why not challenge presenters and panelists to ask and answer questions like “in what ways does the work you do in your honors program, as a student or a faculty member, reflect diverse perspectives, habits of mind, or facets of citizenship?”
“Diving Into Diversity” is the title I’m working with right now, and I’m putting together a list of potential plenary speakers who would be able to elaborate on the connections among critical thought, diversity and difference, citizenship, and advocacy.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I’m bracing for the impact of the end of the semester. We’ve got just under three (!!!) weeks to go before the term’s over, and we’re all starting to feel the crunch. Several dozen problems remain on my MATH 280 class’s Moore-method problem set, and my LA 478 students are busily prepping for their class-led workshop on diversity, inclusion, and equity even as they bear into Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (The New Press: New York, 2010).
There are other distractions: we play host to this year’s leviathan National Conference on Undergraduate Research at the end of this week, and next week the new President of the UNC system, Margaret Spellings, comes to campus for a visit. I just learned today that the President will be going out of her way to stop by the quad outside of Karpen Hall, where my origami students and I will be hard at work assembling our Plate House. This structure is an origami-inspired modular refugee shelter, the pieces of which we machined out of cardboard about a year ago with the help of an enterprising engineering student, a veteran of one of my calc classes a few years back. I’d originally scheduled this assembly knowing that President Spellings would be on campus, but also knowing that her official schedule had already been set, I sent a cap-in-hand email to one of the folks in our communications office letting her know about the Plate House, “in case someone might be able to come by and take a picture or two.”
Okay, I’ve got to go put together some sort of one-pager on refugee rights before my eyeballs fall out.