Student Perspectives on SAIS Diversity and the Crowell Committee

By Adam DuBard

The members of the SAIS Crowell Committee. Photo credit: Dawalola Shonibare

As protests against police brutality and racial inequality took place in every state across the nation in the summer of 2020, organizations of all kinds reacted to address diversity, or the lack thereof, in their ranks. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others by American police lit a spark in American society, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement worked to exert massive pressure on both the American government, as well as American private and academic institutions. 

From Twitter to Netflix, corporations issued broad statements supporting Black Lives Matter. Some companies, including IBM and Amazon, announced they would no longer sell their facial recognition technology to police departments. Many of these actions were in turn accused of lacking real impact and ignoring the underlying structural issues that the BLM movement protested. Writing in Business Insider, Will Meyer noted that IBM continued to sell predictive police software to departments.

Closer to home, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser made national headlines by painting “Black Lives Matter” on the street just blocks from the White House last summer. Shortly afterward, however, Black Lives Matter DC released a statement criticizing Mayor Bowser, calling this act a “performative piece” while noting that Mayor Bowser’s budget called for an increase of $45 million to the DC police department.

Dean Eliot Cohen announced the creation of the Crowell Committee in an email to the SAIS community on July 2nd, 2020. The Crowell Committee, named after George Crowell, SAIS’s first African American senior administrator, was tasked with “making concrete recommendations that will make SAIS a better place, help it better fulfill its mission as a professional school of international affairs, and that enable it to better live up to its ideals.” Has SAIS lived up to its stated goals of “advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at SAIS,” or has it fallen into the same trap of performative measures so many other organizations have? 

According to Johns Hopkins University’s data, 43% of its undergraduate and graduate students are White, 14% Asian, 8.17% Hispanic or Latino, and 7.66% Black or African American. For comparison, as of 2018 nationwide, the demographics of undergraduate students came to 55.2% White, 19.5% Hispanic or Latino, 10% Asian or Pacific Islander, and 9.6% Black or African American. While Johns Hopkins University and SAIS recruit internationally, both the Baltimore and DC campuses are located in majority-minority cities, with 62.7% of the Baltimore population identifying as Black and 46% of DC residents identifying as Black, with an additional 11.3% identifying as Hispanic or Latino. 

The demographic makeup of the Crowell Committee raised eyebrows among many SAIS students after the announcement of the new diversity initiative. According to statistics compiled by SAIS students, 65% of Crowell Committee members are male and 57% of its members white. Further, only three current students were included in the committee, while faculty made up 15 out of 21 members, or 71%. 

On September 11, 2020, the Crowell Committee sent their report to Dean Cohen, which was then released to the entire SAIS community in December of 2020. The report advocated for “concrete, actionable recommendations that will engage the

active participation of SAIS administration, faculty, students, staff, alumni, donors, and the broader university, and yield tangible results.” 

The Committee’s recommendations included conducting Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) outreach and establishing an underrepresented minority (URM) pipeline, increasing financial aid both for excellent and non-traditionally excellent, or “extensive margin” students, increasing mentoring opportunities for minority students, and increasing community outreach at all three campuses in Washington, Bologna, and Nanjing, including a day of service for the DC campus.

Sabrina Newton, a second-year MA student, was one of the three students selected for the Crowell Committee. Like many of her fellow students, she was immediately struck by the curious demographic makeup of a committee devoted to increasing diversity at SAIS. Admittedly, Newton “didn’t know what to expect,” going into her involvement with the committee, and one of her first questions upon joining was about the demographic makeup of the committee. However, she points out that “As SAIS increases their commitment to diversity among faculty and students, it will become easier for committees and all spaces at SAIS to reflect what our society really looks like.”

As for the work she undertook with the Crowell Committee, Newton was particularly pleased with the recommendations to increase community outreach as well as implementing a more intensive outreach to HBCUs and Black Student Unions (BSUs) at other universities. She noted that “It’s important for me that people seeking economic stability and mobility know that IR is a viable profession and it’s possible to have a great career in IR. You don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer to be successful.” While Newton was happy to see the “fruits of their labor” come so quickly in the form of the Crowell Committee’s report, she’s looking for SAIS to take more tangible steps towards addressing diversity, including hiring more women and people of color as faculty members and adding more inclusive readings to syllabi.

Kim Jasmin, a second-year MA student, commented that while many students knew about the formation of the Crowell Committee, they were unaware of how faculty-dominated the committee would be. Jasmin continued to ask how a committee can promote diversity when the committee itself isn’t diverse? “The best voices you’re going to hear from are going to be POCs themselves,” she emphasized, pointing out that she found it strange that the committee’s decisions would primarily be impacting students yet only 3 out of 21 of the members were students. 

Jasmin and other students made their displeasure known, with 15 sending a letter of their issues with the Crowell Committee to the administration. However, Jasmin was pleased with the initial progress made by the committee, saying that the new initiatives proposed in its report were “fantastic.” Not all the initiatives were implemented initially, which Jasmin noted was “understandable,” although she said students did express their frustration at Dean Cohen’s delay in sending out an email update on the Crowell Committee, which wasn’t sent to the SAIS community until nearly four months after the initial report was compiled. 

Ultimately, there continue to be frustrations with the perceived lack of progress since the release of the committee’s report in December. Jasmin commented that while “the idea of Crowell Committee was great, the way they implemented it was terrible,” pointing out that with a yet-unknown dean coming to SAIS later this year, “We don’t know where the Crowell Committee is going.” 

For her part, Miji Bell, the Crowell Committee Chair and Director of Communications and Media Relations for SAIS, said in an email that “It is important to note that the Committee was established by Dean Cohen for a finite period of time last year, to make actionable recommendations for advancing DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] efforts at SAIS,” going on to note that while the committee has not continued to meet, “that was not the intention.” She also emphasized that “Some of the most critical recommendations are now being guided and implemented by my office, under Community Engagement.” 

Whether SAIS’s efforts to address diversity and inclusion issues result in tangible progress is yet to be seen. Changing decades of structural issues is not a task that can be completed overnight, but rather one that requires serious systemic reforms and a commitment to sustainable change. 

For now, some SAIS students remain frustrated at the lack of clear progress. With no guarantee the next Dean will be committed to the Crowell Committee’s recommendations, Jasmin said there is a feeling the forming of the committee was merely “empty performative activism,” going on to say that “Sometimes we do the bare minimum and we call that success.” As for the current status quo at SAIS, “You can count how many black people are at SAIS; it’s embarrassing.” 

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