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GRCC’s 2014 budget stalled over diversity disagreement

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By Joshua Vissers

As the Grand Rapids Community College Board of Trustees seeks to approve a new annual budget for the college, programs have once again become points of contention between several members: The Diversity Lecture Series and Actors’ Theatre.

These two programs, supported financially through GRCC’s budget, have been challenged by Trustee Richard Ryskamp and Trustee Richard Stewart.

“It’s not that I see anything wrong in itself in having those programs,” Ryskamp said at February’s board meeting, “but there’s certain needed improvements and I would really enjoy the opportunity for us to discuss what could be done to these programs that would make them more acceptable to the community and to us.”

Ryskamp, as well as members of the greater Grand Rapids community, have previously expressed disapproval of some of the content presented by Actors’ Theatre productions, which included full nudity and sexual themes.

In June, Ryskamp proposed several amendments to the budget that would divert funding for these programs to a contingency fund for future expenses like pay raises.

“I’d be willing to meet you way more than halfway as far as approving a budget that meets somewhere in between,” he said at the February meeting.

During the open comment section at the beginning of the meeting, GRCC student leader Ross Pike urged the board in vain to pass the budget as presented. The budget proposal failed for the time being. With only five of the seven voting members in attendance and two of them opposed, a quorum of four votes could not be reached.

Director of Equity Affairs Eric Williams addressed the board at the end of the meeting, calling for a sensible discussion among the trustees and a final solution to the repeated, troublesome issue in front of them.

“The commentary on this topic that has occurred around this discussion has not been productive, nor has it been helpful,” said Williams. “Candidly, it’s been divisive, painful and at times, destructive.”

He went on to challenge the board members to create an atmosphere in which discussions about LGBTQ issues, race and inequity could be held in a way “that does not leave a path of victims and villains.”

Williams exceeded the time allotted to each speaker, three minutes.

“We are a quality institution and we are not all expected to think and act alike, but as reasonable people-” he said, before being stopped by acting chairperson Richard Verburg.

“Whenever you talk about issues of diversity, it’s a tough topic,” Williams said later, in an interview. “It doesn’t take much for people to become defensive when the issue comes up.”

Williams isn’t concerned with placing blame or getting apologies.

“There are things that have been said, there are things that have not been said,” he said. “I’d like to see us take a more proactive and a more structured approach at having this dialogue.”

For Williams, it’s not about changing minds, it’s about having the conversation.

The next Board of Trustees meeting is at 4:15 p.m. Monday in the Board Chambers on the 5th floor of the Main Building.