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Otterbein theater alumni criticize program's lack of diversity

Outspoken alumni of the Otterbein Theatre Department have prompted an increased awareness of the number of students of color in the program.

The Otterbein class of 2025 musical theatre program assembled in Cowan Hall on Friday, August 20 after being chastised by alumni through Facebook. 

Chair of the department of Theatre and Dance T.J. Gerckens organized this class meeting to address the social media comments aimed toward them and to acknowledge that it wasn’t a typical welcome to the program. As department Chair, Gerckens houses the theatre program within his position. 

“They were apologizing to us being like, ‘this is a time of excitement to see the banner, and we know this time around it wasn’t a time of excitement,’” freshman musical theatre major Evan Little said. It was more a time of apprehension “for the lack of representation.” 

This began when alumni became vocal in response to the lack of diversity presented in the incoming freshmen class photo, otherwise known as their banner, posted during the summer prior to the 2021-2022 academic year. 

“As an alumna and person of color, I have to question the admissions team and professors at Otterbein,” alumna Asel Swango said in a comment on an Otterbein Theatre and Dance Facebook post Thursday, July 15. “I understand that we don’t get to see everything when making these decisions, but the lack of diversity in this class is unacceptable.” 

This sparked a wave of comments from a handful of other alumni pertaining to the same concern and pushed the department faculty to speak out on behalf of the incoming freshmen. 

“Our class isn’t as diverse as we would like it to be this year, but we’re very happy with the students we have,” Gerckens said. “The tension or distress surrounding the push to get greater diversity really shouldn’t be a reflection upon them.” 

Administering an open discussion with the class didn’t prevent alumni from keeping tabs on the department. Swango revisited the situation three months later, nearly the end of Otterbein’s fall 2021 semester. 

“I still believe everything I said in the Facebook post and have not seen any changes that were promised,” Swango said. 

Preceding the 2021-2022 school year, Otterbein had been increasing diversity in the department for the last four years. Some of the students and faculty associate the factors behind why alumni of color vocalized their disappointment in the program this year with timing and relevance to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“Why Black alumni came to us, I think, is frankly because the whole country has been going through this social change that has been coincident with the pandemic,” Gerckens said. “I see this as a second civil rights movement.” 

The department overall had been surpassing the university’s diversity in percentage up until the pandemic year. According to Executive Director of Admission Mark Moffitt, this year was the “most diverse first year class in Otterbein’s history” consisting of 28.3% people of color. Otterbein students believe this coincides with institutional stigmas that theatre has been working to break for decades. 

“I feel like the number of people who try out for these programs, there’s not as much diversity,” freshman acting major Ian Peloza said. “That narrows down the pool by a lot, especially if the pool is already small.” 

Another element contributing to the regression in diversity is looking at it from a national level. Theatre departments such as Otterbein scout for potential students nationwide. There’s a certain privilege that comes with obtaining training geared toward this industry, which not everyone may be able to afford. 

“The performing arts aren’t known for being tremendously lucrative,” Gerckens said. “It tends to be a field where a lot of people who go in tend to be the people of means. If you just look at it demographically, according to numbers nationally, unfortunately that disfavors people of color.” 

In an effort to keep the public informed, the department posted updates on their work toward more diversity and inclusion earlier this semester and will continue to do so. This included accountability and willingness to take suggestions on Otterbein’s part.  

“The faculty have already clearly established that they’re open to conversation,” Little said. “I did really appreciate how the faculty came out at the beginning of the year and was open to any ideas.” 

Gerckens shared that in terms of statistics, the program had 549 applicants, where 103 self-identified as individuals of color. Of those, 58 offers were made, which included 12 individuals who were people of color.  

“That’s a lot of people making an initial application, and we can only accept a small number,” Gerckens said. “That’s about 20.7% of our offers made to individuals of color, and our incoming class was 15% people of color.” 


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