Confronting racism: President DeGioia, other college leaders speak out

As the nation grieves the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black Americans, and protests against police officers’ use of deadly force, leaders at colleges far and wide are reflecting on their institutions’ role in fighting racism, injustice, and harassment.

In a message to members of the Georgetown University community, President John J. DeGioia reinforces Georgetown’s ongoing commitment to addressing racial disparities, the university’s connection to the institution of slavery, and the constructs and structures that perpetuate inequality. 

Among those, DeGioia highlights structural injustices in health care, noting COVID-19’s inordinate impact on Black Americans. “[W]e must address the conditions that lead to the senseless and indefensible loss of life of our fellow citizens,” he writes. “We need to confront the violence that shapes the daily experiences of far too many, who expect so much more of us, as a people. We need to listen to the anger, the pain, the trauma that accompanies our failure to meet these expectations.”

DeGioia calls on members of the Georgetown community to consider how they perpetuate inequality and “to contribute to this work of reimagining the social, political, economic, and moral structures to ensure justice for all—and especially for those for whom it has been too long denied.” Read President DeGioia’s full message.

HBCUs point to crucial role as a safe haven

At historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the recent incidents have prompted administrators to weigh their institutions’ need to prioritize health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic against their students’ urgent need for the support of their campus community. “For those of us who work tirelessly to provide educational opportunities to low-wealth, first-generation, students of color who are disadvantaged in every conceivable way, education and safety are two parts of the same goal,” Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Benedict College in South Carolina, writes in HBCU Digest

Noting that 82 percent of Benedict students come from low-income families and three-quarters are first-generation students, Clark Artis says the college is closely monitoring students’ well-being, especially given how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting communities of color. However, “COVID-19 is far from the only thing threatening their well-being,” Clark Artis writes. “If we are honestly conducting risk assessments, we must consider the risk to these students of not returning to campus… The bottom line is that Black men are safer on the campus of Benedict College, even in the wake of COVID-19, than they are out jogging in their own neighborhood.”

“We know that our campus provides a safe haven for students who need us,” Emmanuel Lalande, Benedict’s vice president for enrollment management and student services, wrote in a letter to students published by The Hechinger Report. Amid COVID-19, “we are reaching out via text messages, phone calls, and video chats to help you cope with the ongoing trauma, pain, and grief associated with these racial incidents,” Lalande said, adding that while health and safety will be Benedict’s first priority in reopening, “we will reopen as soon as we possibly can.”

Students urge officials to examine law enforcement practices, partnerships 

U.S. college students, meanwhile, are not only protesting recent events but also calling on college officials to examine their campus policing practices and partnerships, update law enforcement training, and make changes that prevent police violence, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. 

Student organizations also are reaching out directly to local authorities in hopes that the dialogue will accelerate change. In Washington, D.C., Black student unions from Georgetown University, The Catholic University of America, The George Washington University (GWU), and American University wrote a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser and the city’s police chief urging them to take seven actions, including reducing youth arrests, providing unconscious bias and deescalation training, and curbing racial profiling at campus events. “We’re using our ability to even go to these universities to our advantage to help not only ourselves but the D.C. residents,” Bishop Walton, chief of staff of the GWU Black Student Union, told The Hoya

Calls for stronger hiring practices, course offerings, and advocacy 

Ultimately, all American institutions “are facing a reckoning,” writes The Chronicle of Higher Education, highlighting recommendations for how college leaders can take responsibility for reducing racism. Several universities in recent days have taken action against students and faculty making offensive and derogatory comments on social media, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports. The University of South Carolina expelled a student for a racist social media post, while nearby College of Charleston rescinded an admission offer for a similar offense; Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, did the same.

Meanwhile, speaking with The Chronicle, Sirry Alang, an associate professor at Lehigh University, urged college administrators to challenge entrenched structures that perpetuate disparities—for instance, by hiring more people of color for leadership roles. “It matters for students who look like us, for their everyday sense of safety and support,” she said. 

And pointing out that Emory University just enacted a college-wide general-education requirement for critical race and ethnic studies, Alang asserted that “every university should do that. This country was built on racial capitalism. Every student should know that, because if you know, then the expectation is that you need to do better.” Ultimately, college communities need to “speak up when it’s hard,” Alang said.

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