I began composing these thoughts on April 4, the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike many others, however, I am not writing solely to join in the chorus of outrage about one particular event that took place on our campus — although of course I am angered, outraged, saddened and frightened by it. My outrage, though, is one that forces me to ask when we — as students, staff, and faculty — are going to be willing to face the deepest questions about institutional and structural bias and how it affects our community educationally, socially and culturally — not in vague general terms, but here and now, at the University of Richmond in 2008.
When will we have the courage to face our own biases, and when — most importantly — will we have the courage to demand genuine accountability and open debate from our administration and university leaders? We know, or trust, that they share our general commitment to respecting diversity and promoting a genuinely inclusive campus, but it is now in our hands (and especially in the hands of Richmond students) to demand that they open the Pandora's box of issues, both broad and specific, that may be difficult to face but without which a genuine path toward inclusivity and away from a history of inequality cannot possibly be forged.
Shortly after noon on April 4, President Edward Ayers issued an extensive statement to the Richmond community responding to the racist attack, and amplifying a much shorter statement he provided to all of us in an earlier e-mail. Let me say at the outset that I do commend the spirit of the president's remarks, particularly his clear and unambiguous assertion of the "unconscionable" nature of this criminal action, regardless of the intent or ignorance that may have inspired it. I will also say here that I personally consider Ayers an inspiring leader and a heroic voice in many ways — and I'm not saying that just to try to save my own job, which I've only had for two months!
However, this e-mail communication proved to be just one more in a line of responses to this hate crime by our university that has shaken my confidence deeply. We are given three promises in this e-mail — First, that action will be taken in creating a "protocol" to respond to hate crimes; Second, that faculty will be "asked" to consider some vaguely worded "curricular changes" to enhance diversity education; and third, that a "working group" will be formed to respond to issues of diversity and inequality on campus. With all due respect, this is a time for action that will go beyond pursuing prepackaged solutions to immediate crises — pre-packaged solutions, after all, may reflect more of a desire to respond to the demands of public relations and perception than they do a desire to engage in a genuine struggle with the content of the structural frameworks that underlie bias and discrimination. The more cynical observer might ask: Are we hearing a sudden outpouring of concern that has something to do with dozens of news sources picking up an Associated Press story about us at the end of the past week? While there is no question that it is long past due for the university to have a "protocol" and set of policies for responding to vicious hate crimes on campus, and while there is obviously something deeply and intrinsically wrong with, or missing from, a curriculum that is producing what we have seen with three bigoted expressions of hateful ignorance in the past year, I feel frankly and deeply disturbed by what seems to be a closing off of avenues for discussion of the bigger and less pleasant issues.
What are some of the less pleasant issues? Let's take the two most obvious and difficult ones as examples — the diversity of our faculty and top administrative positions, and the diversity of our student body. While I cannot speak for people's inner motivations, it would seem natural that many people won't want to touch these issues for a variety of reasons: Some parts of the university may simply value the importance of maintaining the status quo as opposed to embracing a changing future that is in many ways unclear and disputed; on an individual level, there is undoubtedly a strong fear about acknowledging the actual presence of existing institutional biases because this would require you to admit your own immediate role and benefits derived from unequal structures — for erstwhile "allies," for example, this can be deeply painful, since they see themselves as part of a "good people" category, something that I can attest to on a very personal level. If we truly embrace a fundamental commitment to human equality and genuine inclusiveness, this means in part recognizing that policies that lead to unequal results must themselves be skewed and need to be seriously and critically reviewed and — perhaps — deeply altered on a fundamental level.
Timidly "asking" instructors to think about vague "curricular changes" is not going to get this done. We need to talk about the tenure process; standards for promotion, evaluation and advancement and institutional transparency when it comes to the faculty structures and policies so central to our institution. Similarly, we need to ask serious questions about the kind of approaches toward evaluation of prospective students and applicants that may be inhibiting our creation of a truly diverse and inclusive campus climate and student body.
With regard to the working group Ayers proposed, what is the intention behind it? And will it truly include the kind of people who would be willing and insistent about asking the most difficult questions? There is no question that many people on this campus are afraid to do that — you don't see a lot of protests around campus, do you? There are some who are reckless enough to keep asking these hard questions and demanding answers. As a community, we should find those people and give them a forum to focus on the future of our community.
If the university leadership really hopes to begin the process of restoring lost credibility and inculcating real confidence among the many members of the Richmond community who have been deeply shaken, hurt, frightened and angered — angered especially, but by no means exclusively in this past academic year — let's begin with an opportunity for dialogue on these and other questions. Let's get leading figures from the administration to hold an open forum where there are no holds barred, no questions forbidden. Let's do this now, before the end of the semester. If the President's Office is truly committed to an inclusive campus, it can get this done if it wants to. It is getting lots of events done for the inauguration, and I will be reckless enough to say that we are now facing something much more vital and important to our identity as a community than the symbolic inauguration of a new administration. I know we in the Chaplaincy are ready to assist in whatever way we can, and to do as much of the work as needed to make this happen. It is in their court now — but it is also in your court, as students, staff, and faculty.
How are you going to respond?
Do you think it is time for answers and action?