USA faculty of color pen open letter to President, Board of Trustees after racially insensitive photos

News 5 Investigates

MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — Nearly 275 University of South Alabama faculty members of color signed an open letter to President Tony Waldrop and the Board of Trustees following our News 5 Investigation into racially insensitive photos that resurfaced of three professors from a 2014 on-campus Halloween Party.

Faculty members want a call to action put in place, including a change in university structures that promote race and sex and a 10-year plan for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion that is accompanied by a significant and increasing financial commitment from the university.

Following our investigation earlier this month, the three professors involved were placed on administrative leave pending an investigation with an outside attorney.

The open letter is below:

March 22, 2021

Dear President Waldrop, Board of Trustees, and members of the University of South Alabama community,

We are writing as a group of faculty members of color who are committed to anti-racism at the University of South Alabama. The university has identified the following values as core to its mission: Diversity and a Global Perspective; Excellence; Freedom in the Pursuit of Knowledge; Integrity; and Transparency and Participation in Decision-Making.

We believe that the university has violated these core values in the recently exposed events in which three faculty members in the Mitchell College of Business attended a college event with symbols of White supremacy. These symbols are toxic to diversity, equity, and inclusion; have no place in excellence; and violate students’ rights to a safe environment in their pursuit of knowledge. The university administration’s failure to address the problem and to clearly communicate with the university community upon first learning about the situation demonstrates a lack of integrity, transparency, and participation in decision-making. Most concerningly, we believe that this makes the university complicit in the actions of those individual faculty members.

These are our thoughts about the problem and our call to action.

Problems Related to the Situation

We recognize that the originating event took place almost seven years ago, and that some people may find our concerns irrelevant. In the U.S., in Alabama, and in the city of Mobile, there is a long history of race-based violence perpetrated against Black people by White people. This includes serving as a port to receive ships of enslaved Black people and legislating oppression during Jim Crow. During these times, Black people did not have the legal right to protect their bodies from White people. During these times, the whip and the noose were used by White people to oppress, terrorize, and maintain an order of White supremacy. These times are not ancient history. The last documented lynching in the United States took place in Mobile, Alabama in 1981. Mobile also is the last port in the United States to receive kidnapped people from Africa. Because of these facts and multitudes of others, we as an institution have a moral responsibility to acknowledge and to repair these wrongs.

So then, what does it mean when tenured White faculty members at University of South Alabama pose with a Confederate uniform, a whip, and a noose, all of which evoke times when Black people were not safe and did not own or have the right to protect their own bodies?

We believe that the message these faculty members are sending to Black faculty, staff, and students is that they do not object to the era of White supremacy maintained by violence. In addition, these faculty members likely had an implicit assumption that there would be tolerance of this statement at a university event. By extension, Black students, faculty, and staff are forced to conclude that they are not safe in an environment where these behaviors are perpetrated and accepted by faculty and administration.

And what then does it mean when the university administration fails to respond with meaningful consequences for the perpetrators, conceals the events from the university community, and issues a belated apology, only after the events are released in local news?

We believe that the message the university administration is sending to faculty, staff, and students of color is that they would rather protect White tenured faculty than maintain campus safety; that there is no true commitment to a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment; and that they would prefer to compromise the university’s integrity than hold true to its stated values. The message that we have received is that the university does not protect its relationship with us, the people of color in the university community. Perhaps most importantly, we believe the university administration has sent a message that it is not committed to anti-racism and that it accepts the open display of White supremacy perpetrated by tenured White faculty.

The university’s belated apology for this message has been a performance to appease those who were offended.

Systemic and Underlying Problems

One clear danger is treating this event as an isolated racist incident. For example, the letter from the interim dean of the Mitchell College of Business argued that the college’s foundation was strong, and that this event was a “lapse” and a “mishap.”

This event is not an isolated one, but a symptom of a larger systemic problem of structural racism and discrimination on our campus. These practices privilege White men at the exclusion and victimization of others.

We call upon the university administration to take meaningful action to (a) respond in concrete ways to the specific incident of faculty members wearing symbols of White supremacy and the university’s concealment of the incident; (b) change the university structures that perpetuate inequalities by race and sex; and (c) invest to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our specific recommendations are in the subsequent call to action.

Call to Action

 Respond to the Specific Incident

  1. Conduct a transparent investigation of the three faculty members that includes their classroom conduct and interaction with students. The process must be clearly communicated to the university community in a timely way. Pending the results of a due process investigation, many consequences should be considered, including but not limited to remedial education, salary reductions, and termination. Remedial education could include taking full-semester college courses on race in America. The faculty members should be prepared to engage in restorative justice, which includes facing and answering to the people who were hurt and threatened by their behavior.
  2. Conduct a transparent investigation of university leadership that became complicit in supporting White supremacy by choosing to conceal the photographs and actions of the faculty members. There needs to be open investigation about who in leadership knew, when they knew, how they responded, what factors contributed to their decision-making, and what actions were taken prior to the news release. The results of this investigation must be disseminated to members of the university community.
  3. Issue a clear statement from university leadership that the university is anti-racist and that part of being anti-racist means calling out racist symbolism, speech, and actions. University policy must clearly state that interaction and use of racist symbols or symbols of oppression during university functions in a way that damages a safe educational environment is unacceptable. Expressions of racism or White supremacy is inconsistent with our values of creating an inclusive environment in which the inherent dignity of each person is upheld.

Change the University Structures that Perpetuate Inequalities by Race and Sex

  1. Institute term appointments for department chairs and college deans. The current system minimizes accountability and maintains the system currently in place; that is, mostly White men in positions of power and authority.
  2. Fund an interdisciplinary cluster hire across the university for positions specifically focused on Black or African American history, literature, art, education, business, health and well-being, and other relevant areas. This should specifically include a tenure-track position in African American history.
  3. Implement paid maternity leave; currently women who are pregnant and give birth have to either take disability or receive sick leave donations from their colleagues. The absence of maternity leave is based on the outdated, sexist structure in which only men had full-time employment outside of the home.
  4. Create a Racial Reconciliation Commission that will address the segregationist history, economic impact, and any predatory practices of University of South Alabama in its interaction with Black and Indigenous communities in the greater Mobile area. This commission will follow examples of other universities that are already leading this work.

Promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

  1. Ensure the next president of University of South Alabama has a proven track record of commitment to the university’s core values of Diversity, Integrity, and Transparency and Participation in Decision-Making. The commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion should be evidenced by financial decision-making, hiring practices, and effective messaging and communication.
  2. Add a general education requirement for courses with substantial emphasis on diversity and inclusion.
  3. Create a 10-year plan for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion that is accompanied by a significant and increasing financial commitment from the university. This plan can include the following:
  1. Allocate new funding for undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships for students of color that cover the full cost of attendance. A number of these should be set aside specifically for students in the Mitchell College of Business.
  2. Increase funding to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, perhaps changing the Chief Diversity Officer to a Vice President position.
  3. Provide support for professional development of faculty of color, including non-tenure-track faculty members, such as providing funds for continuing education and conference attendance and an institutional membership in the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development.

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