Dear Campus Community:
Last week, I sent out a statement to the Denison community in response to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. I received a wide range of responses from members of our community. I want to thank those who wrote emails, and those who took the time to share their own personal reflections as well as their honest critiques of the challenges and opportunities we face as a campus and community. I especially want to thank current and former Black students who shared their personal experiences and ideas for moving the college forward.
We are living through an important historical moment. I share with others the conviction that change is long overdue in dismantling structures of oppression. Educational institutions have a particular role to play in this moment. In my conversations with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and others, I have been moved to reconsider Denison’s work through the lens of antiracism.
Members of our community are calling on Denison to be a college where it is not enough to be an ally. Rather we want members of our community to step forthrightly into the work of opposing the multiple dimensions of racism that Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color face every day in every aspect of their lives.
We have two choices: either we are complicit in permitting racism to persist or we are proactively working to dismantle it and construct a different world. The latter category is where we stand as a college.
The concept of antiracism is powerful and important. It calls for constant reflection, critique and action, especially thinking consciously about the interactions we have with others and ultimately leads to action that affects not only the dignity of our relationships, but structural changes that address systems of power and inequality.
We must commit to being a campus community that is dedicated to antiracism as a reflection of our history and values and mission as a liberal arts college.
Today, the senior administrative team and I are committing Denison to being a campus community that is dedicated to antiracism.
Building on a Foundation: In crucial historical moments of social change, Denison has stepped into public spaces that tangibly demonstrated our commitment to the role a liberal arts college could play in equality and justice work. For example: in 1970, Denison was one of the first colleges in the country to have both a Black Student Union and a Black Studies Department.
In 2001, Denison committed to becoming a more diverse college and faculty, staff, students, administrators, alumni, and others set to the work of making Denison more diverse in its faculty and staff, its student body, and its curricular and cocurricular offerings. This led to the development of close relationships with more than a dozen mentoring organizations, through which we now recruit a student body in which 38% of students are from non-white backgrounds (20% domestic students of color and 18% international students). Over the last decade 40% of our faculty hires have brought much needed diversity to the college. And we have added staff and programmatic resources in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, the Office of Gender and Sexuality, the Open House, and International Student Services. All of this made the college stronger.
In 2015, students drew our attention to financial hurdles arising from economic differences across our student body, which disproportionately affected students of color. We responded by becoming one of the few colleges in the country that meets the full demonstrated financial aid need of every student we accept. We doubled the amount of need-based financial aid awarded each year from $21 million to $42 million and created The Red Thread Grants to support non-educational expenses, including for medical costs and wellness support; and opened a Food Pantry on campus.
Despite this long and multifaceted history to respond to difference, inequities, and inequality by Denisonians, this work has not been enough to create a culture free from racism and to pre-empt the painful experiences and stories we hear from Black students, faculty and staff and other people of color on our campus.
If we want to advance in this historical moment, we need to take actions informed by a paradigm that seeks actions that are different and that take us in a new direction. We need a new conversation and set of goals.
To start this work, the senior team and I are committing to the following:
Creating an antiracism team at Denison to lead our efforts: This university task force will be comprised of students, faculty, staff and administrators to identify short- and long-term actions Denison will take to fully realize this work. Dr. Alex Miller, who is joining Denison as our next Vice President of Student Development, will lead this group and will report directly to me and to the Board of Trustees. Many good ideas have been raised by students and other members of the campus community, including examining how we use and who controls campus spaces, replacing student loans with grants, and doing more privilege and bias training for members of our community. All of these ideas and others will be considered by this team of students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Dr. Miller has already started talking to students and will continue this work over the summer. He will present a plan with actions, goals and metrics by the end of the first semester.
While the work of the antiracism team is important, I don’t want to wait until their report and action plan is articulated. To get us started, every member of the senior team (this includes the Provost and all of the Vice Presidents) will inventory their current work, to reimagine that work through the lens of anti-racist values, and to specify actions they and their division can take as we go into next year. We will do that work by August 17 and share these with the campus community.
Creating a campus culture of antiracism. So many of the painful stories I hear from Black students and other students of color revolve around experiences in residential halls, exclusion from parties, and being bypassed when it comes time to form groups in classes or ignored when being passed on campus walkways. None of this is acceptable. It is not in keeping with our values. It is not the Denison we aspire to be.
It was heartening to see that a wide range of students signed a petition to address racial issues at Denison. Too often, this work primarily falls on Black students, cross-cultural organizations (C3), and other students of color. It is not the responsibility of our Black students, faculty and staff to teach us about racism and how to solve it.
We all need to come back to campus ready to do our part.
We will engage every student organization, Greek organization, residential hall and athletic team in a process to identify what these communities, individually and collectively, will proactively do differently this year to improve our campus community.
- Athletics: Athletic Director and varsity coaches will convene teams either over the summer or late August to talk about antiracism and to make commitments on ways our teams and athletes can play a leadership role in change.
- Greek Community: CLIC will convene and work with leaders of our fraternity and sorority system and make commitments by September 15.
- Student Organizations: CLIC will work with every student organization to do the same.
- Residential Halls: Our residential education staff will work with CAs and students to ensure we have plans for our residential halls.
I know there will be some who will say we are asking people to think a certain way, so I want to be clear: we value and will always defend the intellectual and political diversity of our community. What we are asking is different. We are asking every member of our community to treat one other with respect and to work to make ours a campus where no one experiences racism. We can have a wide range of political and intellectual views on campus while also all working together to rid the campus of racism. If you make the decision to come to Denison you have to want to be in a diverse college community where people are eager to listen to, hear and learn from one other. And you must be excited to be part of a community where difference is valued and embraced and where the expectation is that we treat every member of our community with respect regardless of their social identity.
Working with academic departments to focus on classrooms and the academic experience. The Provost and Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion will work with faculty and academic departments on two areas. First, to address dynamics of exclusion that occur in classrooms and that too often spill into campus life after hours. Second, to engage our faculty as full partners in the work of antiracism. Faculty play a unique role as educators. We need new partnerships and collaborations across the campus and in the larger community that help us realize our institutional commitment to antiracism. In particular, we need to utilize the intellectual expertise of faculty who have specialization in issues of power, privilege, inequity and injustice.
Reimagining the First-Year Experience. Just prior to COVID, we started the process of reimagining our First-Year program. This includes everything from orientation (June O and Aug O) to residential halls, Advising Circles and so forth. Dean of First-Year Students will review our current programing and provide recommendations on how we can help those joining our community understand our values and give them the skills to act on them. He will share a draft plan by the end of the fall semester so we can implement any changes for next year’s incoming class.
Revamping our training and onboarding of new staff and ongoing training of current staff. Our Director of Human Resources will identify outside experts to conduct an audit of our current programing and help us make improvements to train all of our staff on what it means to work on a college campus like ours and what we expect from one other. HR will have a new staff orientation program ready by the start of the second semester.
Developing deeper relationships with the Black Student Union, Black Caucus, and Black Alumni Association. Each of these organizations have an important role to play at Denison. As we do the work above, the senior administrative team and I will spend more time with each of these organizations to make sure the lines of communication are open and the work we are doing is having an impact. I will start that work this summer.
Building and investing in new kinds of partnerships with Black organizations in Columbus. We are fortunate to be part of the greater Columbus region and we will form new partnerships with and support more Black organizations in Columbus. My chief-of-staff will take on this responsibility.
A final comment. This is a new historical moment that requires different language, conversations and actions. It requires us to work on dismantling systems, structures, and biases in order to eliminate the racism that Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color face every day.
I look forward to advancing the work together. I am committed to doing this work. I can only do it effectively if every member of our community steps into this space. Please join me.