I am reflecting on a powerful moment from a meeting this week during which Sen. Art Haywood shined a bright light on the persisting issues of racism, inequity, and intolerance that continue to plague society and persist within institutions of higher education. The Senator and I have spoken since then, and I expressed my appreciation for his leadership and for his commitment in our shared interest to give voice and agency to those who are marginalized.
The stories he shared from students and others at our universities are real and they are painful to hear. I know this because I have heard them too while meeting with our students, as I do quite frequently. And those stories must be heard and honored if real change is to occur.
Racism is systemic and has been on this continent for more than 400 years. Its impacts ebb and flow, but are always present in our society. It shows up everywhere, including in the universities and colleges across this nation – including in the universities here at home.
But the universities of this State System—our faculty, staff, students, Board of Governors, trustees, and presidents—do not and will not accept this status quo. All of our universities are applying themselves diligently to the task and making strides to close opportunity gaps that persist between Black, Brown, and White students. They are also building culturally inclusive and tolerant communities while diversifying our employee base and student bodies, ensuring they reflect the composition of the people of this Commonwealth.
Do we have work to do? Yes we do. And we are on it. I am proud of the accomplishments that we have made and of the commitment that we collectively bring to addressing egregious injustices, which have persisted too long in our country. On this issue we shall not rest.
The Senator’s good point that these issues must be fully enmeshed within our System Redesign efforts is the exact reason we hired a Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer—understanding that while such a herculean task cannot be the sole responsibility of one person (we ALL share this responsibility), I am convinced that having a point-person to drive these efforts is critically important. Each of our universities has gone down this path; they all have Chief Diversity Officers acting at-point for university-based efforts that are well underway and in many cases have been for some years.
Indeed, while I am moved by the stories we’ve heard, I am also encouraged by the efforts our universities are making to address the underlying issues and the real progress they are showing in student persistence, for example, and in educating students about issues and impacts having to with race, hate, and forms of hurtful speech.
Working together, not only can we change hearts and minds, but we can change laws and institutions to eradicate any remaining vestiges of systemic racism and inequity that may still persist.