Sunday, April 10, 2016

Racism at SIUC

A black woman student at SIUC posted a powerful video listing multiple examples of racist language on campus, above all in several open forums for students who support Donald Trump.  "Go back to Africa" and the N-word were among the things she reported being said by students at that forum. She made a good effort to distinguish between legitimate political speech and speech she felt questioned her right to be on this campus. Her language was vernacular and profane--she was aiming this video not at "polite society" but at people on Facebook, particularly black students on other majority white campuses. She closed with a positive message calling on such students to stand their ground and get the education they need despite the obstacles. Without being there, one can't sure sure she accurately characterized everything that took place, but I think we ought to be proud of having a student with the courage to speak up, and the ability to powerfully articulate challenges facing black students on this campus.

A brief follow-up story in today's Southern attempts to get at the other side of the story, getting some quotes from the "CEO" of the Alpa Tau Omega fraternity, which sponsored the event. The ATO leader, however, appears first to use the "bad apple" defense, and then to make more blanket denials that anyone in the fraternity used racist language. (It would however be unfair to judge his position solely from the reporting there--the follow-up article in the Southern is not very impressive.) Friday's DE has some links to reactions to the video in social media, and links to some thoughtful commentary from a GA who has taught the student in question. Comment streams to relevant stories in the Southern are revealing, and not always in very flattering ways, about local attitudes towards these issues.

Chancellor Colwell has sent out two careful emails on this topic. The first can be found here; the second is pasted after the break. Also after the break, some context from other campuses, and a reaction to the Chancellor's words about hiring practices, an area where I have rather more relevant experience than regarding the larger issues of race relations and free speech.

As Colwell notes, ours is not an isolated problem. Leaders of the University of Missouri were forced to resign last fall  due to their failure to successfully respond  to protests on the Columbia campus about racism. That crisis got big news because the football team got involved, a nice example of the oversized import of athletics on college campuses. But similar protests, and a backlash against them, have been reported on other campuses. Here's a thorough, thoughtful piece from Inside Higher Ed on this controversy last fall. In the interim, the GOP primary campaign certainly hasn't helped matters:  "Trump" has come to be used as a taunt directed at minority students at high schools and universities.

SIU has nothing like a "campus speech code", and it is a good thing that we do not. But this doesn't mean that we shouldn't be calling out hateful, racist language where we see or hear it. Colwell's email seems to me to strike a reasonable balance between protecting freedom of speech and going after threatening speech and harassment (though the latter term will be more difficult to define). With any luck, SIU might be able to weather this storm without administrative deafness to the issue becoming a lead story.

Colwell is also calling for more robust efforts to promote diverse hiring at SIUC. 
They include mandatory training for members of search committees, the development of a campus diversity plan that includes all campus constituencies, the establishment of an advisory diversity council, and a commitment to conducting national searches for open, senior-level administrative positions.
I support Affirmative Action. The SIU faculty and administration are not as diverse as they should be. It is unfortunate that Chancellor Colwell is himself the result not of an open, national search, but the old boys network, though he was hired after a failed search, and at a time the campus had gone far too long without a full-time chancellor. Our current upper administration is not diverse at all--particularly not in ways that would reflect the population of Illinois. A glance at the Institutional Research "Quick Facts" shows that less than 7% of our overall faculty and staff are black (and only 5.5% of faculty); almost 19% of our undergraduates are black.

I think it is also fair to say that the Affirmative Action policies and procedures on this campus require an overhaul. I don't claim to understand all the legal issues here, much less to have an unfailing grasps of the moral principles involved. But I've been on a number of hiring committees at SIUC, all staffed largely by faculty who believe making diverse hires, yet almost all of whom regard existing AA procedures as more a matter of administrative CYA than a genuine effort to promote diversity in hiring. All agree the current procedure takes too much time--a precious commodity in a competitive job market, where the best candidates are snapped up quickly. In my experience this attitude is pervasive not only among faculty on committees but with administrators; this includes my (limited) experience with the AA office staff themselves, who defend their policies more as bureaucratic requirements than as a value-driven set of policies to promote diversity on campus. If committees do make diversity a priority, they do it more despite of the AA office than in cooperation with the AA office.

To my mind the central problem is that hiring committees are not expected to or even allowed to be part of the AA process, save by rote adherence to AA office rules. So we are supposed to be blind to the diversity of our candidate pools, up to the moment when we submit lists of candidates to be interviewed, at which point there is sudden scrutiny of any pool that doesn't resemble the proverbial Benetton ad. Only at that point are we told to  justify why we aren't interviewing certain candidates, whose minority status we may not even have been aware of up to that point.

Sometimes these requests make sense. I know of one search committee on campus that produced a lily-white pool from an almost entirely white list of applicants. The AA office asked the committee to consider one of the few minority candidates in the pool, who was qualified but had fewer publications than any on the interview list. The committee acquiesced and were glad they did so. The minority candidate did not ultimately get the job, but finished a close second after the interview process, out-performing several others on the original list; and it was entirely possible that the minority candidate could have landed the job, had the top-ranked candidate taken a job elsewhere.

Another search committee I know of produced an interview pool that was entirely made up of minority candidates, not surprising given the pool of candidates (itself driven by the nature of the discipline involved). The committee was shocked to be told to consider adding a white male to their interview pool. There was some back and forth between the committee and the AA office; in the end the committee acquiesced, but in the time lost through the AA process several highly qualified minority candidates had removed themselves from consideration. The AA office's intervention resulted in the committee having a less qualified set of candidates, with the only advantage being to consider a white male in a unit that already had plenty of white males, like most on campus.

I do not mean to claim that search committees should just be left to do their own business without any formal policy to promote diverse hires. Diversity is a campus wide issue; committees tend to focus more narrowly on disciplinary qualifications. I actually think the AA process should be more pervasive. My view is that hiring committees should be actively encouraged to consider the relevant sorts of diversity (those necessary to make our staff more akin to our student body, and the population of the state). They should be asked to openly consider diversity as a qualification for hires, alongside disciplinary qualifications. If legally allowed, identification information shared by candidates should be shared with committees, so that they are aware of which candidates in their pools are diverse.

At any rate, our current half-truths and bureaucratic shuffling, with their combination of color-blind committees and diversity sensitive central administrative oversight, aren't working. Late involvement by the AA office, which asks committees to change their minds after they have made hard choices to select interview pools,  breeds resentment and resistance among faculty--reducing support for affirmative action. I would hope that there would be a way to expect hiring committees to seek diverse candidates—and then accord them a modicum of trust once they submit an interview pool for consideration.

We can do better. I hope the training Chancellor Colwell calls for isn't just a matter of teaching committees how to fill out the AA paperwork, but part of a real effort to reform our current system.

Here's Chancellor Colwell's email.

Students, Faculty and Staff:

The reported incident involving racial issues in a campus residence hall has brought into sharp focus the need for us to have a critically important conversation about race and inclusivity on our campus. This is a conversation that is happening on campuses across the country, because the issues we face are not isolated to SIU. We must all be concerned when we have members of our campus community who indicate that they do not feel welcome.

Regarding the incident itself, you should know that we are taking it seriously but cannot provide the details many are asking for due to privacy issues associated with the individuals involved. You should not assume that silence is inaction, but that we are moving as quickly as possible based on the verifiable information we are able to gather, assess and respond to appropriately. We must be measured, and we must be fair.

Meanwhile, I strongly repeat that acts or statements that retaliate against, threaten or intimidate others are unacceptable and do not align with our university's core values. If you feel threatened or at risk, please contact campus police at 911 immediately. You can find more about campus safety at

I remind the community that even speech that we consider inappropriate or hateful is protected by law; when speech or actions become threatening, we urge you to report it so we can take appropriate action. Regardless, I urge every member of our community to be respectful of others in their words and deeds. That is our shared responsibility.

I add that SIU’s discrimination policy states that “all students, faculty, staff, and guests should be able to enjoy and work in an educational environment free from discrimination, and harassment.” If you believe this policy has been violated, please contact the Office of Diversity and Equity, 618-453-1186,

Regarding the larger issue of campus climate, we have done a lot but clearly have much more to do. As noted yesterday, we have seen great success with the diversity dialogues in the residence halls and are working to expand those in other formats and venues. As noted earlier, I have asked staff in the Center for Inclusive Excellence and the Office of Diversity and Equity to develop a plan to expand and promote conversations and workshops that focus on the importance of valuing and respecting diversity. Your participation is strongly encouraged. 

Further, I think it is important that we assess the climate of our campus so that we can identify areas we could improve and strengths we need to build upon. To that end, I have asked the Office of Diversity and Equity to conduct a campus climate survey in the fall.

Recently, I met with members of the Black Faculty and Staff Council for a frank conversation about a number of topics, and I am grateful for their ideas. We are moving forward on a number of initiatives as quickly as possible. They include mandatory training for members of search committees, the development of a campus diversity plan that includes all campus constituencies, the establishment of an advisory diversity council, and a commitment to conducting national searches for open, senior-level administrative positions. There were a number of other ideas that we will continue to explore, as well.

We have work to do as a campus and community. I urge everyone to be a part of this important conversation – a conversation that requires listening as well as contributing, respect and civility, and a commitment to fulfilling our historic mission as a university committed to diversity and inclusion.


Brad Colwell
Interim Chancellor


  1. A foul-mouthed hysterical inflammatory rant doing a disservice to the student as well as her ethnicity gets not only a high profile but knee-jerk response. By contrast, another FB rant by a once-appointed UIUC Professor leads to the person being fired. Where is the evidence for such inflammatory accusations that should not have even been given credibility let alone attention when no real evidence is cited except foul-mouthed hysteria? It is time that this campus began to engage in real diversity, one involving intelligent conversation and citations given concerning supposed incidents either visually or recorded statements investigated by campus police rather than reactions motivated by the numbers issue. The whole incident and its effects have done a disservice to the entire campus that should be an integrated community rather than one geared towards pandering to special interests who make allegations without providing the necessary evidence. Again, a difference exists between the world outside and campuses regarding themselves as above the law, especially concerning documented proof of the allegations made.

  2. Salaita shouldn't have been fired by the University of Illinois thanks to his intemperate tweets--I'm with you on that. Otherwise, not so much.

    There's a distinction between saying "mother fucker", particularly when it's directed at no one in particular, and saying "those niggers should go back to Africa".

    I think one should be allowed, indeed encouraged, to raise one's voice about racist speech, even if one didn't happen to film it or record it. Let the investigation show whether the racist remarks alleged were actually said--of course. Let the investigation show whether this student was actually threatened or harassed. Punishment is merited only the the latter case, but condemnation and education are called for in the former as well. There were no doubt plenty of witnesses.

    An investigation isn't a knee-jerk reaction. Dismissing a complaint because it includes profanity is a knee-jerk reaction. Dismissing an allegation of racist speech because it doesn't include video or audio evidence is a knee-jerk reaction.

    Requiring that allegations be based on ironclad documentation to be heard would bring the criminal justice system to a halt. If you can't say why ironclad documentation is required of a black woman student alleging racism, though you wouldn't require it in other cases, then saying you've had a 'knee jerk reaction' is a very polite, indeed euphemistic way of characterizing your response.

    [I promised to post comments, including critical ones. This one didn't qualify as vile in any of these sense I had in mind, but that didn't prevent me, obviously, from saying exactly what I thought of it. I didn't promise to be nice to commentators. I hope that there is some educational value in attempting to articulate why this sort of comment is so odious.]

  3. How do you know anyone ever said that comment involving the N word? There is no evidence whatsoever and hysterical, undocumented rants do not qualify as evidence in any court of law.Again the accuser should provide reliable evidence. There is none in this case and support comes from politically correct liberal reaction wishing to appease a certain element on campus no matter how much their behavior is offensive designed to incite racial hatred nor involves any legal standards outside the university. It is time that universities are brought to heel and answerable to legal requirements outside their domains. Anything else is appeasement.

    1. Oh, that remark was concocted, but the students said that both "go back to Africa" and the "N-word" were used. I thought combining the two would result in a nice, pithy example. That's what the words within the quotation marks were, examples of profane but not offensive and offensive speech, by my book--not citations of a transcript from the meeting, which I of course don't have.

      I also still consider eye-witness testimony evidence, and do not believe that qualifies as appeasement.

  4. This depends on who are (is?) the eye witness and whether the incidents were verified 100 with full documentation.


I will review and post comments as quickly as I can. Comments that are substantive and not vicious will be posted promptly, including critical ones. "Substantive" here means that your comment needs to be more than a simple expression of approval or disapproval. "Vicious" refers to personal attacks, vile rhetoric, and anything else I end up deeming too nasty to post.