The second wave of Black Lives Matter protests began in spring 2020 in response to the police killing of George Floyd. One result of these protests is a broad anti-racist movement, where individuals, corporations, and institutions are being pressured to come to terms with both their implicit and explicit racial biases. The University, which has historically been praised for its liberalism and activism, released statements about steps it plans to take in order to address the University’s racist history and encourage anti-racist practices throughout the institution, including in academics.
One clear issue in academia is diversity of faculty. According to the 2019-2020 Common Data Set from the Office of Institutional Research, only 22% of the University’s instructional faculty are people of color.
In a statement released this July, the administration explains that one measure the University is taking to work towards anti-racism is hiring more faculty of color. The statement by Provost Nicole Stanton and President Michael Roth ’78 says that at least half of all hires over the next three years will “contribute to the diversity of the faculty.”
Ujamaa Events Coordinator Arnaud Gerlus ’22 argues that there should be a specific focus on hiring Black professors in particular, not broadly professors of color. According to University data, as of fall 2019, 8.6% of the faculty identify as Asian, 5.6% identify as Black or African American, and 4.2% identify as Hispanic, which includes those who are Black and Latinx. In comparison, the national population is 5.9% Asian, 13.4% Black or African American, and 18.5% Hispanic or Latinx.
“The very first point of [the administration’s new] hiring initiatives is that they’re going to engage in hiring practices that are gonna contribute to the diversity of the faculty…[but] not all teachers of color are underrepresented,” Gerlus said. “Black professors, Black teachers are underrepresented and undervalued, and that shows in the current Wesleyan faculty and professors, and especially those who are tenured…. It is specifically Black professors who are underrepresented, not broadly professors of color.”
One of the co-planners of the So You Care About Black Lives? event, Alphina Kamara ’22, believes that the statement about hiring initiatives was purposely vague.
“I think it’s intentional for these things to be quite vague because, of course, the institution doesn’t want to have liability on that and I also wonder if they [actually] care to make that institutional change,” Kamara said. “I think if we want to tackle [the lack of Black faculty], we need to tackle tenure…. There are so many white professors here and we’re just waiting for them to die, quite frankly…to allow Black people to have the space to be in here, but that’s not gonna work. That’s not gonna lead to substantial immediate change, so we need to realize how do we add Black staff and give Black staff tenure?”
Ujamaa Social Justice Coordinator Langston Morrison ’21 and Communications Liaison Alice Swan ’21 agree that Black professors are underrepresented, especially within certain departments.
“I think for certain majors, even the addition of one [Black professor] would say a lot,” Morrison said. “I’m in the College of Letters major, and I’m the only Black student…. There’s no Black faculty as well.”
Swan agrees and argues that it is especially important to hire more Black faculty to teach subjects about Black issues.
“Even, for example, the AFAM [African American] studies department, it’s still mostly white,” Swan said. “I think, to be honest, it should be mostly Black, because it’s African American studies.”
Ujamaa Communications Liaison Brianna Mebane ’22 believes that better representation within the faculty would create a better learning environment for Black students.
“I feel like any student who comes after me or any student who’s working with me would benefit so much more when we learn from and interact with people who look like us,” Mebane said.
But focusing on faculty diversity alone is not enough. Science in Society Program Chair Professor Anthony Hatch argues that there needs to be a cultural change within the University.
“It’s not just enough to put more folks in the room,” Hatch said. “We’re talking about really cultivating excellence around your faculty and using diversity in a way to think about excellence instead of checking a box or quota. It’s not just about the bodies, but it’s also about the broader systems, the cultural systems, and the broader thought systems that are reproduced in the university.”
In addition to increasing diversity among the faculty, the University plans to further develop academic programs that create a space to foster research and learning about racial equity and anti-racism. Stanton has received several new academic proposals from students and faculty, including some for a racial equity center (which could be similar to the Albritton Center or the Center for African American Studies), a new course cluster, and a fourth general education expectation on diversity. The course cluster and additional general education expectation had both been discussed by the WSA in 2017.
“We’re soliciting proposals from faculty for curricular initiatives that center the experience of people of color and those [who are] historically marginalized on Wesleyan’s campus with an aim to fund four over the next four years, so roughly one a year,” Stanton said. “And [the] ideas are institutes, centers, colleges, new graduate programs, things like that.”
Additionally, departments are currently undergoing curriculum changes to already existing classes. The Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Alison Williams ’81 said the curriculum criteria are completely up to departments. The Office of Equity Inclusion is there to supervise and assist where needed.
“Initially, we’re looking for the departments to do that [curriculum] review and then we will meet with the departments to look at what they provided,” Williams said. “So we are doing a sort of a diversity audit…and then we’ll work with [the departments]…if there are shortcomings and areas of deficit to improve those areas.”
WSA Academic Affairs Committee Chair Ben Garfield ’22 believes it is unlikely that there will be any kind of mandated changes for professors to make to their class curricula. Garfield says that typically the Educational Policy Committee, and the faculty as a whole, would not vote for such an initiative and have not done so in the past.
“If you end up looking deep into the academic regulations…you will find that there are very few instances where faculty are told they have to do anything,” Garfield said. “For instance, they are not told that they have to have a syllabus. They are not told, you know, they have to teach a certain number of hours in the class.”
One department that has been encouraging changes to class curricula is the Department of Film Studies. This is in response to an open letter written by film majors in June who outline racial issues within the department and demand changes. Film Studies Department Chair Scott Higgins said that the department has been undergoing a number of changes in response to the letter.
“We got the letter last summer and it kind of kicked off some really important conversations for us rethinking how we teach and what we teach,” Higgins said in an interview with The Argus. “We had a chance to talk to the letter writers and get their…firsthand experiences and it has been, it’s cliché, but it has been like a reckoning for us just coming to terms with where we are and how we can do better.”
Higgins said that the department is also undergoing curriculum reviews.
“It’s a long-term project,” Higgins said. “We’re going through every syllabus and looking at every film and asking, why are we showing it? Sometimes we’re just showing films because we’ve always shown them.”
The department is also undergoing an equity review by a private firm.
“They’ve talked to everybody in the department [and] they’re putting together a plan of training that we can do just to make sure we’re doing things right, and we’re not because I think we’re all nervous…. But there is that kind of…fear [that] maybe we shouldn’t say anything because we’ll get it wrong, and that’s called complacency and that’s what causes the problem,” Higgins said.
But these curriculum reviews and changes are still a work in progress. That’s why during the summer many professors took it upon themselves, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and student demands, to make changes to their syllabi on their own.
Assistant Professor of Government Nina Hagel said that she has not felt any pressure from the Government Department to make curriculum changes, but that her colleagues had been talking about ways to incorporate more discussions of racial issues into their classes.
“I haven’t felt pressure from higher up in the department,” Hagel said. “I don’t think [this is] a coordinated or concerted change, but…it’s something that we [all] talk about, even though there isn’t necessarily pressure.”
Hagel added more readings to her “Political Freedom” class by Black authors, such as Malcolm X, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks, early in her class to allow students to have the necessary material to discuss the intersectionality of capitalism and other forms of oppression during the rest of the semester.
In his “Philosophy and the Movies” class, President Michael Roth ’78 added readings by Black authors, such as Frantz Fanon, and films such as “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and “Paris is Burning.” “Paris is Burning” is a documentary that sparked controversy because of its portrayal of the New York City ballroom subculture of the ’80s and ’90s which featured drag queens and queer people of color, both groups that the white female director, Jennie Livingston, does not identify with.
“‘Paris is Burning’ is a problematic film, but the way in which it is problematic, raises issues for the course,” Roth said in an interview with The Argus.
Roth also pushed back against the notion that he should not speak about issues within communities that are not his own.
“People have said to me, because I have a unit in that class on gender, violence, and sexuality…‘how can you, a cis white man, do that?’” Roth said. “I think [that], not like someone else might do it, but I can do it from my perspective…I think if I just avoid those subjects because of my privileged position, I would just be reinforcing my privileged position.”
Professor of Religion Peter Gottschalk added Malcolm X’s autobiography to his “Religions Resisting Modernity” First-Year Seminar this summer. He said that his students enjoyed this addition, especially given how relevant it was to the Black Lives Matter protests that were going on at the same time.
“It definitely worked very well and students were really engaged with it…and they saw some very obvious connections with what’s going on now,” Gottschalk said in an interview with The Argus. “I think some students were depressed that we’re still talking about these things [almost 60 years later].”
Gottschalk is also working on incorporating similar discussions about race into his “Islam & Muslim Cultures” course this fall by incorporating a reading of “Islam and the Blackamerican,” and is hoping that the book’s author, Sherman Jackson, will accept his invitation to speak to the class.
These curriculum changes are not limited to arts, humanities, and social sciences. Natural science and math professors have been coming up with ways to creatively incorporate discussions about race into their classes. Associate Professor Erika Taylor, who co-wrote the NSM anti-racism pledge, created a “Racism in Science” PowerPoint to teach her lab students about racial injustices both in and out of scientific fields.
“I was thinking if I’m going to be speaking to, you know, predominantly white people, because this is a predominantly white space, I need to remind everybody including myself that there’s just a lot of work to do,” Taylor said in an interview with The Argus.
Taylor said that throughout her career, especially in her time as faculty director of the McNair Program, which works to help students from under-represented groups succeed in post-graduate education, Black students have spoken to her about issues they have faced, such as being pulled over for “driving while black” or having professors touch their hair.
“I hope that…my students shared those stories with me because they could tell that I would listen,” Taylor said.
Overall, progress has been made by individual professors this semester, but the changes being made by the administration will take more time to implement. Many are skeptical about whether these anti-racist practices will continue after they are no longer “trendy.”
“[The University’s anti-racism statement] was at the surface,” Swan said. “It wasn’t that detailed, it didn’t outline actual action items, but more so goals—it didn’t seem fully fleshed out to us, and it seemed kind of performative.”
Kamara is unsure whether the University’s efforts are genuine or performative.
“These initiatives always get brought up right now in the heat of the fact that we’re having this social unrest,” Kamara said. “I hope that the administration did and does more. I know they’re talking to students, but we all know that a lot of it is masked with just hearing us out for the [sake] of hearing us out, but the institution has a lot more to do in terms of systematic stuff.”
Ujamaa Social Justice Coordinator Jade Tate ’22 hopes that the University thinks deeply about what changes they are making.
“I think the question that we really want [the] administration to constantly ask themselves is one, why are we doing all this now, in response to things that have always been going on?” Tate said. “And two, how can we be genuine with what we do, because we’re saying that we’re anti-racist now, so stick with it.”
Garfield is concerned that there is little direct incentive for department chairs to make changes, because if they are tenured, there is little at stake for them if they choose not to.
“Maybe you’re going to get some departments that are going to [make a lot of changes], maybe that are led by people of color, where the chair is going to be really on it,” Garfield said. “But I would not be optimistic about those things. They just are not necessarily always on top of those things. And, you know, they don’t have to be. They don’t feel that there’s any reason for them to be, and they have their jobs as long as they want their jobs, you know?”
Professor Hatch offered a more sociologically based skepticism.
“[Any university’s] game is to uphold [the] liberal tradition, so I think that diversifying thought systems in ways that are consistent with social movements of various kinds around the world: people’s movements for liberation, education, health [etc.,]…those two things haven’t always been consistent,” Hatch said.
Roth believes that large changes are necessary to make the University a more inclusive space, but that within the historical context of the country, it’s unlikely that can be achieved any time soon.
“We have to do a good job, a better job, of helping all our students, including Black students, feel included without asking them to form themselves into the white institution,” Roth said. “You know, we have to become a different kind of institution. But we’re in America at a time of intense racist activity and that just puts a lot of pressure on people that we have to be both sensitive to [these issues], but not think we can cure [them] at Wesleyan. You know, we’re still in America.”
Olivia Ramseur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.