A Message from President Freeman: An Update on Confronting Racism and Advancing Change
August 12, 2020
Dear Students, Faculty and Staff,
Earlier this summer, I called upon our community to listen, learn, reflect and then act to change the systems that have disadvantaged and harmed our students, colleagues and friends who are Black or people of color. I heard from many of you who took the time to share honest, personal experiences and feelings, as well as ideas about the new measures needed to dismantle structures that perpetuate racism and inequity. Acknowledging the pain and tension caused by racism is important, but it’s not enough. As Huskies, whether within administration, the classroom or the student body, we must all take meaningful, lasting action to model the humanity and positive change we want to see in our nation.
As a university, we strive to live NIU’s commitment to social justice, equity and inclusivity. Those traits are woven throughout our mission, vision and values, and underpin the efforts to foster a welcoming university and go beyond to recognize, address and eradicate inequitable practices. Working together, we have laid a very strong and real foundation that will allow us to evolve into being a university that is anti-racist across all that we do.
Champions of social justice at NIU date back as many as 50 years ago, to the passionate and brave students, faculty and staff who used their voices to bring attention to racism and bias in academics, housing, resources and safety. Moreover, throughout my tenure at NIU, I have heard from alumni, faculty, staff and students about the need to reconsider systems and structures that are taken for granted by some, and that prevent the advancement and inclusion of others. These voices and perspectives have had a significant impact, helping us to recognize where we fall short, what we need to do to come together to make change and how to hold one another accountable. For example, their influence is visible in the work of the 2014 Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, the creation of our office of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ADEI), and the compelling leadership of our chief diversity officer.
Key to executing the most fundamental aspects of our mission has been identifying and removing barriers that disproportionately hinder the academic achievement and student experience of historically and currently underserved populations. Tangible examples include removing consideration of standardized test scores from the general admission and merit scholarship processes; closing gaps in degree attainment for low-income, first-generation, African American and Latinx students; developing a human diversity requirement for all students; and instituting trainings on cultural competency for staff and faculty, as well as implicit bias training for hiring committees.
Importantly, we’ve built accountability into institutional goals our strategic enrollment management plan, and the equity plan we have created as part of the Illinois Equity in Attainment initiative. Sustaining the success we’re seeing from each of these plans will require continued collaboration, embracing change and a commitment to NIU’s values at every level and division of the university.
Although this foundation is solid, I recognize that it’s incomplete. Systemic racism, insidious biases, privilege and marginalization are pervasive in our society and present at our university. Time has shown us that activism and recognition of these inequities do not automatically drive sustained change. Some needed actions have been talked about for years, but have been slow to materialize – so it’s clear that bolder, intentional action will be paramount to move us forward. This will require explicit support for social and racial justice from our university leadership and the larger university community.
Our Anti-Racist Future
This summer, we again witnessed how racism destroys lives. Our nation and our university cannot and should not deny what happens on a daily basis to those who are not white. What we can do is more closely examine and question our own practices, leverage the good work we’ve done and focus our talent, time and resources on changing the systems that will have the greatest impact. To get there, we need to become comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations that probe and challenge our ideas and beliefs.
NIU’s executive and academic leaders engaged Tuesday in a full-day retreat focused on the ways to move NIU forward using a more intentional, anti-racist approach to our work. We concentrated on four areas where many have suggested a need to review and revise our policies, practices, systems or structures:
- Hiring, retention and professional advancement of faculty researchers, scholars and artists who are Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). This included examining the standards, assumptions, priorities and processes used to evaluate faculty members’ contributions and accomplishments at critical stages of their careers.
- Hiring, retention and professional advancement of staff members who are BIPOC. This included identifying and removing barriers, and improving opportunities provided by NIU for leadership development and professional advancement.
- The experience of BIPOC undergraduate students – specifically the impact of disciplinary and regulatory practices and the allocation of resources (funding and space) to student groups and activities. This included identifying policies and practices that negatively impact students of color.
- The experience of NIU graduate students who are BIPOC, from the recruitment and admissions process through degree completion and career placement. This included addressing the unique role that graduate students play on campus as both instructors and students.
The candor and exchange of ideas we witnessed only reaffirmed for me that our leadership is passionate about social justice and understands what’s at stake in making certain that NIU lives up to its promises held in our mission, vision and values. In the coming weeks, you can expect to hear more about the four themes above. In addition to our resource centers, our colleges and our Faculty Senate will be holding forums for faculty, staff and students to discuss their experiences with racism and white privilege, and to propose changes. For example, from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Thursday, Provost Ingram and I will participate in the Antiracism Planning Forum for Shared Governance. On October 22 and 23, ADEI, along with the Northern Illinois Center for Nonprofit Excellence and partners in DeKalb and Rockford, we will host a two-day virtual discussion with Dr. John Powell. Dr. Powell is professor of Law and African American Studies and Ethnic Studies who leads the University of California Berkley Othering & Belonging Institute.
Our work to advance racial justice at NIU will not end with our leadership retreat and listening sessions. Specifically, I have asked the provost, deans and Faculty Senate to identify and act on academic priorities aligned with NIU’s commitment to dismantling systems and structures that lead to inequitable outcomes. In addition, the university will be expanding our social justice education and programming to include anti-racist training opportunities for faculty, staff and students. We’re also creating a new website to highlight NIU voices, and share resources, plans and progress. This site will not only support accountability, but also provide a place for members of our Huskie community to find ways to participate and offer their varied perspectives.
Not everyone can or will gravitate to these opportunities. Some do not appreciate or comprehend the issues. Many are understandably weary, fatigued or even burned out, while others are overwhelmed or just don’t know where to begin. And, some are hesitant because they fear being misunderstood, criticized or penalized for sharing their feelings, or because they worry that authentic communication might only sow more division and hate. We must all remember that NIU is committed to freedom of expression and open discussion in all matters of public interest. Further, we are dedicated to assuring that all members of the university community have the broad latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.
I know that I might not always have the “right” words to express myself when speaking about these emotional topics and the need for racial and social justice, but I am wholeheartedly committed to advancing real, systemic change. This will come from modeling inclusive leadership, elevating all of the voices who have been striving to be heard, mobilizing support from those who have been ready and tapping into the energy of those who are newly invigorated. In accordance with our Huskie values, I cannot emphasize enough that we must seek and be strengthened by the diverse experiences of our university community members and relentlessly confront the challenges of systemic racism and structural inequity together.
Unquestionably, it’s been a difficult year so far. However, as I look forward to the start of the fall semester, I remain convinced that NIU will respond positively to the challenges we face and emerge stronger than ever. And, I want you to remember you are part of a caring and resilient community invested in your future. Please continue to support, connect and work collaboratively to improve and protect our NIU community. I will continue to welcome your feedback, update you on our progress and hold you all in my thoughts.
Lisa C. Freeman