The Role of Public Universities in the Fight for Racial Justice

What Is Learned Here Leaves Here—the Role of the Public University in the Fight for Racial Justice

September 1, 2020

Recent events have crystalized the fact that racism impacts everyday life for millions of Americans. To deny this truth would be harmful. To fail to use our knowledge and power in support of making racial justice a reality would disregard our Guiding Principles to ensure the university is a social and cultural catalyst; to support collaboration between educational institutions to improve our communities; and to promote diversity in pursuit of truth and learning, including diversity of political, cultural, and philosophical perspectives.

On Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, CU Denver’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion collaborated with Michigan State University to host a second Social Justice Teach-In, entitled “Moving Beyond Statements: The Role of the Public University in the Fight for Racial Justice.” In pursuit of truth and learning, the virtual event drew hundreds of participants from both campuses eager for improvement in their communities.

Watch the recording here.

Nelia Viveiros, EdD, interim vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, introduced speakers and moderated alongside Amy Bonomi, PhD, professor and director of the Women’s Leadership Institute at Michigan State University. Both offered land acknowledgments to pay respect to the many tribes on whose ancestral lands their respective universities sit.

Featured speakers included University of Colorado Chief Diversity Officer Theodosia Cook, as well as Brian Johnson, PhD, assistant professor at Michigan State University. Two students, Tessa McLean from CU Denver’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Tasha Young from Michigan State University’s College of Social Science, also shared from their own experiences as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).

Examine Our History

Cook described in detail the importance of remembering our history as institutions of higher learning, a history founded in the ninth century CE by an Arab woman, Fatima Bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya, in Fez, Morrocco. “Remembering is extremely important: It allows us to consider how we move forward. [It is] how we recognize where we’ve come from.” Al-Qurashiya’s legacy, Al-Qarawiyyin University, has been recognized by the United Nations as the oldest continually operating university in the world, the first to award degrees.

“In order to move past statements, we need to make structural shifts.”

Chief Diversity Officer Theodosia Cook, University of Colorado

Contributions from the African continent to the modern university and advanced mathematics and science are rarely acknowledged, Cook noted. “Systemically, American education has failed to focus on and value the history and contributions of non-Western, white, European people.” Furthermore, “Our memory has been shaped by a lack of embracing the universal truth, the whole truth, which is the reality that BIPOC have grounded and created and built what we know today as higher education.”

“We must be committed to ensuring that all facts, history, and contributions of people are properly acknowledged and are a part of the construction of learning, knowledge, and power,” said Cook.

In defining what it means to be a public university, Cook questioned, “We have to consider, who are we serving? Who are those people that we are recognizing? What histories are we telling, and where are we grounding ourselves currently as a public university?”

“How do we reckon with the reality that most of our people at our institutions are not aware of the entire factual truth of the founding of universities, of what it actually means [for a public university] to be of the people, of the common people here in our country and across the world? [Not aware of] what it means to make shifts, structural shifts that will create lasting impact, [or] to really reconcile that these institutions were not built with the acknowledgement of the whole truth?”

“But we must move forward with that reality.”

Acknowledge Our Present

Johnson, whose research focuses on the constitutionality of laws and policies that affect youth and families, spoke of the lasting trauma of racism and racist violence.

“Many universities have condemned the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and, just this week, the shooting of Jacob Blake. The condemnations most frequently occur in the form compelling statements, in words of support from the university community. These statements are a start, but they just don’t begin to address the interpersonal and intergenerational trauma that affect people of color. Sometimes statements of support are good, but one must truly seek to understand what it’s like to live in a society of systemic racism.”

“… one must truly seek to understand what it’s like to live in a society of systemic racism.”

Assistant Professor Brian Johnson, PhD, Michigan State University

“I’m hearing from so many students that these statements are empty without evidence of actionable results,” Johnson continued.

“For people of color, racial trauma is nothing new … And this trauma is not limited to senseless killings. For individuals of color, it’s always present.”

Listen to Students

Tasha Young, a senior psychology major at Michigan State University, outlined the ways racism has shaped her own university experience. “I realized that microagressions play a major part in my everyday life … I realized how much of a toll it took on my mental health to experience it every day.”

“I feel that African American women are the most neglected in the country.”

Undergraduate Student Tasha Young, Michigan State University

Recalling personal encounters with overt racists, including one potentially dangerous incident, Young plainly described her thought process at the time: “I would rather have myself in that situation than an African American male,” on account of the greater risk of violence or murder faced by Black men.

Young noted that, at her university, “We focus on sexual assault. We have different resources and courses that are required of students … A racism class needs to be made mandatory [too].”

“It’s time to stop neglecting minority students and it’s time to stop downplaying their experiences.”

“We need to stop denying the truth of what’s happening.”

Address the Needs of Invisibilized People

Tessa McLean ’17, a graduate student in CU Denver’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, offered an Indigenous perspective in response to the earlier land acknowledgements. “I really do appreciate the land acknowledgment that we had today for both Colorado and Michigan. As a teacher, I would like to ask each person to think about, do you remember the tribes that were listed earlier today? Do you know anything about those tribes or those nations?”

“As an Indigenous woman and using my voice, it represents an invisibilized voice and invisibilized peoples. Meanwhile, there are over 574 federally recognized tribes—that doesn’t include non-federally recognized tribes who are fighting to become recognized. It also doesn’t include First Nations in Canada, which would be me.”

“Recruitment is very important, especially for Indigenous populations. There are 574 federally recognized tribes—how many tribal people do we have on our campus, and how many tribal nations are represented? Our peoples and our nations have extremely unique worldviews.”

“We have knowledge that we’re able to contribute to every field. With political science, we have worldviews that are different from Marxism, from capitalism, from socialism, and these are things that should be valued.”

McLean described how, in a lesson on genocide, a professor once said to her, “‘Right, Tessa? As an American Indian, you should know what genocide means.’”

“When you do have the opportunity to have American Indians in your class, don’t use them as examples.”

Graduate Student Tessa McLean, CU Denver

Calling attention to the lack of voices like hers, McLean urged, “I’d like to ask that universities increase funding for Indigenous students. All of our universities are on Indigenous lands, and I think it’s important for institutions to recognize that we are on Indigenous lands. [But] we need to move beyond land acknowledgments and help Indigenous students out [with] services and recruiting.”


Move Beyond Statements

Inspired by ideas, experiences, and expertise shared by the CU Denver community, Chancellor Michelle Marks has initiated her commitments for action to move toward becoming a more socially and racially just academic institution. These actions will be complemented by programs and activities such as Friday’s teach-in.

In advance of the session, Nelia Viveiros explained, “Transformative dialogues, such as the teach-in, help us to normalize discussions of the structural dynamics of social, economic, and political disparities.” Toward that end, this ongoing Social Justice Teach-In series continues to create unifying ways to talk freely and honestly about race and equity on university campuses.

But, how do we actually move beyond statements? How can each of us answer questions we may have only just begun to properly ask? Community norms announced by Amy Bonomi at the session’s outset offer all of us a guide in challenging moments such as this:

“I will lean into difficult conversations.”
“I will not make assumptions about other people’s identities.”
“I will critique ideas, not people.”

And, importantly:

“I will accept a lack of closure.”

Which we must, for now. It’s a start.