I first heard the term White privilege in 1975, when I was part of a student group at the University of Minnesota engaged in a weekend retreat sponsored by the University YMCA. One of the ‘games’ we played that weekend involved negotiating with others over chips of different colors. I ended up the winner, with more gold chips at the end than anyone else. Of course, I wasn’t surprised. I felt I was tougher than the other students, more determined to succeed, and negotiated harder. But then we debriefed the game and it turned out that three of us had been given a very different set of starting chips than anyone else. I hadn’t been a better, tougher negotiator, I just had an unequal head start.
I’ve never forgotten that game. For many years, I taught classes on income inequality and the role of inherited wealth in shaping economic and social outcomes. In class discussions of discrimination, I frequently drew on my own experiences as a woman in a highly male-oriented field of study. I know what microaggressions can feel like and how tired you can get of being dismissed and ignored.
Almost all of us have experiences where we feel bullied, excluded or ignored. But for most of us who are White, these are not constant experiences that permeate all aspects of our lives. I have never feared for my life when I see police approaching; I am not trailed in stores or treated with suspicion by TSA or other security personnel.
The past seven weeks have seen an outpouring of millions of voices demanding justice and equity for Americans who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). Our university has been one focus of those demands. It is incumbent upon all of us to re-examine our commitments to racial justice and marshal the energy and resources to do more and better.
As someone who has benefitted from White privilege, my first action must be to listen with humility and empathy – to faculty and staff, to students, and to others who love UW and also recognize its shortcomings. Although the Black Lives Matter movement was the catalyst, these conversations touched on many issues and identities – Asian and Asian-American, Latinx, LGBTQ+, Native American and people with disabilities.
These conversations reinforced the need for more work inside our campus community. These are not issues that we have ignored in recent years. Our fall Diversity Forums have grown every year with attendance from across campus; this year Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility,” will deliver the keynote address. We have successfully recruited 30 new faculty through the Target of Opportunity Program (TOP), which provides incentives for departments to hire persons from groups under-represented in their discipline and department. This has included people of color as well as women in male-dominated science fields. We’ve developed programs for incoming students in identity and implicit bias, aimed at both undergrads and graduate students. If you want to know more about what we have been doing over the past five years to increase diversity and inclusion at UW, I encourage you to read this report.
But this is not enough. Our Black students, faculty and staff have consistently shared the discomfort they experience negotiating spaces on campus that are defined by White culture, and about the regular stream of microaggressions they experience – comments and behaviors that show misunderstanding (at best) and hostility and disrespect (at worst).
Today I’m sharing with you a number of additional commitments we are making in our efforts to ensure that our university welcomes and fosters the success of all members of our community. A number of these commitments require financial support and we are in extremely difficult financial circumstances right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Doing some of the things listed below will require cutting other programs. But it is important that we find these funds.
Enrollment and Recruitment. We must continue efforts to increase the diversity of campus by expanding enrollment and employment among underrepresented groups. We will do so by:
- Developing a fundraising initiative with the goal of raising at least $10 million in new private gifts, working in partnership with the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association. We will use these funds to recruit a more diverse group of students, faculty and staff, and to build a campus culture that welcomes and retains all groups, particularly people of color.
- Continuing to invest in the TOP program, which has a proven record of success in attracting highly talented faculty who greatly enhance the quality and diversity of an academic department. Departments in 10 schools and colleges have utilized this program in the past two years. We need to keep this momentum going and expect to recruit additional faculty of color.
- Ensuring that all schools/colleges require search committees to complete training on implicit bias and recruiting for excellence and diversity. Many faculty searches already use the “Searching for Excellence & Diversity” workshops from the Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI); others have developed localized expertise. The goal is to ensure that search committee members are better able to recognize how stereotypes prevalent in our society can influence our evaluations of and behavior toward others, even without our awareness or intent. Research has shown the effectiveness of the WISELI workshops.
Campus History. Understanding our past is important to changing our future.
- Two years ago, I committed $1 million to a public history project, designed to explore the experiences of more marginalized groups on campus, focusing on particular events or time periods. A central part of this project involves confronting and discussing the history of racism and other forms of exclusion/marginalization on campus. A year ago, we hired a project director. While the closure of the University Archives due to the pandemic has slowed the work, it is proceeding and information is being made publicly available. I will periodically use my social media accounts to highlight the uncomfortable truths of the university’s past, and work with this project to make sure that its results are publicly available, both through physical as well as virtual displays.
Education, Training and Student Support. We are an educational institution and it is important to engage our campus community, particularly our White community members, in learning experiences that build self-reflection about how we are all shaped by racial inequities and systemic racism in our society. This self-reflection should, if it is to have an impact, lead to changes in behavior and structure. To help us in these efforts we will:
- Make mandatory the Our Wisconsin training program for all new entering undergraduate students starting this fall. Similar to trainings that are already required on alcohol safety and sexual violence prevention, it is critical that we provide students with an understanding about culture, identity, and difference, as well as the skills and commitment to create a community that is inclusive of all people.
- Create a new Office of Inclusive Education within Student Affairs. This new office, which will work closely with the Center for Leadership and Involvement and other campus partners, will develop programming to increase our capacity to educate students around issues related to race, marginalization, identity and inclusion. Incoming leaders in student organizations will be one target group for this training. Creation of the new office comes out of conversations with diverse student leaders including the Student Inclusion Coalition, Wisconsin Black Student Union, and others who have shared their experiences and helped us develop strategies to improve the campus climate for BIPOC.
- Strengthen training opportunities for all graduate students, graduate programs and the research and service centers overseen by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education. These professional development experiences will build on the work of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Funding in the Graduate School to address the specific challenges and needs of graduate students who function as both employees and students.
- Implement an Exceptional Service Support Award. Underrepresented faculty spend a great deal of time and energy supporting students outside the classroom. For instance, right now our Black faculty are disproportionately called upon by Black students who turn to them for mentoring, advice, and support as they deal with recent traumatic events. This puts an added burden on these faculty, reducing the time they have available to advance their own research and careers. Following a successful pilot program this past year, department chairs or mentors may nominate faculty to receive an Exceptional Service Award, which provides release time from teaching for those who have provided exceptional service.
Research. One of our fundamental missions is to advance research on key issues. We have a long tradition at UW of supporting faculty and researchers who work on social inequities. To name only a few, we have prominent historians, education specialists, sociologists, public health researchers, social work and public policy scholars who have national reputations in studying racial inequities. To further support this work:
- The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education will provide $1 million in research funding in the next academic year to support faculty and PIs whose research helps us understand race in America, including the public health impacts of racism, systems which perpetuate racial inequality and the physical and social impacts of racism. Particular preference will be given to scholars who have new projects that require seed funding to make a project more competitive for outside funding; creative projects that involve interdisciplinary teams; and projects with the potential to generate real-world implications for combatting racism and its adverse effects.
- We will recognize excellence in the full range of scholarly activities. This past spring each Divisional Committee added new language to tenure guidelines that recognizes the importance of community engaged scholarship and scholarly activities in support of diversity, equity, and inclusion as noteworthy endeavors to be considered as part of tenure and promotion. These additions will help us remain a great university and underscore just how significant it is when our faculty establish meaningful engagement with these areas as part of their contribution to the campus community.
Policing. We want our campus police to be a national model for how campus police departments should train and perform. The University of Wisconsin Police Department recently shared how its practices and policies meet the guidelines laid out in Campaign Zero’s #8Can’tWait project. In addition, over the course of the next academic year UWPD will implement its Racial Equity Initiative — a comprehensive action plan for identifying, adopting and continually assessing needed changes within the department in the short-and-long-term. A core part of this plan will be to specifically ensure the department demonstrates its commitment to racial justice in policing in ways that are meaningful to members of our community, particularly those from marginalized groups.
The efforts outlined above mark an important next step in our ongoing work to confront racism and advance equity and justice. We have a moment of opportunity on campus right now. I believe that more of our faculty, staff and students – particularly those who are NOT from marginalized communities – understand the need to engage in these efforts. We need to take advantage of this opportunity. This is not something that our underrepresented communities can or should be burdened with; it is on all of us to listen, read, reflect and work towards change.
We are working on some further actions, including more extensive training and professional development opportunities for our faculty and staff to engage in conversations about these issues. We expect to announce these efforts in the coming months.
Finally, I have to note that change can be slow. This is particularly true when we are talking about deep change in the ways people see the world or in the ways that institutions operate.
Change is made even more difficult by the fact that our community is constantly being recreated. Each year about 10,000 of our students leave and another 10,000 new students arrive. Hence there are always large numbers of new people arriving on campus and we must engage with them afresh. All of this means our work will never be complete. We have to marshal the will and the persistence to embed these efforts into the fabric of the institution.
Thank you to everyone for the various ways in which you are engaged in creating a campus that is welcoming, diverse, inclusive, and anti-racist. I pledge to increase our efforts to make the changes needed at our university. I hope you will join me.