Our Commitment to Black Students, One Year Later

Published On

Wed, 06/02/2021 - 11:10 am

Dear Western Community,

On Juneteenth 2020, the Black Student Organization (BSO) delivered a set of demands to the Associated Students executive board and to university administration.  At the time, we acknowledged that we can and must do more to create lasting institutional changes needed to achieve more equitable outcomes in education and beyond for our BIPOC students.  We also acknowledged that we must do more to create supportive and empowering environments for our BIPOC faculty and staff. 

It should not have taken George Floyd’s murder a year ago to plant the seeds of the reckoning now underway.  While we have made progress, we recognize that WWU must continue enacting changes to more fully realize our values and commitment to inclusive student success.  These changes are urgent and yet never seem to be enacted rapidly enough.  I am encouraged, however, that the work to create equitable access and opportunities for excellence for all students is happening across the institution, in every college, division and department.  The actions taken thus far are not an end, but a work in progress that will carry on well past the demands laid out by the BSO a year ago.

To date, we have undertaken specific action on about 15 items during the 2020-21 academic year, many of them part of the BSO demands and a few additional items discussed with the BSO and the AS leadership.  More detail about these and other initiatives is available on Western’s ADEI website.  Rather than repeating that list, I would like to make a few observations in the following specific areas.

The Board of Trustees approved in December 2020 the naming of the new residence after Western’s first Black student, Alma Clark Glass, who attended the university in 1906.  Alma Clark Glass Hall, as well as creation of a Black Affinity space and Black Affinity housing in the new residence hall will be ready for occupancy this fall.  Additionally, a Legacy Review Task Force was charged in late fall 2020 to review the names associated with the buildings on Western’s Bellingham campus, including the Huxley College of the Environment, and to recommend to the President and the Board of Trustees whether the University should consider removing any of those names.  The report is due from the task force by end of term in mid-June 2021.

On January 18, 2021, WWU, in partnership with Whatcom Community College, Northwest Indian College, and Bellingham Technical College, hosted a virtual MLK Day ceremony, attended by nearly 1,000 people, featuring New York Times bestselling author and WWU alumna Ijeoma Oluo (’07), as the keynote speaker.  We’re pleased to have secured Ibram X. Kendi, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to be an Antiracist, for our 2022 event.  This year also included an amazing array of Black History Month events featuring noted Black speakers and artists sponsored by a variety of organizations, departments and clubs.  While Juneteenth presents a challenge given that June 19 typically falls between spring commencement and the start of summer session when we have few people on campus, we are pleased that the Washington State Legislature just passed a measure that makes Juneteenth an official paid holiday for state employees starting in 2022. 

We have established a university-level Office of Equity to be formally operational with the start of the new fiscal year in July 2021.  This unit will be headed by a Chief Diversity Officer and Executive Director of the Office of Equity, a cabinet-level position reporting to the president.  We will start the recruitment process for the CDO/Exec Director at the start of the fall 2021 term when faculty and students are back on campus.  We are also in the process of hiring an African American Retention Counselor and a Director of Multicultural Student Services, with both appointments expected prior to the start of fall 2021.

Finally, on academic matters, funding for an Ethnic Studies program was a key element of the University’s funding request during the 2021 legislative session.  We are deeply grateful that the legislature has agreed to provide $1.2 million per biennium towards this initiative.  A group of Ethnic Studies faculty recently held a symposium to begin the process of developing content for the program.  The Faculty Senate has initiated a process, led by the Committee on Undergraduate Education, on reframing and updating the General University Requirements to include a set of courses to help students understand and grapple with issues of power, equity and justice in the U.S. and in the broader world.

More than producing a list of activities, my intent is to reiterate that we are committed to partnering with our Black students, and with all our students, to better understand the systemic issues in our policies, systems and structures, and on making substantive progress on addressing gaps in our programs and services that disproportionately impact Black students and students from other under-represented groups.  Addressing those gaps is critical to ensure their success at Western, and Western’s success in general. 

In addition, we are also working to remove other systemic barriers to entry and degree completion that disproportionately affect BIPOC students, such as making the SAT and ACT optional, and broadening pathways to enrollment for community college transfer students.

Diversifying the university, expanding access, eliminating achievement gaps and ensuring that an equity lens is at the center of all our work is a complex undertaking.  While we have made progress, we have a long journey ahead of us.  We are committed to advancing our ADEI work and to ensuring that it is embedded in the normal operations of the university.