A Challenge, a Commitment, and a Call: A Message From SLU's Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement
August 31, 2020
Dear Members of the SLU Community
I write to you today regarding our community’s response to a public health crisis that is tearing apart our nation and our neighborhoods. Today, I do not refer to COVID-19; rather, I speak of the systemic racism that has roots nearly two centuries older than Saint Louis University itself.
This year has shed abundant light on the effects of this centuries long, human-created illness. From disparate COVID-19 outcomes to disproportionate access to the technologies needed to continue going to school virtually to the disproportionate number of Black and Latinx essential workers sustaining our food supply chain to the tragically disproportionate number of African Americans who die in police related killings to persistent health disparities and beyond, our mission demands we play a role in bringing systemic racism to an end. Indeed, the Jesuit Universal Apostolic Preferences, confirmed by Pope Francis in 2019, call for “Walking with the poor, the outcasts of the world, and those whose dignity has been violated, in the mission of reconciliation and justice.”
Recently, the leadership team at the University has been reminded again of these facts, not solely from witnessing the atrocities throughout the country, but also directly from my fellow Black and brown friends, colleagues, students, and former students at SLU. We have received letters from our Black alumni and allies, our current Black students and our Black faculty and staff, who have let us know what it feels like to be Black at SLU. In reading their testimonies I hear echoes of some of my own experiences here since 2002. We hear these letters assert frankly and with what Martin Luther King, Jr. termed the “fierce urgency of now” a call and a challenge to work ever harder and more effectively to make our community a beloved community.
While we remain proud of progress we have made, we know that we must continue pressing onward in areas where we have progressed and already committed to act. We know also that we must work collaboratively to discern our future goals, paths, and timelines to completion.
What We Have Done
In terms of Clock Tower Accords progress, I encourage you to visit the Clock Tower Accords webpage for fuller and continuously updated information, particularly if you are one of the many new faces joining us this year. Briefly, the progress includes:
- Increased the operating budget of the African American Studies Program.
- Increased financial aid resources for African American students, including most recently creating and funding new scholarships for African American students such as the Donald Suggs Scholarship (2020).
- Expanded eligibility criteria for the MLK scholarship to include current students.
- Integrated Access Academies’ middle school enrichment and high school and college support programs into SLU School of Education.
- Annually support and host an on campus regional or national conference, such as the Liberation-Based Healing Conference and Women in Hip Hop National Conference.
- Moved to a test optional admission process for all undergraduate students as part of a three-year pilot program.
Beyond the letter of the Accords, we have:
- Mandated all Vice-Presidents and Deans participate in Crossroads Anti-Bias, AntiRacist Education workshop.
- Begun a collaborative Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation (SHMR) Project with the Jesuits of the USA Central and Southern (UCS) Province to 1) learn more about the lives of the people who were enslaved, and 2) to trace their family lines in the hope of connecting with descendants.
What We Are Doing
- Formally launching the Institute for Healing Justice and Equity, a winner of an internal Big Idea grant competition among our research faculty.
- Working with the Provost, Director of African American Studies, and the Faculty Senate to make the African American Studies program a department.
- Diversity and Community Engagement offering DEI training at Department, Division and School Level to enhance capacity assessment and building, including workshops offered to leadership search committees, School for Professional Studies, and Athletics.
- Opened THRIVE residential learning community (Fall 2020) to provide social, cultural, academic, and wellbeing support to Black and Latinx students.
Dr. Pestello has tasked me with forming a diverse committee that will devote time
this semester to examining existing efforts and where we have made progress as well
as where we are deficient. The committee will also examine the limitations of previous
commitments and offer supplemental alternatives. Before the end of September, I will
communicate the full charge and make-up of the committee. My expectation is to have
a report with recommended priorities and actionable next steps delivered to Dr. Pestello
by the end of the fall term.
At the September Board of Trustee meeting, Dr. Pestello and I will present a proposal to add a Diversity subcommittee to the Board of Trustees. If approved, it will be chaired by a trustee selected by Chairman Conran and supported administratively by me as Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement.
When Dr. Pestello first mentioned the creation of the committee that will convene this fall in his June 1 message to campus, we heard from some members of the community who read that has an abandonment of the Clock Tower Accords. This could not be further from the truth. We stand by the Accords, and we will continue to work not only towards fulfilling them all, but also to honoring and amplifying the spirit from which they were born.
The reality is, the amount of dismantling and rectifying necessary for an institution that is over two centuries old could not possibly be encapsulated in 13 Accords. Without a doubt, OccupySLU and the Clock Tower Accords were part of a historic watershed moment in the history of SLU and St. Louis. I will never forget that week and how it activated students, staff, faculty, administrators, and our community. That week changed my life. My hope is that once again, we can become a university galvanized with the “fierce urgency of now.”
Let us capitalize on the urgency and devotion moving through the OneSLU spirit right now. Each one of us, whether you have considered it or not, is a shareholder in this critically important work. We share a mutually linked fate. Join me in working to make ours a fully inclusive, equitable, and just community – one in which all of us can be proud.
Jonathan Smith, Ph.D.
Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement