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SIU addresses racial issues in virtual 'Conversations of Understanding'
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SIU addresses racial issues in virtual 'Conversations of Understanding'

SIU "Conversations of Understanding"

Southern Illinois University leaders held a virtual discussion about systemic racism in higher education on Monday evening, the first in a planned "Conversation of Understanding" series.

During a virtual conversation hosted Monday evening by Southern Illinois University, student leaders from Edwardsville and Carbondale said that racial tension is a significant part of student life on both campuses. They also offered administrators solutions for addressing it.

Steven Gear, a doctoral student at SIU Carbondale, said that he’s been on campus for a decade earning multiple degrees, and has found that racial tension has escalated more recently. He cited a decline in the African American student population on campus, and a “lack of support from the administration” to address issues of racism and discrimination when they arise.

“I do believe that racial tension is significant at SIUE as well,” said Maddy McKenzie, an undergraduate SIU Edwardsville student who serves as diversity officer on the Edwardsville campus’ student government organization. She cited a 2017 incident in which a note containing the n-word was left on a student’s door, as well as a more recent controversy stemming from the university’s response to racist comments made on one of its Facebook posts.

Monday’s two-hour conversation about systemic racism in higher education was the first in a planned “Conversations of Understanding” series sponsored by SIU and the system’s Diversity Advisory Council. Participants included SIU President Dan Mahony, System Executive Director for Diversity Initiatives Wes McNeese and Randy Pembrook and Austin Lane, chancellors of the Edwardsville and Carbondale campuses, respectively.

McNeese started the conversation by reading a definition of systemic racism: “Biases pervading systems and institutions at all levels of society, detected in processes, attitudes and behaviors which wittingly or unwittingly harm and disadvantage certain minoritized racial groups.” McNeese said there are several definitions of systemic racism, and that this one was open to comment and discussion. The conversation was moderated by Todd Bryson, SIU Carbondale's chief diversity officer. 

McKenzie offered several suggestions for SIU to consider to create a more welcoming, anti-racist environment for students of color. She said that all students should be required to learn about racism and its profound effects, much like students are required to receive education on sexual violence and reporting options and obligations.

She encouraged students to speak up about injustices they see on campus and call out microaggressions in addition to the blatant racism. That includes inappropriate jokes or behaviors that marginalize or exclude people and make them uncomfortable. She also said that student leaders are obligated to examine whether the clubs and organizations they oversee are inclusive to all students, and make changes if they are discriminatory.

Gear said that on the Carbondale campus, administrators need to do a better job of not only recruiting minority students, but also retaining them. Some students, especially those who may come from disadvantaged backgrounds, are left to “fend for themselves” without adequate guidance to choose the right field of study or ensure they have the resources they need to graduate, he said.

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Much of the conversation also centered on the need to increase the diversity of faculty at both the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses. Mahony, the college president, said that recruitment of diverse faculty requires aggressive effort, and an honest look at all job advertisements and selection processes to weed out bias that may systematically exclude underrepresented groups. Retention and promotion policies also have to be closely scrutinized, he said. Mahony said the university is committed to doing this work in the months ahead.

Chancellors Lane and Pembrook also addressed recent incidents of racism involving both of their campuses, and SIU’s response to it. Pembrook said SIU Edwardsville has newly empowered those who monitor comments on its Facebook posts to “move much more quickly in terms of taking hurtful comments down.” This policy change comes on the heels of its controversial handling of racist replies to a Facebook post SIU Edwardsville made about the “Rock” on campus being painted with a “Black Lives Matter” message. It is a longstanding tradition for students to paint this rock with various messages, and the original post by the university was supportive. The controversy started when the university asked a commenter to modify his post that called another commenter a racist, saying direct attacks violated its policy. Though, the individual had made racist comments, including one comparing Black people to animals. At the same time, some of the racist and racially charged comments made by various individuals disparaging of the Black community were not immediately removed.

The university cited a policy disallowing direct name calling in the former, but said that some of the offensive comments were protected by the First Amendment. The university has since changed its stance. 

Lane, the incoming chancellor of the Carbondale campus, also discussed two videos with hate-filled messages that have circulated recently on social media featuring two different students using the n-word and making derogatory comments about Black people. One of the students was a baseball player who graduated this May. Though a senior this year, he was eligible to play another season because COVID-19 cut the spring season short. But he will not be returning, according to the university. In that video, the student filmed himself repeatedly saying the n-word, and apparently shared it with several others on Snapchat framed by a Martin Luther King Jr. Day filter. The video only recently surfaced publicly on other social media accounts. 

The videos are not related. In recent days, people on social media have called on SIU to take disciplinary action against the other student filmed saying the n-word and expel him from school. In that video, a student is filmed saying, in part, that he hoped that Donald Trump would win the presidential election because he wants to "get the n----- out of here, bro." The newspaper was not able to determine when the video was made or posted, or any other details surrounding its circumstances as of deadline Monday. A spokeswoman for the university said she was unable to provide any additional details at this time, citing student privacy requirements.  

Lane said that to have two videos featuring Salukis making hate-filled messages surface within a month is “very disheartening.” As an African-American man, Lane said it hurt him to have to watch them. SIU has faced criticism in recent days for not acting more swiftly or publicly in response to the second video that surfaced several days ago.

Lane said he could not provide specific details Monday night. But generally speaking, Lane said he wanted the greater campus community to know that the incident, and any other brought to the university’s attention, will be aggressively investigated and acted upon in keeping with the Student Code of Conduct. “For those that may think we’re not moving fast enough, we apologize, but we are moving and we will address those things counter to the culture we are trying to create,” he said.

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