An open letter from the Chancellor to the Ole Miss community:
Who is responsible? Who will lead?
We are frustrated once again with ugly, race-based expressions of hate. As we investigate, express frustration and answer embarrassing questions from the rest of the world, we must ask ourselves a fundamental question: Who is responsible? Who is responsible for causing the problem? And who is responsible for bringing solutions to it?
Any organization looks first to its leadership to assign responsibility for problems and expectations for solutions. And I fully accept my share of responsibility for a community that includes some who shelter and act on racist views. We are not the ideal place I would like us to be, despite my best intention to make every decision in the best interest of all students, faculty and staff and to provide a safe and welcoming place for everyone. During the time I’ve had the privilege of serving the University of Mississippi as chancellor, I am certain there have been errors of commission and errors of omission. And I’m going to depend on your continued help to improve our record going forward.
Words alone cannot convey how much I regret the pain, anxiety and fear, and in this most recent case intimidation, caused by any expression of hate on this campus. Many of us are deeply hurt but none more so than the African-American members of our university family. You came here for an outstanding academic environment and an exceptional collegiate experience, and these acts make you wonder if you’ve been fully embraced into this university community by all of its members. You ARE a vital member of this family; those who commit acts like this one are not. Your university family wants and needs your continued support. And I am very, very grateful that you continue to engage in a sincere effort to move forward and make meaningful progress.
As we deal with feelings of hurt and frustration, I encourage us all to respond to hate with love – recognizing that a component of love is holding each other accountable for our actions. In that spirit, the university police, aided by an Ole Miss Alumni Association $25,000 reward, led an intensive investigation that identified suspects in a matter of days. At the request of University Police and university leadership, the FBI was asked to take the lead on the case. Our purpose in doing this was to assure the most thorough and objective investigation with the best potential for the fullest accountability.
The institutionalized racism that in 1962 became an indelible part of our national memory provides a backdrop to our conversations about race today. And it will always be part of our heritage. The stain it left on American history dictates for us both a special obligation and a larger opportunity to lead on issues of race in higher education, whether in Mississippi or across America. As an article this week in The New York Times reported, race-related incidents have been increasing in number on campuses across this country. No one fully understands why raced-based expressions of hate occur anywhere, including here. But they continue, and we must be leaders in taking meaningful steps toward racial progress.
So let’s consider some of our ongoing efforts at improving diversity and being inclusive. Just this past weekend, we hosted consultants who helped us systematically review our symbols and campus names to reflect on opportunities to better tell the full history of the university. Another consultant will be here in the next few days to review our organizational structure and our efforts in diversity and multicultural issues. Both of these consultancies were arranged before last week’s incident and reflect the hard work of the expanded Sensitivity and Respect Committee.
These were not our first initiatives. In recent years, we increased our focus on recruiting students from underrepresented groups, especially African-American students from Mississippi. This has benefited us with a good uptick in applications by African Americans. In coming months, a new Center for Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Engagement will open (eventually to be housed in the expanded Student Union), enriching the support services available to our students. Interviews for a director will take place beginning next month.
I am particularly pleased with the “Respect the M” campaign. It was another initiative from the expanded Sensitivity and Respect Committee, and it reminds all of us that respect for the dignity of each person is a core value at our university. Opportunities to build on this campaign abound, with the ASB’s efforts to communicate the important values in our Creed as just one example. Other longstanding initiatives, including the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, continue to make significant contributions.
Our most visible statement of commitment to diversity and open doors is the James Meredith monument. Not surprisingly, it was chosen by vandals as the most visible symbol to strike back at our commitment to change. Why would these people lash out? We cannot know with certainty what is in their hearts. But those who would vandalize this symbol of inclusion and diversity may be frustrated by our unswerving commitment to progress. We have become one of the most diverse student bodies among America’s flagship universities. We are among the top two or three flagships in the country in percentage of African-American faculty. And we engage more openly in a conversation about race than many. One byproduct of our commitment to change is that those who feel challenged by it may act to oppose us. But they will not prevail.
I wish I could promise we will never again endure a racist act here. But we should not be surprised if we see conflict again. Each new class of freshmen may include students who bring values to this campus that conflict with ours. Future classes may include students who have not lived or learned in diverse environments. If not next year, then perhaps the next, as we expose freshmen to ideas they have not considered before, one of our students, or maybe those outside our community, may act out. Hate does not die easily. It is my hope and belief that in the end, as we do the hard work of engaging the hearts and minds of young people in a diverse community, we will be stronger and healthier.
I am anxious for more progress, and I often have the urge to use the power of the office to make changes that take us in a better direction. Many presume the chancellor’s “scepter” could be used easily to do more, and calls for unilateral action are frequent. But I share a long-held belief, perhaps from my many years in an academic environment, that progress is best managed through shared responsibility.
The leadership of our students continually encourages me. The Black Student Union and One Mississippi have worked in coordination with faculty and staff to bring about dialogue and positive outcomes. I was also encouraged by the letters from fraternity presidents and the Interfraternity Council condemning hateful actions and committing to more diversity and inclusiveness in fraternity membership on our campus. As I noted during the recent 50th- anniversary commemoration of racial integration, the university’s outside doors are wide open to all by law, policy and practice. But we have many internal doors that need to be further opened to achieve our ideal of a fully inclusive university. I encourage the membership of our fraternities to provide meaningful leadership and to take bold action in making our university what it needs to be. I call on your fellow students in our campus sororities to join in this effort. And I call on the alumni of both groups to facilitate this change with your support and encouragement. We call ourselves leaders at Ole Miss. It is time to lead.
In coming days, there will be several opportunities for dialogue among campus leaders, faculty, staff and students. I am grateful to many on our campus for their efforts to provide leadership and an opportunity for conversation, including the Black Student Union, One Mississippi, the Winter Institute, Student Housing and many more good-hearted students, staff and faculty. Let’s keep the dialogue going and take meaningful steps toward inclusiveness and civility.
Much has been done. But our work is not complete. I offer my encouragement to those who have already engaged. And I urge others to step up to the important work ahead of us. Every one of you can make a difference. Each of us can take responsibility for stopping the next act of hate and instead foster the next demonstration of love, civility and respect.
Who is responsible? I am. You are. We are.
Who will lead? I will. You will. We will.
The University of Mississippi