The issue of campus climate has been front and center in our community this semester, including this week’s publication of the report titled “Microaggressions at the University of Mississippi” by a faculty group called the UM Race Diary Project. While our senior leadership team has spoken as a group on the report, I want to add some personal observations about the report and how we make decisions as a university.
As the chief executive of our campus, I have an obligation to listen to and take seriously concerns brought forward by all members of our community. That responsibility is one I fully embrace, and it is how I try to embody the values articulated in the UM Creed to conduct business with “fairness and civility.” An important aspect of that responsibility is that I act in a thoughtful, deliberate, and intentional way to make decisions that can affect the future of the university for generations. That approach is also a reflection of the part of the Creed that speaks to “good stewardship of our resources.”
However, in the era of social media, taking a deliberate approach may not satisfy the crowd fueling the latest tweetstorm or meet the expectations of every individual. As you know, I am an avid social media user, and I encourage you to follow me on Twitter @UMchancellor. That does not mean complex decisions with lasting implications can be, or should be, reduced to 280 characters or what is known at a single point in time. More specifically, I cannot and will not issue a public statement in response to every message published on campus. The mere fact that you may not have heard from me does not mean that I have not heard you.
I am aware of the petition published last week by a group of faculty and graduate students in a letter to the editor of The Daily Mississippian. It is premature to consider new names for our School of Journalism and New Media when the process to consider whether to change the current name is still underway at the IHL. Any naming decision goes through very careful consideration through an established process. Regarding the petition’s request to remove the Confederate statue, we conducted a thoughtful and deliberate year-long review of all Southern symbols on our campus, which garnered widespread support and recognition by experts around the world and the IHL itself, and we are still in the process of implementing the recommendations issued by that committee earlier this year. I refer those interested to the context.OleMiss.edu website for details.
On the report from the Race Diary Project, I am disturbed by the prospect that these incidents from the 2014–2015 academic year occurred on our campus and in Oxford. As our university leadership team noted in its statement, the findings of this report make all of us even more determined and committed to foster a more inclusive campus environment.
At the same time, I must take exception with the assertion in the report that the University of Mississippi “has made halting but tangible progress toward creating an inclusive campus environment” since James Meredith first enrolled here in 1962. In fact, UM has made sustained, substantial, and measurable progress during that period. Today, nearly 24% of our students are people of color. One out of every eight UM students is African-American, and the latest IPEDS data ranked our percentage of African American enrollment second-highest in the SEC.
In addition, I must add that I am disappointed by the fact that the report is silent on whether the research group helped the students who self-reported these incidents by referring them to local authorities or encouraging them to take advantage of resources available on our campus. Since the data in the report are anonymized, we have no way to reach out to those affected by these incidents. I want to urge all of our current students to make the most of the programs and resources offered by the university. The faculty and staff who deliver these programs and services are highly experienced, and they are here for you. I also want to acknowledge positive encounters submitted in the report. These represent the essence of our Creed, particularly those students who came to the aid of someone who was the target of an incident.
Our work to promote a more inclusive campus environment is ongoing, and much remains to be done. To that end, under the leadership of Dr. Katrina Caldwell, vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement, the university has been working for several months to launch a campus climate initiative. The initiative will start with a nationally-normed campus climate survey to give us a comprehensive benchmark of the climate on campus, and will provide actionable data that will inform any future actions we will take — in a thoughtful, deliberate, and intentional manner — to further establish our campus as welcoming and inclusive for all.
Jeffrey S. Vitter