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Sparked by Wright Controversy, Northwestern’s Black Alumni Call on University to Correct Racial Injustices

Northwestern University’s decision to rescind an invitation to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to receive an honorary degree was the last straw for many Black alumni, who have started an online petition that calls for changes to how the university treats Black students and the Black community, including an investigation into the decrease in Black student enrollment.

Although the petition, with nearly 1,500 signatures as of Thursday, asks the administration to award Wright the honorary degree as originally planned at the university’s commencement Friday, the petition really is about correcting injustices, says Ce Cole Dillon, president of Northwestern’s Black Alumni Association and member of the university’s Alumni Association Board of Directors. In addition to the decreasing Black enrollment — Blacks made up 9.6 percent of the undergraduate student body in 1976 compared to 5.5 percent in 2005 — they say the university is acting insensitive and rules aren’t applied consistently when it comes to Blacks.

Alumni decry the decision to withdraw the university’s offer of an honorary Doctorate of Sacred Theology degree to Wright as unilateral, since it was not discussed in a review committee. During the past few months, parts of Wright’s controversial sermons were aired as people questioned the Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s past and his relationship with Wright.

“In light of the controversy around Dr. Wright and to ensure that the celebratory character of commencement not be affected, the University has withdrawn its invitation to Dr. Wright,” stated a message from Northwestern’s vice president for university relations, Alan K. Cubbage, posted on the university’s Web site.

Meanwhile, Northwestern’s president Henry Bienen announced that Richard M. Daley, mayor of Chicago, would be the speaker at the university’s commencement and would receive an honorary doctor of law degree.

Though Daley is a household name in Chicago, in the Black community his name brings up a painful memory. When Daley was Cook County state’s attorney in the 1980s, he allegedly failed to investigate allegations that some Chicago police tortured Black men into confessing crimes they did not commit. In January, the city approved a nearly $20 million settlement with four former death row inmates who alleged a former police commander and others tortured them. A federal probe is underway into allegations that police tortured more than 100 people over a 20-year period.

“When the university made those decisions they were not applying the same standards all across the board,” says Dillon. “This is where the lens of racism comes in. Rev. Wright is accused of committing a crime of being unpatriotic,” while Daley is accused of failing to act when learning that Black men were subject to real criminal offenses.

In addition to the Wright decision and decreasing Black student enrollment, the petition also criticizes the decision to bypass a Black professor for a permanent dean position when that professor had served on an interim basis in that position and was a finalist in the search.

Cubbage denies the accusations of racial intolerance.

“Northwestern is a place that has always valued diversity and continues to do so,” says Cubbage. “The university was founded by an abolitionist in the 19th century and has always remained committed to enrolling diverse students and diverse faculty, and has a community that welcomes people of all races.”

According to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education’s Racial Diversity Ranking, Northwestern is one of four top universities in the country with the largest decrease of Black students, faculty and administrators.

The university was ranked No. 21 and was listed as having “a disappointing record on racial diversity.” It has a Black student population of less than 6 percent, of which 10 percent are football players, and has a Black faculty population of only 2 percent, according to the journal.

“Black student enrollment has been relatively stable at approximately 500 undergraduate students for the past decade — it was 515 this year, for example,” Cubbage says. While Black enrollment figures have remained constant, Black representation on campus decreased as Northwestern’s overall undergraduate enrollment grew, he says.

A private institution, Northwestern did not provide historical enrollment data. The student newspaper reported in 2006 that Black student enrollment hadn’t hit the 500 mark since 1992. Numbering 667, Blacks made up 9.6 percent of the undergraduate student body in 1976. In 2005, Blacks made up 5.5 percent of Northwestern undergraduates, the newspaper reported.

Cubbage says the university will not reverse its decision on awarding Rev. Wright an honorary degree. This is the first time in 150 years of commencement ceremonies, that Northwestern rescinded an honorary degree invitation.

However, Dillon says President Bienen has agreed to meet with her and others involved in the campaign on July 10.

“We are hopeful that this meeting is going to have real progress and a good outcome,” says Dillon.

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