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Universities Plan Fall Initiatives to Address Systemic Racism and Police Brutality

As protests continue across the nation after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans at the hands of police officers, universities are analyzing their own biases and implementing initiatives and conversations on campus for the fall semester to address systemic racism and police brutality.

Last week, San Diego State University’s (SDSU) senate unanimously passed a resolution that established the “Race-Relations in Criminal Justice” course. The coursework will focus on Black lives and policing and will be a graduation requirement for criminal justice students.

“I hope that [the course] will change every interaction that [students] have with young Black and Brown children in ways that ensure that the negative relationships that exists often times between those in law enforcement and those in Black and Brown communities is alleviated,” said Dr. J. Luke Wood, vice president of student affairs and campus diversity at SDSU. “But ultimately, I hope that [students] will leave SDSU with the overwhelming commitment to the importance of Black Lives Matter.”

Dr. J. Luke WoodDr. J. Luke Wood

The program will be taught by an SDSU criminal justice faculty member whose research analyzes racial dynamics and law enforcement.

“As we prepare people to go out to the field, we need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to ensure that they are committed to serving all communities well and treat[ing] all communities with dignity and respect,” said Wood, who is also a distinguished professor of education at SDSU. “And at the same time, we’re also thinking about those who are already in the field who clearly need more preparation and development and how we can reach them to ensure that they’re getting the development that they need.”

The resolution also calls for the creation of low-cost training programs for law enforcement across the country. Wood said the university regularly provides training and development to its campus police department.

“I’d love to be able to get to a point where other police departments are similarly committed to preparing their people to be able to engage with diverse populations in healthy ways,” he added.

Incoming students will be required to participate in an onboarding program that discusses violence against Black communities, racial justice issues and the Black Lives Matter movement.

SDSU will launch a task force to develop curricular proposals that will be presented to the school’s senate in the fall.

When the resolution was first introduced to the public, the university called it the “Black Lives Challenge” and encouraged other institutions to implement similar or other approaches on their own campuses.

“Many of them have written us telling us what they’re doing, which is following the same model and focusing on how they’re preparing those going into law enforcement,” said Wood.

SDSU also held healing sessions for Black students, faculty and staff. Additionally, in a two-hour teach-in session, more than 500 faculty listened to students talk about their own experiences to learn more about changes needed on campus.

Meanwhile, Oregon State University looked directly to its students to learn about their needs. Student leaders hosted a webinar to address racial inequity and racism.

“The students were very clear that they wanted to keep this momentum going in the sense that folks are paying attention and thinking strategically about these conversations,” said Dr. Charlene Alexander, vice president and chief diversity officer at Oregon State.

During the webinar, students encouraged the campus community to educate itself. This summer, faculty and staff will read “Higher Education Administration for Social Justice and Equity: Critical Perspectives for Leadership” and “The Empowered University: Shared Leadership, Culture Change, and Academic Success.”

Oregon State is currently putting together a new campus police force. The university will also launch a four-part webinar series for faculty to learn how to create a welcoming and inclusive environment in the classroom.

“We’re also giving them skills about how to dialogue and how to have difficult conversations,” said Alexander. “And as we keep track of biases that occur across the campus, we want our leadership to be able to respond from a skills level, on a comfort level, in knowing that they can intervene appropriately when these situations occur in the classroom.”

Alexander added that students should also be empowered by the work they do in the classroom.

“We recognize that our students are hurting and we recognize that our faculty are hurting as well,” she said. “And it is such an important time for us to build community and find ways to engage with our students and faculty. We know that this work is not going to happen overnight. As our students have kept reminding us, it’s very important for us to keep the momentum going right.”

This summer, the university will welcome a new president, Dr. F. King Alexander, whose focus has been on diversity work.

Dr. Charlene AlexanderDr. Charlene Alexander

“We are excited to welcome him on board and to help us lead through what we know is going to be a very challenging year,” said Oregon State’s vice president and chief diversity officer.

To continue conversations on race relations, discrimination and inequality, Florida State University’s (FSU) president John E. Thrasher and student leaders met with Tallahassee’s Mayor John E. Daily, Tallahassee’s police chief and city managers.

“This is just a first step toward positive change,” Thrasher said in a statement. “I want to assure our students and everyone in our campus community that my commitment goes beyond hosting meetings and issuing statements. I am listening, and my administration is committed to making long-term, sustainable changes to ensure that FSU and the Tallahassee community is a place where every single person is treated with respect and dignity and feels safe.”

In an email to the campus community, Dr. Michael V. Drake, president of The Ohio State University, laid out action steps to address racism.

Drake expressed his support for the establishment of an independent Citizens Review Board, which will review allegations of police misconduct.

In partnership with the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Office of Research created a $1 million fund to provide research grants to study the “causes, effects and solutions of racism.” A university task force is being established to look into racism and disparities on campus.

In addition, Drake will work to eliminate disparities in health care. He also supports a resolution being considered by the Ohio Senate, which declares “racism a public health crisis.”

“Together, we grieve for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many other black and brown people who have lost their lives as a result of institutional racism,” he said in a statement. “We are outraged and we are all reflecting on what this moment means. We must be the change we want to see.”

Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].

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