Open Letter to Chancellor Girod and Provost Bichelmeyer

Dear Doug and Barb,

The above announcement was recently brought to our attention. Because the solicitation of funds for this purpose misrepresents our current reality, we feel compelled to respond.  We have joined many of our colleagues at KU and the whole of Lawrence in promoting an inclusive and socially just community at KU for the last 20 years.  Together, we have engaged in (a) recruiting and supporting a diverse population of graduate students who have earned degrees at KU; (b) recruiting and supporting diverse faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; (c) bringing in millions of dollars in external funding to help realize that goal; and (d) fighting tooth and nail to get KU Endowment to help raise monies for an existing fund that places a high “value on diversity and education at KU.” Your appeal for the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship Fund is an appalling, wanton display of disrespect for an entire community.  What is the intent here?  Are you aware of the message this sends out to the world? With whom did you discuss taking such a step? Given the list of priorities we have YET to act upon, this appeal for funds, without any accompanying plan of action, is nothing more than “sounding brass or a tinkling symbol.”

Let’s consider, for a moment, two possible implications of such an appeal: First, it is only after an accumulation of the most extreme acts of violence and police brutality that KU can “see” outside of itself, while ignoring the inequities inside.  Second, KU is so opportunistic that it can only act when driven by guilt or greed. Both responses are part of the  problem– made clear by such groups as Invisible Hawks–and not part of the solution. In sum, your action speaks volumes about what KU is at its core–a vessel filled with empty promises and insincere commitments to social justice.

To the University’s credit, KU administrators in the past have created and approved strategic initiatives awaiting implementation. However, these have proven to be little more than symbolic gestures as department hiring plans and committee reports have gone unheeded. Climate surveys, rich with data, especially on what life is like for people of color on KU’s campus, continue to be ignored. This would suggest that we have known for a while what KU can honestly do to show (a) its commitment to change by better preparing all of our students and training all of its faculty; (b) that black lives matter here and elsewhere; and (c) that it supports a broad-based research mission that facilitates innovation, discovery and the dissemination of knowledge aimed at transforming and creating a more socially just world. Why not proceed with all deliberate speed, prioritizing and acting upon what we know, what is essential?

We are embarrassed that no one thought more clearly before jumping on the bandwagon of empty rhetoric. Thoughtful actions can restore the trust and respect, lost from students, staff, faculty and alumni over the last few years, and made worse in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are convinced that we have the human and institutional resources needed to make real change.  Systemic racism is real and constantly expanding. The deaths of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are among the most recently acknowledged examples of police violence that has a long history.  The last decade alone provides staggering statistics. But we live in the era of “wokeness”and social media, where there is an urgent need to sound and look relevant. To be sure George Floyd helps to punctuate the gravity and senselessness of racial violence in new ways, attracting international attention.

Let us not forget that we are less than a month away from the 50th anniversary of the killing of KU student Rick “Tiger” Dowdell by Lawrence police on July 16, 1970. The racial climate then was not unlike it is today.  One outcome of that tragic event was the establishment of KU’s African and African American Studies Department, the only one in the state of Kansas, which is also turning 50 – the celebration of which the university has elected not to support.

We have every right to be outraged as the death count rises.  We are sure of one thing: neither the families of George Floyd and Rick Dowdell nor our diverse KU communities need mere tokenism. Please do not misrepresent our university and disrespect those of us already committed to equity and inclusion. The real work always begins at home. We remain optimistic that we can move beyond gratuitous tokenism and accomplish genuine, systemic change.

Yours, for a more socially just University,

Maryemma Graham                                                                                                            Edgar Tidwell

University Distinguished Professor of English                                                                Professor Emeritus

Founder and Director, Project on the History of Black Writing                                   Department of English