“Quite frankly, we’ve had task forces,” said Marlo David, director of African American Studies at Purdue. “So I think the question has to be for this task force and any work that’s being done going forward is why haven’t any of those things worked in the past, and what will it take to significantly change the issues around inclusion and equity on campus?”
During last week’s Board of Trustees meeting, a task force to examine racial inequity was proposed in response to George Floyd’s death and other cases of racial injustice, according to a Purdue News press release.
“I want to say with my whole heart black lives matter,” student trustee Noah Scott said at the meeting. “Black lives matter. Black lives matter. I stand with you, we stand with you and we together will need to come together as a campus and a community to build a better world for tomorrow.”
Addressing the issue
While members of the board have declined to speak about the task force until closer to the beginning of the fall semester, both students of color and faculty in Women’s Gender and Sexuality and African American Studies expressed their skepticism for the initiative.
“Purdue definitely has issues of systemic racism and sexism as well as other kinds of discrimination faculty, students and staff face,” David, also a professor in WGSS and English, said. While she said she is always in favor of Purdue and other institutions examining themselves to identify and understand issues that plague their campuses, she is still approaching the task force with apprehension.
Her worry, she said, is the force will generate reports in response to inequity on campus, only for these to disappear into a stack of papers in an administrative office, never to be addressed or used to make a difference in the Purdue environment.
One such change would be addressing the lack of black faculty at Purdue. She said there are still departments on campus with very little to no black representation, and that, while the University is actively working to increase its percentage of black students on campus, her concern is that these students will face discrimination in their courses because of a lack of black professors and police officers.
“In my 10 years at Purdue, I’ve led countless numbers of workshops, teach-ins, panels, and I hear the same exact frustrations from black students over and over again,” she said. “It’s not ever changing, and that’s really concerning to me, and very serious.”
Sarah Hicks, a senior in the College of Health and Human Sciences, also expressed her concern about the task force. She said she feels it could be effective, but “if Purdue does the same thing they always do, nothing’s going to change.”
She said Purdue often makes statements that it focuses on diversity and inclusion and is making efforts to diversify its campus, but these efforts “drop off when (students) get to campus.”
At the beginning of her freshman year, Hicks said her randomly-assigned roommate made comments defending members of the Ku Klux Klan, saying they were just trying to share their opinions and not doing anything wrong, along with other discriminatory and racially charged comments. Hicks said she went to her resident assistant to share her concerns, explaining she didn’t feel comfortable living with her roommate, to which she was told to just not talk about politics and she would be fine.
“I was like, ‘Racism isn’t political,’” Hicks said, and said she wasn’t given a different room until more than a semester later.
“It was really discouraging that someone can openly say they support a hate group that targets you as a person, and you’re the one that has to jump through all these hoops to feel comfortable in your own room,” she said.
Assata Gilmore, Purdue Student Government president, said that although she was hopeful for the future of the task force, she understood the community’s concern.
“When you say that you’re committed to doing something and then it immediately goes to the back-burner and (Purdue) says ‘Oh, we’re not going to start until the fall,’ I completely get why students then think ‘Oh, okay well this is just another ploy, something that isn’t really on the University’s mind,’” Gilmore said.
Gilmore, however, said she is confident in the Purdue student body’s dedication to the cause, that it will be a driving force to continue applying pressure to keep the University accountable to make the task force a place of action rather than just statements.
David said the solution to addressing inequality is simpler than it seems: Purdue just has to change conditions to allow for equal and equitable treatment for all.
“I don’t want to sound glib about it, but some of the hand-wringing around ‘What do we do now?’ is something that is going to take the administration making some very bold steps toward making things equitable rather than talking and talking and talking about how everyone feels that things are unequal,” David said. “We have the data, let’s use it and fix it.”
She went on, saying that Purdue needs to look at the issues it identifies and make proper modifications. David said if campus data shows issues for minorities — faculty not receiving equal pay, students being treated unfairly or not receiving the same resources as others, students feeling disrespected by Purdue police — there are simple solutions to these, but they will require sacrifices from individuals who have previously enjoyed privileges on campus.
“We need to make things equitable and inclusive, but what that does mean is the people that have enjoyed power and visibility on the campus will have to begin to give some of that away,” she said.
Gilmore also said demographics who haven’t historically participated in the movement to support minorities, who feel they aren’t affected by this, will have to involve themselves with the task force as well.
She referenced posts on the recently-created Instagram page @blackatPurdue, which shares anonymous stories of student, alumni and staff experiences with racism at Purdue. Many of the stories address issues that occurred in relation to Greek life and residential staff: two groups Gilmore said are imperative to the task force’s conversations.
“Historically, systems at Purdue are not in favor of underrepresented minority students,” she said. “So in order to actively and effectively foster change, (the task force) will have to go through everything.”
Hicks also said the initiative will have to focus on more than just incidents involving students if it is to be truly successful.
“When we talk about the task force, it has to be over everybody: professors, advisors, deans of students,” Hicks said. “This can’t only be ‘Oh, we’re only going to fix the students.’”
While Purdue has not shared many details on what the task force will entail, David, Hicks and Gilmore all agreed that in order to be most effective, it will have to include representation from all corners of campus life.
Gilmore said she expects a member of staff or faculty will serve as its chair, but hopes student voices will be a prominent factor of the task force.
David also said student delegates are a crucial addition to the task force, as well as a significant number of black voices from every position.
“Certainly we’ll need administrators and folks who can actually help us implement some of those things,” she said. “But at the same time, you know if it’s all administrators and Board of Trustees (members) and deans, we know there are very few black higher administrators and deans and whatnot at the University, so that doesn’t really get us to solutions, it gets us to just conversation, but I think we’re past conversation at this point.”
Purdue spokesperson Tim Doty said in an email the Board of Trustees will have more information about the proposed task force at its August meeting, with plans to launch sometime in September. In the meantime, Purdue is asking for ideas or issues for the board to consider to be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.