As colleges across the country prepare to send out their annual admissions decisions, several are also looking to redefine their histories through acknowledgement and education. For many universities, this entails delving into their long and sometimes complicated history with slavery, a feat that can take many years of research and discussion. However, in Virginia, two universities are already taking steps to acknowledge their pasts and reshape their goals for the future.
For over a decade, colleges across the country have created a slew of task forces, committees, working groups and commissions faced with acknowledging the roots of racial inequality. For many colleges, the focus of these groups has been unearthing how slavery built and benefitted their respective institutions.
Brown University became one of the first schools to do so in 2003 when President Ruth Simmons appointed a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Several other colleges such as Georgetown University, Columbia University, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary have all followed suit in exploring their own complicated histories with enslaved persons, some more recently than others.
In Charlottesville, VA, the conversation connecting slavery’s past to present-day issues is quickly developing, and Professor Kirk Von Daake has a front-row seat. As the co-chair of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, Von Daake has been charged with spearheading the University’s recognition of slavery and transforming mere acknowledgement into continuous integrated educational.
Von Daake has been involved in the university’s commission since it began in 2013 and has seen it evolve from a student-led research movement to a fully-fledged community effort. He says that the commission is currently running a multi-pronged effort that focuses on educating current and future students and faculty while enacting memorialization and commemorative efforts on campus such as renaming buildings and building a permanent memorial for enslaved persons.
“You cannot separate this story from the present,” said Von Daake, “This is a long arc of history and we need to, first, acknowledge the foundation for this story, but the next step is to get to the legacies of slavery.”
To involve students in understanding these stories, Von Daake said that the university frequently runs a course for first and second year students called Slavery and its Legacies. Last year, the course featured 18 different professors from 12 different schools and departments in an interdisciplinary survey course using the University of Virginia and its surrounding areas as a focal point for understanding slavery and the development of white supremacy in America and how they relate to modern inequalities.
“What we had found is that our students don’t know this history and there were a handful of classes giving them this information,” said Von Daake, “but we were often finding that they were [offered] in the third and fourth year which is kind of late if you’re trying to drive cultural change at an institution. We’ve been thinking about how we make this story visible and how we get students to really be thinking about it.”
While the President’s Commission of Slavery and the University is still ongoing, with recommendations yet to be presented to university President Teresa Sullivan, Von Daake said that the group has already made bold progress on campus and within the larger Charlottesville community.
Von Daake also highlighted the importance of acknowledging the gaps in accessibility faced by students of color and how the Commission is working to reach students who may not have otherwise considered the University of Virginia as an educational option.
To address this, the University runs a week-long summer program for minority and of-need high school students. According to Von Daake, the program is an intensive sleep-away experience run by undergraduate students.
“What we’ve found is that these students turn around and want to come to the university so every student that returns to the university comes in understanding these linkages. Again this is driving cultural change and driving this process of acknowledgement.”
At the College of William & Mary, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions runs a focused Multicultural Recruitment program aimed at making the college a more appealing option for students of color.
Associate Dean of Admission and Director of Multicultural Recruitment Randy Tripp characterized William & Mary’s inclusive approach to admissions as a way to create an environment where students of various races and backgrounds have a seat at the table and also feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.
“We’re always trying to bring in a diverse class from different walks of life, experiences [and] geography,” said Tripp. “There isn’t an official statement when it comes to race and admissions and affirmative action, […] but I think it’s kind of built into our process in terms of how we review application within our office.”
Tripp emphasized the importance of acknowledging that an equal starting point, in reality can mean that certain students are at a disadvantage in college admissions. The focus of William & Mary’s messaging, he said, is essential to letting students know that William & Mary is an accessible college option and one that will invest in its students of color. Senior Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Center for Student Diversity at William & Mary Vernon Hurte echoes this sentiment.
“Where the institution makes its investment tells you a lot about its priorities,” said Hurte. “That’s personally been the signal for me in terms of why I’m hopeful about where William & Mary’s going. For the first time in my memory there are significant financial efforts being made towards diversity and inclusion efforts.”
During the fall of 2015, the University of Missouri was thrust into the national spotlight when students protested the alleged racial harassment faced by students of color and the inaction of university officials. Across the country in Williamsburg, Virginia, the College of William & Mary was already in the midst of its own Task Force on Race and Race Relations. Today, financial investments are currently being enacted at William & Mary.
William & Mary Provost Michael Halleran acknowledges that while William & Mary has seen a frequent increase in student diversity, faculty diversity increases at a much slower rate. To address this issue, Halleran has announced his commitment to dedicate $1 million towards diversity hiring at the college. Unlike other universities, that dedicate funds to be distributed over a limited number of years, Halleran said that his initiative dedicates $1 million every year and that this funding will be permanent and ongoing.
“You want your faculty, staff and administration to reflect, as much as possible, the broad diversity of the student body and the society at large,” said Halleran, “When I talk to faculty who have been here thirty of forty years, it is a remarkably different campus in terms of our student body, but we have to do that more for faculty as well”
Halleran said that his diversity hiring initiative is already making an effect on campus. Six offers have been made to prospective faculty members in the Schools of Arts and Sciences, the School of Law and the School of Education. Three of these offers have already been accepted.
“The word opportunity [can be] used in a couple different ways,” said Halleran, “One is the opportunity that students have to come to William & Mary and the other is the opportunity to study a variety and diversity of fields. That is what we will get from the folks we have added to the faculty.”
Another aspect of financial support is how it’s put to use to physically alter the campus itself. Several universities have taken recent steps to rename buildings to highlight contributions made by enslaved and free African Americans while diminishing the visibility of historical figures who participated in the slave trade.
“The naming of buildings is really important,” said Von Daake.“[It] tells you something about what the University wants you to know about itself.”
According to Von Daake, the University of Virginia renamed a building after an enslaved couple in 2015 and is planning to open a new building named after an enslaved artisan network in April of 2017. He emphasized the importance of making the history and intention of renamed buildings visible.
“[When] you walk into a building, there might be a small picture of the person and a short paragraph describing who they were,” said Von Daake, “Most students don’t see it and don’t pay attention to it. At the [new] building, there is an alcove that details the history of the two people and incorporates their stories into the broader picture of slavery at the university. We want it to be hard for the casual visitor strolling through the university to not bump into some of this signage. It needs to be everywhere as a reminder.”
During the spring of 2016, William & Mary’s Board of Visitors unanimously approved renaming two dorms, Hardy and Lemon Halls, after Carroll Hardy, an African American administrator, and an enslaved man owned by the college known only as Lemon and for whom the college’s Lemon Project on researching slavery at William & Mary is named.
Halleran considered the renaming of these buildings to be an important statement and applauded the many universities across the nation that have made similar strides, expressing his opinion that they are on the right side of history, but that progress has come to slowly.
The approaches taken by University of Virginia and William & Mary to responding to student concerns are not always replicated within every college administration. The 2016 Survey of College and University Presidents found that the perceptions of many college presidents regarding race relations do not always reflect those of their student bodies, particularly minority students.
Most college presidents consider race relations to be favorable on their campuses, especially when compared to colleges across the country. Sixty-four percent say that they are “good” with 20 percent voting “excellent”. Forty-two percent of college presidents were surprised by the intensity of student protests at colleges such at the University of Missouri last fall and 38 percent of presidents considered their requests to be unreasonable, nearly twice the number who agreed that they were reasonable.
Alexa Mason, a spokesperson for the William & Mary Chapter of the NAACP, said that the organization is not surprised by this data, citing instances involving William & Mary’s own president as evidence of administrative detachment to student needs.
“NAACP has found that our own president's email updates surrounding controversial events lack empathy and a true understanding of the situation,” said Mason in a written statement. “Many students found President [Taylor] Reveley's push to look to Thomas Jefferson for solace after reports of racialized hate crimes on campus after the 2016 election highly offensive, given Jefferson's own explicit racism."
Following the 2016 presidential elections, students of color at William & Mary reported feeling threatened, prompting a campus-wide email from Reveley. The Nov. 10 email began, “In 1800 John Adams and Thomas Jefferson competed for the presidency in a very close and savage campaign. The contending political parties were convinced that the success of the other would destroy our fledgling Republic. But the Republic has proved remarkably resilient, “
Vice President for Student Affairs,Ginger Ambler sent a follow-up email on Nov. 15 that detailed reporting procedures for students facing discrimination and harassment. In the email Ambler described reported incidents including graffiti in a dorm bathroom depicting “Go Trump” with a swastika substituting for the “T”.
For many students of color, gaining realized support from a college administration is only half the battle. Hurte places the discussions of race on college campuses within the larger framework of diversity and inclusion. He considers the issue to be more in-depth that some college administrations may realize.
According to Hurte, the approach of institutions ranging from universities and corporations has traditionally been to focus solely on filling quotas, a solution that many consider ineffective in holistically addressing the needs of a diverse community.
“The dialogue has been around diversity and diversity alone and it’s been viewed, discussed and engaged as simply an aspect of representation,” said Hurte. “The discussion never really [has gone] to the place of ‘what are the lived experiences of individuals from underrepresented populations who occupy these spaces?’”
Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., made national headlines in September 2016 when it announced that it would offer preferential admission to students descended from 272 slaves who, during the 19th century, were sold by Jesuits to benefit the university.
As it stands, Georgetown’s announcement offers students applying under descendant status the same consideration as children of faculty, staff and alumni. However, some continue to challenge the announcement’s ability to realistically benefit students and influence diversity on campus.
Georgetown University's admissions office confirmed over the phone that the university has a dedicated email address for applicants seeking to apply under the descendant provision but has yet to accept any students or receive any applications as a full admissions cycle has not taken place since the announcement.
Georgetown spokesperson Ryan King said in an email, “Our goal is to structure our engagement with descendants to ensure that they are aware of the resources that Georgetown provides - not only our admissions policy but also access to our archives and work we do to help high school students from underserved communities prepare for college.”
Director and Professor of the Honors College at the University of Missouri J.D Bowers arrived at the university during the fall of 2015 and while he feels that the movement has evolved since, he says that similar issues have also arisen since the 2016 presidential election.
“One thing I’ve heard from some students is that they’re afraid that we won’t make progress,” said Bower. “They know we can’t eradicate some of the issues without cataclysmic national change. They still feel like they have to be wary and cautious. […] Sometimes they still feel more vulnerable and that’s natural.”
Bower also states that the current concerns he’s heard from students are not as major as those expressed in the past. He credits this to the University of Missouri’s improved communication with students regarding issues of racial discrimination and harassment.
“Different people stepped up and basically started communicating with them, listening to them [and] giving them an outlet to voice their concerns [and] giving them people to turn to in moments of crisis,” said Bowers, “We’ve has several other incidents on campus so it’s not like all of a sudden racism went away. As a result of that, they honestly […] felt that they could be integrated into the discussions [and] have a new administration that would build these things in.”
According to Bower, issues of diversity, race and conflict are now a standing agenda item of the University of Missouri’s council. He says that constant bi-weekly attention to these issues have helped the university change the conversation with regards to race and discrimination.
“We’ve made it clear [that] when we find these incidences happening, we will seek people out,” said Bower. “After something that’s as big as we had happen here […] you never stop being wary of that. I think that [this] is internal and integral to what we do [and] what we say. Equity and respect are core values [and] diversity and a just society are things that we need to continue to pursue.”
While reflecting upon the decisions made by his colleagues at colleges across the nation, Halleran feels confident that they are stepping over to the right side of history.
“You can’t change the past. You can try to reinterpret it. You can try to cover it up, which is not a good idea,” said Halleran. “My experience is to admit the truth. It’s liberating. And you can continue to take actions that ameliorate present conditions caused by the past that strengthen us as a community for the future.”