By AMY HAN
For The News-Letter
Members of the Hopkins community participated in the Black Student Forum on Monday. The purpose of the forum was to generate an honest dialogue among the Black Student Union (BSU), the administration and attendees regarding race relations and the experience of black undergraduates at the University.
The idea for the forum was initiated on Nov. 13 when the BSU protested the current status of black students at Hopkins and gave a list of demands to University President Ronald J. Daniels about numerous problems that black students face. The list called for cultural competency training, an increase in the number of black faculty and more support for black students on campus.
Daniels responded to the BSU’s demands at the forum.
He turned down a mandatory cultural competency class but considered a distribution requirement alternative and declined to make the Center for Africana Studies a full department because of its cross-disciplinary nature.
Daniels said that the University will do all it can to hire more black faculty without violating federal law, including the creation of five new tenure-track lines that will likely be filled by black professors.
More than 500 faculty, students and other Hopkins affiliates listened to and participated in the discussion. Several others went to an overflow room to watch the forum, and more watched it online.
The BSU organized the public forum to speak to upper-level administrators, including Daniels, Provost Robert C. Lieberman, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Kevin G. Shollenberger, Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Beverly Wendland, Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering T.E. Schlesinger and Secretary of the Board of Trustees Maureen Marsh.
The event began with remarks from Associate Professor of Sociology Katrina Bell McDonald, the faculty advisor of the BSU, who introduced the panel of administrators and BSU members.
Juniors Matthew Brown and Tiffany Onyejiaka, president and vice president of the BSU, respectively, spoke next, followed by Daniels.
Brown presented the history of the BSU, including its initial denial of recognition as a student organization in 1968 by the administration, and stressed the lack of results achieved despite continuous efforts.
“After talking to various alumni before this forum, back to about 50 years back, including Guess [the first president of the BSU] himself and alumni in between, everyone alleged that we talked about this before with various presidents and various administrators but it seems like nothing has changed. It’s an endless cycle that we’re trying to break,” Brown said.
He noted primary issues such as the lack of promoting cultural competency, increasing diversity of both students and faculty and addressing the campus social media climate — particularly, racist comments on Yik Yak following the riots and peaceful demonstrations in response to the death of Freddie Gray. Daniels responded that the University’s only option to address those who issue threats of lynching and death anonymously on Yik Yak is to partner with Yik Yak, which will only reveal the user in question if the University is willing to prosecute the user. Daniels said the University is willing to prosecute offenders.
Brown also cited the University of Pennsylvania’s curriculum instituted during Daniels’ tenure as Provost there on cross-cultural analysis and cultural diversity as an example that Hopkins could follow. The curriculum included courses on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class and religion.
Brown also presented current statistics: There will be only three full-time black professors at Hopkins next year, and last year, out of a freshman class of 1,414, only 86 were black. While a Hopkins-specific Yik Yak and the JHU Forums on Race in America are initiatives to combat the hate speech, Brown feels that the University should take more direct action.
“It’s a matter of taking a more proactive step this time, not wait for the second time,” Brown said.
Onyejiaka spoke about the current and historical struggles of black students at Hopkins.
“As we all know, being a Hopkins student is hard. But being a black student at Hopkins adds an extra dimension of difficulty. Every student deals with difficult classes and harsh grading curves, but black students also have to deal with discrimination in various aspects of campus life. From professors who spout anti-black views on social media to classmates who see no fault in making racialized jokes and comments, Hopkins can be a toxic environment to be black,” she said. “The complaints and demands we brought up to the administration are not novel ideas. These are concerns and complaints that previous generations of black students have continuously brought up as well. My hope is that some day black students at Hopkins can look upon these concerns presented today as a message of the past and can enjoy their time at Hopkins knowing that their blackness is a gift and not a curse.”
In response to the BSU, Daniels acknowledged that work needs to be done to improve the situation of black undergraduates but cited the progress that Hopkins has made and outlined new initiatives.
Daniels listed steps made at Hopkins such as the Johns Hopkins Underrepresented in Medical Professions Program (JUMP); the Hop-In Program; the JHU Forums on Race in America to stimulate conversation on and understanding of race; the Hopkins Retrospective’s efforts on historical education about race; and new mandatory training for all undergraduate students, RAs and Orientation personnel to increase their sensitivity to racial issues, along with an increase in black student representation and undergraduate retention and support.
“It’s an important set of changes. Again, it doesn’t fully address the issues of climate, but it does reflect responsiveness to the concerns that have been raised over the years and our efforts to make haste there,” Daniels said.
Daniels then went through the list of demands, agreeing with some points and disagreeing with others. Regarding the demand for a mandatory class on cultural competency, Daniels felt that, while there is room to introduce issues of race and culture into the curriculum, he won’t support a single mandatory course as it goes against the freedom of choice promoted by the University.
He also mentioned that, along with the current required training for undergraduates, faculty and staff, the University is planning to extend the training program on diversity, racial sensitivity and awareness.
Additionally, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Chief Diversity Officer Caroline Laguerre-Brown will develop a report on how the school can develop a training system for all faculty and staff members.
Daniels also agreed to support the hiring of more black faculty members and faculty concerned with the history, culture and political position of black Americans. Daniels noted the novelty of many of the initiatives outlined in the Faculty Diversity Issue (FDI) and emphasized that, while processes and the law prevent Hopkins from producing immediate results, the administration is ready to enact change.
“I hope that I’ve been able to convey, though this is not an easy moment for any of us… a determination and indeed an excitement about working with all of you and an optimism about where we can be, not just in Baltimore but in America… [by] taking some innovative and creative approaches to what is clearly a long-standing and very challenging issue for this University and indeed this country,” Daniels said.
President Daniels denied the BSU’s demand for the Center of Africana Studies (CAS) to be recognized as a department. He did, however, outline the increased support that will be provided.
“This is where I say no to the department but yes to resources for Africana Studies,” Daniels said. “Here, what’s critical is this year there is a search for two faculty members to be associated with Africana Studies but more than that, the first time an effort to increase the likelihood of success in recruiting great faculty to Africana Studies. Dean Beverly Wendland has assigned two more positions to that area so that there’s a cluster of four faculty lines. We’ve also committed a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, so we’ve got five faculty lines, all to kind of cluster in this area.”
Hollis Robbins, Director of the Center for Africana Studies and Chair of the Humanities Department at the Peabody Institute, understands the reasoning behind Daniels’ decision and appreciates the administration’s efforts to answer the BSU’s demands but also says that the CAS should be recognized as a department.
“I see his argument that by making the Center a department, it reduces the burden of other departments to hire not just faculty, but faculty whose interests lie in people of African descent,” Robbins said. “But the challenges of being a center are real. Faculty here have double the commitment. It isn’t just the matter of engaging in an interdisciplinary way here and then going to spread the word back in our home departments, because the work of engaging our home departments with the goals with Africana studies, that work is actual work… And so by keeping the Center a center, the argument is that you’re continuing to require that those of us who are involved with the Center have that extra burden.”
According to Robbins, the CAS has been talking about becoming a department for a long time. This June, the Center sent their first formal request for departmental status to Wendland.
“Given the departure of two, and possibly three, black faculty members affiliated with Africana Studies who work on race and race studies at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and given the many obstacles that stand in the way of hiring new faculty members in Africana Studies, we speak with one voice in asking that consideration be given to granting Africana Studies departmental status. We understand that a change in status would not happen overnight but with respect to requested searches, the ability to say that departmental status is under consideration could only be helpful in our recruitment efforts,” Robbins later wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
Robbins specified that with the Center’s current status, it is difficult to hire a diverse group of faculty.
“We do joint appointments where faculty members are part of the Center but tenured in their home departments, but if there’s a department that does not tenure, like Film and Media Studies, it is impossible for us to hire, let’s say, a black filmmaker,” she said.
Numerous attendees of the BSU forum are not completely satisfied with the progress that the University has publicized. Students and alumni brought up questions on the lack of aggressive anti-racist policies, faculty and staff that discriminate against students, the status of the CAS, the effectiveness of the Faculty Diversity Initiative and white supremacy at Hopkins as well as tuition increases that disproportionately affect black students because of their below-average family wealth.
Two students cited that only 7.5 percent of American Ph.D.s are held by black people and said that the University should not prioritize diversity over quality of education. Provost Lieberman denied that Hopkins would sacrifice its academic integrity for diversity’s sake and said that diversity creates a more vibrant and successful academic community.
Attendees wanted concrete dates, a discrete timeline and definite, specific goals. Kobi Little, Class of 1994 and former BSU President, applauded the current administration’s dedication to progress but emphasized that, more importantly, the University needs to commit to creating solutions.
“Progress is not the goal. The goal is solutions. Progress is like a slippery slope, just like data is a slippery slope. Conceptions of progress and the way that data is represented can be manipulated to make a point. We want a commitment to a solution not progress,” Little said.
While the immediate goal of the forum was to receive answers on the improvement of the black undergraduate experience at Homewood, the moderator of the event, Mieka Smart, the Associate Director of the Undergraduate Program in Public Health Studies, challenged the audience to reflect on the forum after its conclusion.
“Each of us has the feelings and the knowledge and the experiences that we had when we walked into those back doors behind there in Hodson but our goal in this room is to keep it safe. We’re going to have an honest conversation that’s going to stay alive after we walk back out of those doors,” Smart said.
Sophomore Freddie McCall wrote an email to The News-Letter about his experience at the event.
“Although the forum was scheduled too soon for the administration to have a concrete action plan prepared, President Daniels provided a very clear account of the effort the administration has put in to making Hopkins a better place for its underrepresented students,” he wrote. “I’m excited to see what else BSU, as well as members of the student body who were moved by the event, have in store for us.”
The BSU will release a statement in response to the forum on Friday.
Since the Nov. 13 protest, the University has finalized the FDI, which has been a work-in-progress for the past year. Tuesday morning, Lieberman sent out an email outlining the details and specific components of the FDI, including enhanced faculty search practices and funding for the recruitment process and visiting professors and scholars.