A Time for Action and Learning

 Thursday, September 3, 2020 03:07 PM

Black Fist Holding a PencilThis article first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Muhlenberg Magazine. Illustration by Chris Gash.

We stand at a moment in our country and on our campus that is at once familiar and quite different. Protests by Black Americans and their allies against police brutality and the systemic racism that pervades our history are not new. Everyone reading this can recall the moments and the names—from Rodney King to Trayvon Martin and George Floyd and myriad others throughout our history. But this moment is different.

Colleges serve as a microcosm of society at large and this is true of Muhlenberg as well. Spurred by protests of a student group called the Diversity Vanguard in 2013, the College engaged in the development of a diversity strategic plan. It was perhaps the first time the College formally recognized and began to address issues of systemic racism. You can read more about the plan on Muhlenberg’s Diversity & Inclusion website.

Over time, diversity and inclusion have become central to the values and missions of liberal arts institutions, and Muhlenberg is no exception. Much about our institutional diversity and our commitment to inclusion has changed at the College—from the first Black student of Muhlenberg, Clara Lane (who attended in 1926 and 1927), and the formal admittance of women beginning in 1957 to the creation of the Emerging Leaders program and addition of an associate provost for faculty and diversity initiatives more recently. But like society, changes for racial equity at the College have been driven not by majority students, faculty and staff, but by those groups affected by systemic oppression. And for all the accomplishments we might list, our students, faculty, staff and alumni of color have told us that we have not done enough.

That brings us back to this moment and the choice we have made as an institution. Colleges typically respond to diversity protests with limited, although sincere, efforts to create visible change. But those changes often struggle because they are embedded within the systems and cultures that are inherently oppressive to people of color. Without addressing those systems, we cannot be successful. Recruiting more students, faculty and staff of color is not enough. We need to change Muhlenberg so that people of color can thrive in the same manner as our white community members. That is why we are committed to actions that create deep, tangible, lasting change at the College.

In order to do this, we must move past the notion of this being a moment and embrace it as a movement. It is no longer enough for anyone to say we are not racist—that only serves to absolve us from further action. We must commit to being anti-racist. In doing so, we commit to understanding our role and where and how we can each make change for the better. As we write this, the top 10 books on The New York Times nonfiction best-sellers list are all about bias, anti-racism and associated topics. You’ll find most of these titles on a list of resources we’ve put together on diversity on our website under the Black Lives Matter link. We recommend two books as a starting point: Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do by Jennifer L. Eberhardt and How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi.

In early June, with the protests in reaction to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in their early days, the Black faculty of the College sent a letter to the Muhlenberg community along with proposed actions. The letter recognized the grief and tremendous stress that Black members of our community were under and asked all who would to sign on in support of changing Muhlenberg “to dismantle current systems of power, racism and inequality and build just, fully equitable systems in their place.” To date, 366 faculty and staff members of Muhlenberg College have signed in support. This is important, because the letter was to the community, and each person who signed in support is signaling that they will take ownership of their responsibility to move the College forward in pursuit of these ideals. A movement, not a moment.

Shortly after the letter to the community, President Harring shared a number of action steps, many of which were also part of the Black faculty action plan, to which the College is committed. These commitments include the hire of two tenure-track faculty positions with joint appointments in Africana studies to expand the program; increased funding to strengthen the Emerging Leaders program as well as expanding it from a two-year to a four-year program; providing additional funding for the Presidential Diversity Innovation Grants to be targeted for anti-racist programs; and increased funding and resources for the Office of Multicultural Life to strengthen programs on diversity and social justice, student advocacy, leadership development and community building.

We do not view these action steps as the entirety of the College’s responsibility or commitment to becoming an anti-racist institution. We continue work on Muhlenberg’s Diversity Strategic Plan and its intersections with the College’s overarching strategic plan. The work of the President’s Diversity Advisory Council (PDAC) to assess progress (see the 2019 progress report on our diversity website) and prioritize next steps remains critical. But we will not restrict our thinking to the current plans. Instead, we will begin the process of looking more deeply at the College’s systems and at our cultural norms to effect the kind of lasting change that we have long talked about.

Our Muhlenberg community must work together as we make Muhlenberg a place for all of our members. The board stands in full support of the administration and of students, faculty, staff and alumni of color and their allies and will serve as a partner, keeping issues of equity and justice in the forefront of its decision-making process. Time and time again, we have proven that when we work together as a community, we find the power and strength to accomplish great things. We believe we all have the power to make Muhlenberg better and in turn, can make wider change in our society possible.

Kathleen E. Harring, President

Richard C. Crist Jr. ’77 P’05 P’09, Chair, Muhlenberg College Board of Trustees