The Black Laurentian Initiative | St. Lawrence University President's Office

The Black Laurentian Initiative

Dear Laurentian Community,

In late June, a group of students called the Black Laurentian Initiative sent a letter to the Board of Trustees. The University response to that letter was sent to the group today, and the text appears below. With the students' permission, we have also shared their original message.

Sincerely,

Bill Fox
President

July 30 Response to the Black Laurentian Initiative

Dear Students of the Black Laurentian Initiative,
Thank you for sharing your personal, and often intensely painful, experiences, and emotions as Black students of St. Lawrence. Your perspectives provide us with a valuable lens to see into a deeper understanding of the historic and recent atrocities made more apparent by the Black Lives Matter movement and, in the firestorm of grief, rage, and divisiveness now gripping our national consciousness, we affirm the moral imperative of confronting the incontrovertible truth of systemic racism in our society. 

In examining our own history through this lens, we know that St. Lawrence has, over the years, recognized the lack of diversity in both our student population and campus programming. Over the past 20 years, efforts to recruit more students and faculty of color have resulted in doubling the number of U.S. students of color (from 6% in 1999 to 12.7% in 2019) and faculty of color (from 6.9% in 1999 to 16.3% in 2019).  The development of course offerings in African American Studies and other ethnic studies programs has helped contextualize the often underrepresented and underappreciated historical, literary/artistic, and ideological contributions of minority groups in the United States as well as chart the contemporary landscape of our racial, ethnic, and class relations. And, during the last decade, University leaders have made diversity a central component of major institutional initiatives, such as the Strategic Map (2011), the Diversity Graduation Requirement (2013), the Presidential Diversity Commission Report (2014), and the hiring of Dr. Kimberly Flint-Hamilton (2017) as our Associate Dean of Diversity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer. Yet, while these efforts have spurred positive outcomes, we also realize that there is much more work to be done to fulfill the vision expressed in the St. Lawrence Statement of Diversity (2015): 

We believe that St. Lawrence University must work to create an environment that thrives on the diversity individuals bring to this community of learners. We understand that what will hold our diverse and inclusive community together is our clear commitment to finding common ground through ongoing communal dialog, our sense that a strong educational foundation is at once empathetic, ethical and intellectual, and our focus on positive educational and social outcomes. To integrate diversity meaningfully into our curricular and extracurricular community life, we acknowledge the need to challenge previous habits and assumptions understanding the structures of power and injustice in which they exist. We are willing to risk difficulty and discomfort in working towards achieving these goals. To prepare students for intellectual leadership, professional achievement and responsible global citizenship, St. Lawrence University is devoted to creating, sustaining, and expanding a diverse University. 

We also want to express our gratitude for the spirit of collegiality and collaboration that infuses your narrative, as well as for the careful thought and maturity demonstrated in the concrete action-steps you have outlined. Additionally, we are so proud that you have chosen to name your organization “The Black Laurentian Initiative.” That you identify as Laurentians speaks not only to your love for St. Lawrence, but also to the fact that striving for social justice is part of our institutional DNA. Our entire campus community, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, and your student peers, are eager to engage in this cause and to work in solidarity with you, our Black student activists.

This engagement goes well beyond our campus boundaries. The President, on behalf of the University, has articulated throughout the summer the concerns of the BLI letter to the Village of Canton Mayor and Town Supervisor. These meetings resulted in the unanimous adoption of public statements of both the Village Board and the Town Legislature in support of an antiracist environment in Canton. Further, President Fox has represented to local law enforcement leaders the issues of implicit bias, profiling, and citizen-on-citizen harassment. Police reform and training is a top priority of the St. Lawrence County sheriff. St. Lawrence’s own director of safety and security, Pat Gagnon, is highly respected as a community leader among law enforcement agencies and continues to collaborate closely in a variety of training programs.

In addition, the President, also with the support of the Trustees, took a strong public position, including representing St. Lawrence as a signatory in a brief of amicus curiae with 180 other institutions, in opposing the U. S. government’s proposed restrictions on international students who may not be able to attend in-person courses in the coming academic year owing to pandemic issues. In the first court hearing, the government reversed its decision.

On July 9, the four-member Town of Canton Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of Black lives, echoing the Village of Canton's similar resolution on June 16. The Town of Canton resolution "condemns all acts of racism and discrimination against people of color and affirms that Black lives do matter" and declared that "the people of Canton wish to welcome and include people of all races, ethnicities and gender identities to create a community where everyone can thrive.” The responsibility of fostering such a thriving community, the resolution concludes, is that of “all elected and appointment officials, municipal staff and law enforcement.”

What all this means, in simple terms, is that countless Laurentians, whether on campus, across the country, or around the world, and as well as the surrounding community of Canton that has been home to our college for over 160 years, are united with you in the fight against racial injustice. 

We now turn to the discussion of the six main themes highlighted in your June 25 letter. Each section below outlines specific initiatives that St. Lawrence has already enacted or currently has underway. In addition, the action-steps we propose to launch through the St. Lawrence Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Strategic Action Plan are enumerated with the expectation of close collaboration with key partners, which include the Black Laurentian Initiative, the academic and administrative divisions across campus, Thelmo, Village and Town of Canton officials, representatives of local and state law enforcement agencies, and many others in our community.  

1. Institutional self-analysis and reflection on racial equity:

  • St. Lawrence’s recent work in this area includes the comprehensive Campus Climate Survey (2018) that encompassed the entire campus community; and follow-up focus group meetings (2019) that have engaged nearly 100 faculty, staff, and students in intensive interviews. Efforts currently underway include:
    • The development of a D&I Strategic Action Plan with five thematic areas and short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals, targeted for dissemination to the campus community in September 2020; and
    • Kimberly Flint-Hamilton’s work to compile a list of faculty course offerings that include content on race issues, which will help the D&I team and institutional leaders identify gaps in the curriculum that need to be addressed.
  • Action items planned for the near future include:
    • Dedicating a section of the D&I website to serve as an online hub to share information, updates on past/ongoing initiatives, and resources related to racial equity issues at St. Lawrence; 
    • Tasking each University division with developing D&I tactics to support the overall campus D&I Strategic Action Plan; and
    • Establishing as a standing agenda item for Kimberly Flint-Hamilton to give an update report three times a year to the Board of Trustees and, similarly, to the Alumni Executive Council.

2. Permanent exhibits featuring positive Black/multicultural images:

  • The University has recognized the need for additional campus physical space to help carry out the critical work to address racism is important work on campus. We have identified additional space in the Sullivan Student Center, in the heart of campus and in our most trafficked building, for this vital purpose. It is our intention that this space will better serve the needs of our diversity and inclusion efforts.
  • We are naming the campus-owned Dean of Student Life’s house in honor of the University’s first African-American undergraduate to receive a degree, Jeffrey Worthington Campbell, Class of 1933.
  • With strong support from University leadership, the Black Lives Matter flag is being flown at the Student Center from June 19 through September 30, 2020, in accordance with our new Student Center Flag of Symbolism Policy—a policy initiated through student advocacy.
  • Based on the request of Thelmo Vice President of Senate Affairs Shedrack Bogonko ’22, the popular “Faces of St. Lawrence” exhibit will now be permanently displayed in the Student Center on the first floor.
  • A display with Black/multicultural images is currently featured on the 2nd floor of the Student Center, and additional displays elsewhere in the Student Center are being planned. 
  • We are tasking the Brush Art Gallery with planning and implementing more featured exhibits with Black/multicultural themes, and we will seek to identify other public community spaces on campus to mount long-term multicultural displays.

3. Black Laurentian Initiative (BLI) Fund:

  • To launch this initiative, the University will create an official BLI Fund, the purpose of which will be to empower students and faculty to engage in research and propose projects around the issues of racial equity and justice. Several models are under consideration for the administration of the fund, including the University Fellowship Program, which supports 35-50 students each summer in conducting independent research projects with faculty mentors. An initial budget allocation of $100,000 divided over two years will be available immediately in the 2020-2021 academic year.
  • We are now in the final phase of The Campaign for Every Laurentian (CFEL), the most ambitious comprehensive fundraising initiative in our institutional history, which entered its public phase in October 2018. The four foundational pillars of The CFEL are: Endowing our Future; Learning for the 21st Century; the Power of Connections; and Campus Stewardship, During the final year of The CFEL and beyond, University Advancement will be tasked with raising additional funds from both individual donors and foundations to support long-term, robust BLI research and project activity, with particular focus on Endowing our Future to ensure that the BLI Fund will continue to be a priority for perpetuity.
  • We also note that the faculty D&I research initiative launched in 2019 will continue in 2020-21 and beyond: this initiative provides stipends of $1,000 to faculty members to undertake scholarship research projects in the area of diversity and inclusion. During 2019-2020, four faculty members were designated as Building Inclusive Scholarship Fellows.

4. Flaws in the curriculum:

  • The ten-member faculty-staff University Assessment Committee, which is chaired by Vice President of the University and Dean of Academic Affairs Karl Schonberg and co-chaired by Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs Evelyn Jennings and Director of Institutional Research Christine Zimmerman, will be charged with examining the effectiveness of the diversity requirement (DIV-13) included in the University’s revised, approved curriculum in 2013, namely the learning goal in which students develop "a capacity for critical self-reflection[...]; a recognition of diversity within and among groups[...]; and understanding of the dynamics of power and justice[...]."
  • The Assessment Committee’s work will be informed by similar activities already underway, such as Dr. Flint-Hamilton’s engagement with faculty to index a list of courses that incorporate meaningful content around racial themes, as already described above.

5.  Funding for Black/multicultural Student Groups

  • The Thelmo Executive Board will be tasked with: a) performing a thorough review of the procedures governing the allocation of Thelmo funds to student organizations, specifically to ensure the equitable and inclusive distribution of available funds to Black/multicultural student groups; and b) developing a process such that each student organization receiving Thelmo funding appoints a student officer responsible for overseeing D&I engagement within the organization. 
  • To ensure that Black/multicultural student organizations are empowered to expand their own programming to address racial equity issues, the Division of Student Life will collaborate with Thelmo to offer small group workshops focusing on program development and budgeting for Black/multicultural student leaders.
  • More broadly, we will also charge the Thelmo Executive Board with undertaking a comprehensive self-analysis throughout the 2020-2021 academic year specifically to examine Thelmo’s structure, bylaws, and membership through the lens of racial justice and develop recommendations for improvement.
  • After implementing this process, the University will reevaluate the BLI request for matching funds.

6. Training for faculty and staff:

  • The University has instituted diversity and inclusion training for all new employees. Regular diversity and inclusion workshops and trainings are also conducted for Safety and Security officers, Dana Dining Services, and many student leaders. In addition, first-year students receive training during Orientation and at mid-semester. These and other initiatives will be expanded and incorporated into University programming as the D&I Strategic Action Plan is further developed and made ready for full implementation, starting this fall.
  • Recognizing the tremendous need for all members of the campus community to express their powerful emotions and grief in the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic murder earlier this summer and many other recent examples of racial injustice, Dr. Flint-Hamilton and University leaders organized Town Hall meetings and forums in June, followed by faculty workshops in July and additional events for the upcoming academic year. 
  • Many of our faculty members and staff have stepped forward to take active roles in advocating for racial justice, with such actions as the June 11 public statement endorsed by over 140 faculty members.
  • Planning for action items includes:
    • Creating a robust inventory of resources (workshop materials, Powerpoint presentations) for faculty, staff, and students around D&I issues that will be accessible to the entire campus community via the D&I website;
    • Providing targeted training to campus counseling staff on supporting Black/multicultural students;
    • Developing a grief and healing program to offer to students, faculty, and staff; and
    • Providing a mandatory online D&I training module for all faculty and staff members.

It is our great hope that your letter and this response will serve as the foundation for many more conversations to come, and more importantly, as the catalyst to decisive action as a University community. We understand that Dr. Flint-Hamilton has invited representatives from the Black Laurentian Initiative to join the St. Lawrence Diversity Committee to work together on the D&I Strategic Action Plan. This is an excellent first step in advancing our ongoing dialogue. Looking forward, we cannot overstate the need for you to continue to communicate your experiences and perspectives—as Black St. Lawrence students, you are our touchstone in every institutional effort to address racial injustice.

In closing, let us look to Maya Angelou to capture the enormity of the challenge we face, but also our commitment to be agents of change working for a more equitable world. Through the public recitation of "On the Pulse of Morning" at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, Angelou become the second poet to read a poem at a presidential inauguration, and the first African American and woman. In reading that poem, we acknowledge that “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived,” but learn that “if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” As Laurentians, we now resolve to join together, fueled by the courage and vision of our campus and broader community, to confront systemic racism with united action. For only then, as Angelou’s poem promises, can we truly see that “Each new hour holds new chances, for new beginnings.”

With warmest wishes and abiding hope,

Bill Fox ’75, President
Mike Ranger ’80, P’17, Chair Board of Trustees
Jennifer Curley Reichert ’90, Vice Chair Board of Trustees
Senior Staff
Kimberly Flint-Hamilton, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion

June 25 Letter to the Board of Trustees

Dear Trustees, Emeriti, and Delegates,

It is with a heavy heart that we write this letter, as the circumstances that demand the drafting of such a letter remain devastating to so many. The recent events across our nation are once again highlighting the failures of our organized institutions, and continue to illustrate the ongoing indignities faced by Black Americans. These events particularly call on academia to respond with urgency and immediacy to the cries of our larger society. As an institution charged with fostering the future generation of leaders and change makers, St. Lawrence must take it upon itself to address these issues in every crevice of campus. Currently, different departments within St. Lawrence are taking on various responsibilities to address all forms of racism and inequalities. As such, we are anticipating unprecedented actions from the Board of Trustees.

The Black Laurentian Initiative, a coalition of students across campus, have come together to examine the role of their beloved University in this larger systemic machine. These students have been priming and guiding the University’s response in light of the Black Lives Matter Movement. We have organized with the understanding that we must always reflect on our individual and collective place in the world, as well as challenge ourselves to identify additional steps necessary to move the needle in the fight for progress. We must continuously ask what more can St. Lawrence do to contribute in the fight against all forms of injustice (specifically the aggression against black bodies), and identify opportunities for change within our campus culture.

We ask for your unwavering support and collaboration in our efforts to make this campus the kind of place it promises to all students. We ask for your assistance in turning our initiatives into realities. Lastly, we ask that you join us in grasping this tragic moment in American history, and ask critical questions of ourselves and of our institution. This struggle is ongoing, it requires an unpaid commitment and a willingness to invest in the type of future where you may never get to see the fruits of your labor. However, St. Lawrence must succeed where the rest of society has failed. Below, we have a list of proposed action plans that the University can undertake to positively contribute to these efforts.

Action One : Following in the Footsteps of other Universities

We believe that before the Trustees can legitimately ask members of the St. Lawrence community to make personal and institutional changes, the Board must first show its willingness to embark on this journey of commitment with us. As such, the Board should follow in the promising footsteps of other Universities. Currently, President Eisgruber at Princeton is calling on their University to confront the realities and legacy of racism, at every level of their institution. Furthermore, he is asking all cabinet and distinguished members at Princeton to submit a report by August 21st specifying a set of actions that could be taken within their respectives roles and capacity. These reports will include responses to the following questions:

  1. What are the Strengths and Weaknesses of the University’s scholarly, co-curricular, administrative, and other efforts to eliminate racism on its campus and beyond?
  2. What should the University do to more effectively stand against racism and stand for equality and justice?
  3. How can the University learn from and partner with institutions, organizations, or communities in the surrounding region and throughout the nation to cooperate productively to fight racism?

Eisgruber believes this will allow them to identify, understand, and combat racism within and beyond the University. We believe that St. Lawrence University should follow in these remarkable footsteps. It is only by examining our daily operations, can we move a needle on these issues. Furthermore, we believe the Trustees should engage in these ideological conversations amongst themselves. This will set an example and a precedent for the rest of our community on effective dialogue that is conducive to progress.

Action Two: Permanent Exhibits of Positive Cultural Imaging for Students of Color

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion has made strides to increase campus-wide exposure of positive black and brown imaging, most recently with the opening of the “ Faces of St. Lawrence” exhibit by Nadirah Croft ‘21 and Sosina Erkailo ‘19. However, these exhibits were only temporary, and their planned removal felt like a step backwards in the eyes of many who felt seen and welcomed by its presence. These exhibits should not only come around in February for Black History Month, or for Diversity Week in March. These exhibits need to be implemented in high traffic areas around campus, and it is time for the University to make these exhibits permanent moving forward. This is one way for students of color to stop feeling as though they are guests in someone else’s space, because there is power in seeing positive images of people who look like you.

Action Three : The Black Laurentian Initiative Fund

As a renowned academic institution, an immediate step the University can take in light of recent events is to encourage, support, and invest in research, teaching, and service-focused initiatives around racial injustice. St. Lawrence should dedicate a new grant program that specifically offers resources to undergraduate students who want to engage in work that addresses racial injustices and inequalities. St. Lawrence should also support any faculty-led projects that engage students in scholarly work on all aspects and impact of race. St. Lawrence should actively seek and identify faculty members who wish to create or increase course offerings related to the history of the civil rights movement, anti-racism, and all topics surrounding the impact and role of race on communities. This Program should also be designed in a way that incentivizes faculty and students to engage these topics across disciplines and give students field experience.

Action Four: Addressing the Flaws in Our Curriculum

The purpose behind a liberal arts education is to provide all students with a breadth of knowledge across multiple disciplines in preparation for life in the real world. It should not be up to students of color to supplement the racial awakening of the dominant student body, as it is an incredible burden and unfairly exhausting. Instead, SLU’s curriculum should reflect the need for deep discussions on the impact of race in American society. Administrative officials must not only implement new courses to analyze and promote discussion on the impacts of race, but mandate them under a revitalized Diversity requirement necessary for degree completion. Imagine a STEM class surrounding the disproportionate effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on black communities. These discussions must take place in every corner and crevice of campus, and should not be left to the classrooms of the social sciences (where more often than not, students of color are expected to dominate discussion rather than be equal participants to a wider class dialogue). Race impacts every field, from Art History to Statistics, and its prevalence across society can no longer be minimized. By addressing the flaws in our curriculum, we are able to work towards a world where race is no longer at the forefront of tense discussions surrounding privilege and state violence, but rather viewed as the celebration of different groups and cultures.

Action Five: Club Diversity and Representational Funding

All clubs and organizations should take a look at their internal operations and reflect on their ability to address issues in creating a welcoming environment for all students. All clubs and organizations should supplement their executive boards with a Chief Diversity Officer, whose sole purpose should be in addressing and reporting on new initiatives to increase inclusivity and construct a more unified campus culture. Furthermore, BIPOC clubs and organizations have struggled for years to receive adequate funding and support from the University in their mission to create a more inclusive campus. It is time for the University to double their efforts in collaborating with organizations on campus dedicated to the promotion of diversity and inclusion both on campus and beyond. In the coming weeks, these clubs and organizations will negotiate a plan to consolidate their power into scheduled meetings, where a joint fund can be allocated to bring about the ability to increase the inclusion of diverse groups on campus in a united front. The University should match the contributions made by the particular groups towards this joint effort.

Action Six: Increased Training for Fac/Staff for Discussions on Race

With an expected increase in the difficult conversations that lie ahead, St. Lawrence should be prepared to proactively address any tense racial interactions, not just with the reactionary nature of the Bias Incident Reports. Increased training is necessary to help professors navigate these difficult conversations within their material, in ways they may not already be accustomed to. Many of these situations will be uncomfortable, and disagreements may arise—that is okay. However, it is imperative that these discussions are genuine and productive.

These recommended actions are a fraction of the larger movement brewing amongst student leaders driven to move our community forward beyond performative talk. They do not represent the end, but rather the beginning of a greater conversation that pushes us past the point of asking if we are doing enough, but rather focusing on the ways we can help achieve our full potential. We look forward to hearing from the Board, and engaging in conversations to make St. Lawrence University the number University across the nation.

Sincerely,

The Black Laurentian Initiative