“Sentinel”: A soldier or guard whose job it is to stand guard and keep watch.
- Definition of Oxford Languages
I arrived at the University of Illinois in August of 1989 and was on a mission to get involved...to make a difference. By 1990, I was president of the Black Student Union, Ebony Umoja (which means Black Unity in Swahili), in Illinois Street Residence Hall. As I began to move into leadership positions on campus, Dean Shelley and I would cross paths more frequently.
From 1989 to 1993, Dean Shelley was always around. Whether he was attending a BSU event at ISR, or dropping by a Central Black Student Union meeting at Clark Hall when I became President. I’d run into him at Union parties when I was there trying to get my groove on throughout my undergraduate years, or I’d see him at the African American Cultural Center when I was the editor of the AACC newsletter, The Griot, or we’d cross paths when I was co-launching “Crossroads”, the historic multicultural supplement of the Daily Illini.
Even though his actual title was the Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs the entire time I knew him, somehow he was always “Dean Shelley”. The loftier, grander title wasn’t required for students.
Wherever Black student life was happening, Dean Clarence Shelley was definitely around —whether we were presenting in classes, at programs, protesting, or partying — he was there observing, grinning, shaking his head, checking his watch, trying to figure out what exactly we were up to this time.
Then, with that unmistakable voice with deep commanding resonance he would utter his signature phrase:
“The libraries are open…Don’t forget…that the libraries are still open.”
Regardless of the occasion, that announcement was his way of reminding us of our primary purpose for being at the University of Illinois: to get an education and graduate.
What I didn’t quite appreciate in my late teens and early 20s is that he was there. He was present. For students. With students. Gently pointing out the pitfalls of our choices before we bumped our heads, skinned our knees, or burned our bridges unnecessarily in the ongoing battles for racial justice and academic achievement.
Dean Shelley, our Black sentinel, walked beside us and kept watch for us as we students —particularly students of color — tried to make a mark on campus, and subsequently on the wider world.
When I returned to campus as a College of Media Specialized Journalism Fellow in 2015, one of my research projects was to examine the Black Lives Matter movement from a local perspective. I wanted to discuss this movement from the perspective of African American professionals who had lived and worked in Champaign-Urbana for decades.
Dean Shelley, who was serving as Assistant to the Chancellor at the time (after retiring from his role as Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs in 2001) agreed to give me an interview at his office in the Swanlund Building.
The following is an excerpt of that 2015 interview that is eerily as timely as ever.
Nicole Anderson Cobb: Dean Shelley, I was in the library this past weekend. Now, as you know, I am a three-time alum. I know the institution fairly well and have been in and out of this community for the last 25 years.
Clarence Shelley: Mmmm-hmmm.
Anderson Cobb: I got to the library around 11:30 a.m. to work and stayed there till about 6:00 p.m. to work on my various journalism projects. During that time, I did not see five African American students during that seven hour period!
I saw many other student groups, many other diverse groups of scholars speaking many languages. But it was startling to me how few African Americans students I ran into on campus in comparison to the other student communities I saw.
So, I walked away from campus that evening and I kept wondering: Where is our Project 5000? Where is OUR PROJECT 5000?
Dean Shelley, I know that you shepharded many students through one of the largest waves of African American students at the University during the late 1960s. Yet, all these years later, it is still stunning to me to realize how rare it is to see myself or other African American students on this campus, 25 years later.
Shelley ( after a long sigh and pause): I think there are several reasons for the numbers. One is the competition we have to maintain a certain population.
Anderson Cobb: Hmmmm?
Shelley: Yes, there is a reluctance on the part of campus to confront and come to terms with what change is possible and necessary to cause these students — Black students — to fit in.
Anderson Cobb: Okay.
Shelley: I thought about your earlier question regarding Black Lives Matter. There seems to be a reluctance here — and this is a national phenomena — that things at this institution ought to be changed.
We have — we are told — superior faculty, a wonderful library, great resources…yet we still have difficulty believing…or hoping…or believing as if all of our students are the same, that they have the same profiles, the same ambitions, the same skill levels. And we expect all students to meet those criteria. We have not done a good job of acknowledging that our students have differences and that we can benefit by building on those differences.
Anderson Cobb: Exactly. When I was teaching in the Department of African American Studies, I found that students of all races have challenges with writing….students of all races have challenges with critical thinking, students of all races have challenges in the language arts, students of all races have problems keeping up with the demands of a campus asking them to juggle jobs, clubs, work, relationships, etc...
I taught here and know that students across the board have these challenges. They all struggle with their emotional lives, coming of age, all kinds of identity issues.
But it’s fascinating to me that some students are afforded the opportunity to come to this campus and grapple, and struggle, and leave with a degree on the other side. While other students don't ever have the chance to come to enter into that experience.
Shelley: Yes, and we assume that our criteria for selecting students who can handle this environment are correct and require no adjustments or updates.
Anderson Cobb: It is profound to me that a student can come from Asia and is expected to handle this environment better than a student on the north side of University Avenue.
Shelley( laughing heartily): Yes, and if you can answer that question and explain that, you will have a great career ahead of you.
After a sprawling interview that covered an array of topics, I asked my final question:
Anderson Cobb: What is your hope for this campus regarding the experiences of African Americans on campus, but even for African Americans in this community more broadly?
We know we are hearing a lot right now about Black folks trying to do more than survive their environments and spaces where they live. What is your hope for us now?
Shelley: I want to go back to the issue you raised about community. We have to somehow find closeness and comfort as the kids did in the 1950s…We must help give students today a sense of the responsibility for those who are less-well-off than they are.
Today’s students must abandon the situational arrogance that makes them believe that because they are here that they are somehow better than others.
We must help them know that they need each other desperately.
I would say the same for faculty…this may even be more true for faculty. Joe Louis said: "you can run, but you can’t hide." Faculty need to see their lives here as an extension of their work in this community.
But back to the students…The students we have here now are glib. They have cars, they have two and three different cell phones…you know, all the comforts of home. But they are still just young, lonely, desperate kids…and they need to see people who look like them come closer to them and not be afraid of them.
And sure, students can be a problem sometimes, but that’s okay (Shelley giggled mischievously). I need them more than they need me.
May these words honor his memory and give comfort to his family.
Dean Clarence Shelley now rests from his earthly labors, and yet — just like always — he has given our campus and community an enduring assignment.
Dean Shelley has given us the task of taking responsibility for one another, and to take better care of each other, because we need each other desperately.
If you would like to remember/honor Dean Shelley in a more tangible way, the family requests memorial contributions be made to the Clarence Shelley Scholarship. If you are making a gift online, visit omsa.illinois.edu/give where you will find a link to donate directly to the Clarence Shelley Scholarship on the Office of Minority Student Affairs’ (OMSA) giving page.
If you pay by check, please make payable to the University of Illinois Foundation. Please include the name of the Clarence Shelley Scholarship in the memo or with a separate note sent with the check, mailed to University of Illinois Foundation, P.O. Box 734500, Chicago, IL 60673-4500.