Universities have a responsibility to the communities in which they are embedded, including modeling good leadership and engaging on issues of societal impact. The University of Illinois is no exception, and in recent years has paid a lot of lip service to its commitment to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA). Actions taken include hiring a Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (with many of the other colleges on campus following suit with the hire of their own DEIA directors), highlighting DEIA in the University’s 2018-2023 strategic plan, and pouring money into grants and programming series to attract and retain BIPOC students, staff, and faculty. The urgency to take action on issues of racism and injustice has only increased in the wake of tragedies like the murder of George Floyd by policemen in May 2020.
We looked at U of I’s recent DEIA initiatives, and identified some highlights and lowlights. In doing so, we hope to acknowledge positive trends that should be continued, and expose areas that could use a lot more attention.
The Call to Action to Address Racism & Social Injustice Program is driving forward some innovative research and amazing programming. This program, announced in 2020, involves an annual $2 million commitment to fund research on systemic racism and inequities in communities and in higher education. At the end of each year there is a symposium for researchers to share the findings from their projects.
Following the announcement of awards for the 2022-2023 cycle, which totaled $1.49 million in funding to 25 projects across 17 departments, there was a research symposium which featured a keynote address from preeminent antiracist scholar, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. This event, which was free and open to the public, served as an important opportunity for learning and dialogue about systemic racism and antiracist action.
U of I needs a new mascot. We’ve written about this many times before. The Chief is racist. This is well-established. This is why it was officially removed 15 years ago. In practice, there is still racist mascot imagery everywhere, and that imagery will continue to persist unless and until a new mascot is appointed. There have been a number of grassroots movements to designate a new mascot, the most successful of which is a recent student-led movement supporting the belted kingfisher. The student government and the faculty-led senate both voted in support of the kingfisher as a new mascot. So why isn’t the kingfisher the new mascot? Good luck getting a straight answer. We can only speculate it’s due to donors threatening to pull funding and alums like John Gadau taking out billboards.
On October 6th, the Young Americans for Freedom Registered Student Organization (RSO) hosted known fascist, transphobe, and racist Matt Walsh for a screening of his documentary What is a Woman?. There were protests and outrage from students and community members who felt that Walsh’s rhetoric amounts to hate speech. Although U of I administration doesn’t explicitly condone hate speech as protected under first amendment rights, it is implicitly condoned in the student code, which allows for “discussion and expression of all views subject only to the maintenance of order”. And so there was no attempt to cancel the event despite the harm hosting such a repugnant speaker would cause to trans students’ sense of safety and belonging on campus.
Putting aside the question of whether the event should have been canceled or not, the ugliest thing about all this is the radio silence from administration affirming and supporting trans students. Every time someone chalks a swastika on the sidewalk or criticizes the Israeli government, U of I faculty, staff, and students receive a massmail about anti-semitic acts not being tolerated. To be clear: Those emails of support are a good thing. But where is the support for trans and queer students? Why are only some marginalized identities protected? The U of I really fumbled the ball on this one and they should be ashamed.
We realize that change is incremental and that cultural shifts take time. And we are happy that the U of I is taking DEIA seriously by putting it at the core of its strategic planning and providing funding for programming. But there is a long way to go. Hosting an antiracist keynote is easy (if expensive), holding the institution and the people in it accountable for past and ongoing mistakes, and providing support for all students from historically and currently marginalized groups is crucial. It requires ongoing conversation, nuance, and commitment to making things better for those who have been harmed, with actions to support the rhetoric.
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Mara Thacker.