Officials address racial climate on campus following nationwide outcry

Media Credit: Olivia Harding | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Junior Leslie Ogu holds up a sign saying, "GW stands with Mizzou" as part of the demonstration in Kogan Plaza last week.

Updated November 16, 2015 at 7:38 a.m.

Officials at GW pledged their support for minority students on Friday, after a weeklong conversation about racial inclusion took place on college campuses across the country.

The University’s top two leaders made statements about student unrest at the University of Missouri, where protests have led to the resignations of its system president and chancellor. Both messages, which came from Provost Steven Lerman and University President Steven Knapp, signaled that GW is committed to racial inclusion and encouraged administrators, students and faculty to continue conversations on the topic.

Knapp released a statement late on Friday, which mirrored statements from other college presidents about the University of Missouri protests and anonymous online threats made against black students there and at other institutions. He said all officials have a responsibility to make every student feel included.

“Such events remind us of our collective responsibility to ensure that all George Washington students feel genuinely welcome and are fully supported as they strive to achieve their aspirations,” Knapp said.

Knapp’s statement fell in line with others, but was rare for a leader who has often preferred to stay out of the limelight. His remarks included a personal anecdote about his first Commencement as president in 2008, when he gave an honorary degree to civil rights leader Julian Bond. Knapp said democracy can only succeed if higher education is “open to members of all the communities that make up the fabric of our nation.”

“Institutions of higher education can only achieve excellence if they embrace the talents, experience and contributions of students from all backgrounds,” Knapp said.

Roughly 15 percent of undergraduates at GW are minority students, according to its Office of Institutional Research and Planning. University officials have taken steps to make GW more accessible to minority applicants, including adopting a test-optional admissions policy and partnering with non-profit organizations that provide scholarships to low-income and multicultural students.

During Friday’s Faculty Senate meeting, Lerman said the University has an obligation to start dialogues and address the issues minority students face.

He said GW should continue its “collective” effort to being a welcoming institution, citing efforts like hiring the University’s first administrator to oversee hiring and retaining more minority faculty.

“This is an area every university needs to worry about. It needs to be a place where every student, staff and faculty member feels included. It takes a village to encourage a climate in which everyone has the same opportunities,” Lerman said.

Lerman asked all faculty to keep minority students’ experience in mind in their work and to continue dialogues in and outside of the classroom.

“If you become aware of students that experience some form of discrimination or something that creates a climate that doesn’t make them feel welcome, say something and do something,” Lerman said.

Approximately 9 percent of faculty at GW are black or Hispanic, a number that has largely remained the same over the last several years.

History department chair Katrin Schultheiss said in an email that the department “has not yet had the opportunity to discuss the important issues raised by the events at the University of Missouri,” though she said professors likely had discussed them in class.

Media Credit: Katie Causey | Photo Editor
Rachel Décoste, a first-year graduate student and the membership chair of the Black Graduate Student Association, participated in a moment of silence during the campus protest.

“One issue that the department is well aware of – but which recent events have made even more urgent – is the importance of a more diverse faculty, not just in history, of course, but throughout the University,” she said.

Impact on D.C. students
The racial tensions that spiked in Missouri over the last week have spread to other schools across the country and in D.C. A racial threat on Yik Yak directed at Howard University students led to increased security measures on and around campus, a statement from University President Wayne Frederick said.

At Georgetown University, officials announced they would rename two residence halls, Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall, which were named for a former university president who authorized the sale of 272 slaves to pay off institutional debt, and his lawyer during the sale who was also a former university president, respectively, The Hoya reported. Students staged a sit-in on Friday and the administration tentatively renamed the halls Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall.

On GW’s campus, students have held two demonstrations over the last week and there was an outpouring of support for the safety of University of Missouri students across social media.

On Friday afternoon, about 50 students, as well as the Director of the Multicultural Student Services Center Michael Tapscott, congregated in Kogan Plaza to hold a moment of silence.

President of the Black Student Union Leslie Ogu, who helped to organize the silent protest, said the silence, instead of chants or a march around campus, was a way to create a space for one student at a time to express his or her feelings in the circle in which the group was gathered. Students were also encouraged to shake hands and introduce themselves.

“We figured, ‘Why not have everyone come together and they have that safe environment to speak out, say anything they want to, and just feel safe?'” Ogu said. “If you don’t feel safe at your own school, where can you go?”

Media Credit: Olivia Harding | Hatchet Staff Photographer
Junior Leslie Ogu holds up a sign saying, “GW stands with Mizzou” as part of the demonstration in Kogan Plaza last week.

Less than a year ago, about 30 protesters staged a “die-in” in the same location to protest the grand jury decision to not indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. in August 2014.

Oshane Mcrae, a graduate student and a member of the Black Student Union, said organizing the rally was a joint effort between that group and the Black Men’s Initiative.

“We felt it was appropriate to have some sort of community-building event where we could talk about and show our support for the issues going on the national level,” he said.

Kei Pritsker, a sophomore, said he attended the silent rally because he wanted to recognize that racism is an issue that still needs to be discussed and acknowledged.

“Being here is an acknowledgment of the fact that racism still exists in this country and it still threatens people on a daily basis,” Pritsker said. “And I think to be passive about that or to say that it doesn’t necessarily happen here really just enables that kind of behavior.”

Regina Park and Crystel Sylvester contributed reporting.

This post was updated to include a missing photo caption.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.