Some students and staff of color at the University of Southern Maine are calling on the university to do more to combat racism, an effort the university president said he welcomes.

In a letter to the university community last week, an informal group of faculty and staff of color called on university leadership to take action to address institutional racism and laid out concrete actions they’d like to see taken.

“Though appreciative of recent statements of support and commitments to training, we urge our community to take prompt and concrete action to address the challenges embedded in USM’s own institution and culture,” reads the letter from the Faculty and Staff of Color Association, an informal group with 26 members.

“We are heartened that USM has adopted a tenth goal of ‘upholding equity and justice,’ but a goal is insufficient. Without mobilizing necessary support and action to achieve this goal, it remains an unfulfilled promise to our community.”

Amran Osman, 22, left, and Mykayla Hoggard, 19, pose on campus at USM in Portland on Monday. Osman, a senior, and Hoggard, a junior, are speaking up about how the university has responded to racism. They would like to see the concerns of students of color taken more seriously and a more diverse staff that students can turn to with concerns. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Students are also calling on the university to do more to respond to their concerns about racism, and to create a diverse staff that students of color can turn to. The call to action comes as universities and other institutions around the country are grappling with how best to root out racism in the wake of nationwide protests and calls for police accountability following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

University President Glenn Cummings said he welcomes the recommendations and feedback from the faculty and staff group, which will meet with him and members of his cabinet Tuesday to follow up.

“I was very happy to get those recommendations,” Cummings said. “They’re vital to our work in the areas of equity and justice. I want to build on their efforts to recruit faculty, staff and students of color to the university. I want to increase efforts to retain faculty, staff and students of color. I think this organization will help us tremendously.”

Michelle Vazquez Jacobus, an associate professor of sociology and one of five people who signed the letter on behalf of the association, said she hopes Tuesday’s meeting will be productive and lead to real change.

She said the letter was written not with the intent of complaining, but of raising awareness that there is a group on campus to provide support and advocacy for faculty, staff and students of color.

“We appreciate general statements of support from the president, the provost and the chancellor saying, ‘Yes indeed black lives matter and we are in empathy and solidarity with these movements,’ but they don’t say anything about what we’re going to do at our own university,” said Vazquez Jacobus.

“It feels like maybe they get that now. I’m not sure why. It may be where we are in history or maybe that’s why we joined voices together: to have a concerted voice. We didn’t just send this on behalf of one person. We sent it as a whole group.”

Reza Jalali, an adjunct professor and special adviser to the president on diversity and inclusion, also signed the letter and said he too is hopeful following the response from leadership.

“I don’t think they have any choice in today’s political climate,” Jalali said. “Public universities and universities in general have to have workforces that reflect the population they serve. With the population of the southern part of the state changing, it becomes important as southern Maine’s largest public university that we start to look like the population we serve. So far the leadership seems quite supportive.”

The letter calls for the administration to support and endorse a faculty and staff of color advocacy group, such as the association, and recognize their expertise and recommendations as more than advisory. It asks for leadership to encourage staff to participate in anti-racist activism, advocacy and engagement and support that work in annual reviews and remuneration.

It also calls for the university to develop and fund student fellowships dedicated to actively combating racism and take steps to not only recruit but retain faculty, staff and students of color.

Other steps include a call to systematically measure recruitment and retention of faculty, staff and administration of color and make the data available to the community; and to support an independent committee to accompany a new associate vice president for equity, inclusion and community impact, which the university is in the process of hiring.

Finally, the letter calls for leaders to address the barriers to remote learning that may disproportionately affect students of color, particularly immigrant, low-income and first generation students, and take steps to relieve those barriers in preparation for the fall 2020 semester.

Vazquez Jacobus said the suggestions are based on the group’s research, in part informed by how other campuses around the country are addressing racism.

“There’s real stuff we can do that doesn’t cost $3 million dollars and we’re doing the leg work for you,” she said. “Here’s what we can suggest and we tried to be really concrete about those suggestions.”

Cummings said the university is interested in building on the efforts started by the association. It is currently in the process of hiring for the associate vice president position, which is new, and which he said will be a person of color.

Once the position is filled, likely within the next few weeks, the job will include developing and overseeing a long-range diversity and equity plan for the university, partnering with campus groups to foster a climate of equity and inclusiveness and working with human resources to recruit and retain people of color.

While USM has made progress in recent years in adding to the diversity of its faculty, Cummings acknowledged that other areas such as the administration and athletics staff remain less diverse.

According to data from the university, 70 percent of faculty are white, 7 percent are non-white and the race of almost 23 percent is unknown, meaning those employees choose not to volunteer race and ethnicity information.

Among almost 6,700 undergraduate students, 69% are white, 14% are unknown and 17% identify as other non-white races such as Black, Asian or Hispanic.

Ninety-four percent of administrators are white and less than 2% identify as non-white, while athletics coaches and staff identify as 95% white. Five percent of athletics coaches and staff have not volunteered their racial identity and none have identified as non-white.

Mykayla Hoggard, who is on USM’s cross country and track teams, said, “There’s no people of color whatsoever in the athletic administration.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Mykayla Hoggard, a rising junior on the cross-country and track teams, said having a more diverse athletics staff would help student athletes feel supported.

“They’re trying to educate us about racism and stuff yet they don’t have anybody to look to in their administration,” Hoggard said. “There’s no people of color whatsoever in the athletic administration at all.”

The letter from faculty and staff also comes as students from USM have taken to social media to voice their concerns and complaints about racism on campus and the administration’s response. An Instagram account started June 24 and dedicated to exposing racism at USM had gathered more than 50 posts and almost 500 followers as of Monday afternoon.

The administrator of the page declined to be identified, saying they feared for their safety and have received threats, but wanted to create a place where students could share their experiences because they don’t feel comfortable talking to staff.

Hoggard and another Black student, Amran Osman, said students of color often feel unheard and the Instagram page is one way they have been able to raise a collective voice.

Amran Osman said students of color at USM often feel unheard. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“The only time they respond is when the spotlight is on them,” said Osman, a rising senior. “If someone goes to them and talks to them they say, ‘We’ll figure it out later’ and they kind of just brush it off.”

Cummings said the university is aware of and monitoring the Instagram page, but there is a formal process students should follow for reporting complaints.

“There is a very important role for social media to be able to express these experiences of racism,” Cummings said. “At the same time we have to encourage people to file and make specific evidence-based reports so we can go after this directly if that’s what their goal is.”

Jalali, the adjunct professor and adviser to the president, said he hopes the faculty and staff of color association can help address the concerns of students and bridge the gap between administrators and students.

“It’s really not easy to be a student of color in a very white institution,” he said. “You kind of stand out. This newly formed association helps to again make administrators pay close attention to the needs and issues students of color face.”

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