Florida. Ferguson. Pasco. Wisconsin. Oklahoma. The list of places in the United States where issues of racism and discrimination are hitting the streets and the headlines is long and growing.
There are some who would have us look the other way or deny the root cause of the problem. But, as President Obama emphasized this past weekend in his speech at the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma, denying there is a problem has never been helpful. Tackling the hardest issues by acknowledging they exist and then freely and openly discussing them is one of the greatest strengths of our nation, he said. Relentlessly working to peacefully effect change by talking about painful things is uniquely American.
That is the spirit I have watched Washington State University students embrace over the past several weeks. It makes me very proud.
Recent racial incidents on the Pullman campus – racial slurs shouted at African-American women at a fraternity and anonymously posted on social media – tear at the fiber of our community. And, yet, the response by the “WakeUpWSU” movement has been rightly focused on exposing injustice faced by minority groups at our institution, and “combatting ignorance through peaceful dialogue and education.”
The silent vigil held on the Todd steps last week was peaceful and extremely powerful. The “Release the Yak” movement initiated by ASWSU was a practical, proactive way to address the damage being caused by anonymous social media posts. The ongoing work of the Black Student Union and other minority groups on campus through “WakeUpWSU” has the potential to truly effect lasting change that will improve the climate for all students.
We have made major strides in this regard over the past eight years. Our student body is more diverse than it has ever been, and actually is one of the most diverse in the state. A full third of our freshmen class for the past several years has self-identified as a person of an ethnic minority. The WSU Board of Regents recently approved construction of a new multicultural center on the Pullman campus that will provide a welcoming and safe environment for all students. We are exploring a way to deliver cultural competency training programs for every member of our student body, faculty and staff. We will be evaluating and implementing all of the recommendations of the Commission on Campus Climate.
We are not the only university in the country struggling with these issues. The recent events at the University of Oklahoma, in which a busload of fraternity members chanted racial slurs, demonstrates just how much work we have left to do.
Our challenge is to leverage every event as an opportunity to expose, inform and educate to make things better. That is at the heart of who we are as an institution and as a community.