Letter to UW leaders about campus police-involved racism and inadequate response

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Letter to UW leaders about campus police-involved racism and inadequate response

This petition had 752 supporters

24 March 2016

Dear University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce;

Cc: School of Public Health, Dean Howard Frumkin; Department of Global Health, Chair Judith Wasserheit:

We acknowledge previous important and helpful communications on this issue, including the letter from DGH faculty of African descent, the DGH Diversity Committee and a student sign-on letter.

We are faculty, staff, students and other supporters associated with the UW Department of Global Health who are concerned about police interactions with a Global Health staffer on March 6, 2016. While various facts are contested, we hope the following can be stipulated by all parties:

1) The staff member’s presence on campus on Sunday, March 6th, 2016, was completely appropriate; police confrontation and checking of his credentials and those of his friends was not appropriate. Other (previous) incidents suggest the most recent event was not unique; to the contrary, there is a pattern of institutional racism in relation to UW police and other officials.

2) Leaders in the Department of Global Health and the School of Public Health responded in a way suggesting police can be taken at their word, while others (especially black men) cannot.

3) The level of consciousness and literacy around race issues is remarkably low among faculty and staff at the UW, even in departments (like Global Health), where one might expect better.

We understand you are planning one or more open meetings to air the issues. We are concerned that if the meeting at NJB on Wednesday March 16 was any indication, these meetings could go quite badly. Observations from the March 16th meeting exhibit evidence the Global Health Department leadership is fully unprepared to manage a public conversation requiring strong, culturally aware facilitation amidst racialized tensions, trauma, and pain.  

Furthermore, there is a set of actions that could speak louder than another set of public meetings. The University and the School of Public Health could take the below steps to indicate they are serious about addressing racism at UW.

1. Engage a respected outside agent to investigate the events leading to this crisis for the purpose of mediating relationships and solutions. Department of Global Health leaders involved in the incomplete and incompetent response to date are not positioned to take us forward. The Department of Global Health’s external advisory committee should be notified of these events. An external review of the department’s culture would be timely. We imagine someone the caliber of Camara Jones could act as a reviewer of the most recent episode, previous incidents, and the department’s culture.

2. We acknowledge and appreciate the commitment and contributions of some faculty and staff in the Department. As a whole, however, Department faculty and staff need to commit themselves to urgent anti-racist consciousness raising. This could take the form, to start, of a weekend “boot camp,” or other serious, intensive training about how institutional racism works. Fortunately, there are a number of qualified individuals who could help us work on a new understanding of racial justice. The Diversity Committee could nominate good trainers.

3. Reform the campus police mandate with a sense of urgency. Campus police should not be armed. There must be a civilian oversight board with the authority to review incidents and recommend action; this board should be carefully composed to represent over-policed communities. Disproportionate policing of black and brown people is not only racist but also a waste of resources. And while public health people are fully aware of the dangers of smoking, we believe the enforcement of smoking areas must be done with some perspective and good judgment regarding priorities. Ongoing visible and plain-clothed police presence is not helpful. More detailed suggestions are in the letter you received from the African descent faculty in the Department of Global Health (3/22/2016).

4. Expand the number of students of color at undergraduate and graduate levels. This will take an investment of resources, and will require re-thinking the excessive cost of fee-based programs and the prohibitive barriers to entry in competitive majors. Providing resources to connect and support each other will foster a sense of community in times when racial discrimination occurs. We support the Black Lives Matter resolution as well as President Cauce’s Race and Equity Initiative.  

5. The number of staff and faculty of color (especially those with black and indigenous origins) must be expanded, especially in Global Health. Evidence supports the requirement of a critical mass, defined as at least 15% (this represents the tipping point, the threshold between the continuity of the status quo and the emergence of cultural change; citations: Etzkowitz et al., 2000; Gladwell, 2002), and therefore this should be our first goal. Without a critical mass, a few isolated individuals are saddled with the entire burden of the “cultural tax” required to support students of color.

6. We recommend a dramatic commitment of resources towards hiring/recruiting, training and retaining students, staff and faculty of color. This could come, for example, by pledging that 10% of all new philanthropy will go toward an anti-racism commitment. To start, every member of the campus community should be expected to participate in workshops to deepen their understanding of racism, its origins, and the purposes it has served in the distribution of resources and punishments in our society.

7. The School of Public Health has been debating (for more than a year) an all-graduate curriculum competency (required for accreditation) regarding racism. It has not been adopted because of opposition from at least two departments. It should be adopted immediately, and then coursework should be promoted to help students to achieve the competency. Clearly, faculty need to expand their competency in this way as well. The competency is this:  “Recognize the means by which social inequities and racism, generated by power and privilege, undermine health.”  Other U.W. units should adopt similar curricular competencies that focus explicitly on racism (as opposed to diversity and inclusion), each after a discussion of how it is best manifested for their disciplines.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. With the right leadership and commitment, the University of Washington could become a national model for engaging the constant work of becoming an anti-racist university.

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