Letter to the Editor: President Katsouleas’ response to the Charter Oak incident, race relations on campus

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October 18, 2019

President Thomas C.  Katsouleas

Office of the President

The University of Connecticut

 

Dear President Katsouleas:

Here at the University of Connecticut, it seems that the more things change the more they remain the same. I have been a professor here for almost three decades and once again I find myself pleading with an apparently uncaring university administration to deal with the university’s not so little white racism problem.

When you became president and made clear your commitments to diversity, to protecting the environment, and to making UConn affordable for all Connecticut residents there was hope that maybe the fresh air of change was finally blowing this way.

Clearly UConn must change. Here is some of its recent history you should know about. From the moment that President Herbst indicated that she took more offense to the name of UConn’s infamous “Rape Trail” than to the fact that students were being raped there, I knew we were in for trouble. That fear was confirmed after her first one hundred days during which she did not even show enough interest in the marginalized students here to walk across campus to the culture centers. It was not much later that racial hell broke out on campus when her self-serving entreaties for campus peace and “civility” were net with cries of “No Justice, No Peace!” after a group of European American fraternity members expressed their racial and gender animus to a much smaller number of African American female students and, despite huge campus protests, President Herbst and her top-level administrators were nowhere to be found. They were, indeed, Missing in Action. Not long after that I challenged her to “show her face in the place” at important social-justice related campus rallies and meetings. Unfortunately, she seemed to “get religion” about diversity issues only a couple hours after the President of the University of Missouri was forced to resign after he failed to address that university’s serious white racism problem. But that did not last long. Later, out of utter frustration, I was quoted in an article in The Daily Campus as saying that if she could not handle UConn’s racism and other social-justice related challenges she should resign. President Herbst may have earned high marks in institutional development and fund raising, but she failed miserably when it came to compassionate and decisive action for those who are most marginalized on campus. Under President Herbst’s administration: many of our high level African American administrators left, the university made no real gains in the hiring of African American and Latinx American faculty, students complained that their sexual assault complaints were not taken seriously, there was the creation of a repressive environment for those who would speak out for Palestinian rights, and the racial and gender bias in Student Evaluations of Teaching that keeps so many of our young, untenured faculty members and graduate students intimidated and from speaking honestly about important social issues remained unchecked.

Many faculty, staff, and students of color have nightmares we can share about the racism we have experienced here. For example, because I, the only African American in my department, study racism directly and explicitly, many of my sociology department colleagues behave as if they are hostile to my very existence. There is no wonder why it is so hard for the department to keep African American and Latinx American faculty. Because even mention of the word racism makes most of my European American colleagues uncomfortable; if they focus on racism, job applicants for faculty positions face serious challenges, regardless of their qualifications. That word, racism, is especially upsetting to those who want to tow a more racially-accommodative line to obtain grants and publications in some prestigious but extremely racism-evasive journals and who have concluded that such work is simply bad for business or for the other social issues they consider to be larger, more encompassing, and therefore more important. And as far as I can recall, over the nearly three decades I have been in the sociology department there has not been one person of color on its staff. Recently, after more than a dozen graduate students complained about racism in the sociology department, its whitewashed response was to circulate a draft of a report that did not even mention the words race or racism. Now, if people of color are dealing with that type of racism blindness and evasiveness within the sociology department; the department one would think should be most sympathetic to at least teaching and writing about such issues, especially during this overt, in your face, Trump era of American racism, what type of response to our concerns do you think we face in less “liberal” environments like engineering, business, and the natural sciences?

Yes, President Katsouleas, since your arrival here at UConn you quickly established some impressive progressive credentials. But those of us who know U.S. history realize that progressives can also be conveniently blind to racism or even overtly racist like Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. 

So please be advised, we are watching you, and wishing you well. While you have done some good things; by not responding quickly and decisively to UConn’s most recent incidents of racial hostility you have stumbled out of the gate and left the impression that you are both ignorant of and uncaring about our concerns. Even more importantly, by your painfully slow response– following more than a week of silence–you have unwittingly condoned campus racism in ways that makes people of color here at the University of Connecticut feel both unwanted and unsafe. This has left many of us fearful that you may be on the same failed path our previous president chose as she quickly and permanently lost the faith of UConn’s most vulnerable people.

Now here is the good news. There is still time for you to show your true colors; and hopefully they won’t simply be an uncaring white-for-white. How you respond to UConn’s current racial crisis and its long simmering problems of overt and institutionalized racism will define not only your legacy as president but its future as one of the nation’s premier state universities.

I close this letter President Katsouleas by saying that the clock on your emblematic first one hundred days is ticking. I am hoping that by its end you will have done much to regain our confidence and to show the world that the University of Connecticut is finally serious about addressing its far from little white racism problem.   

 

Sincerely,

Noel A. Cazenave, Ph.D.

Professor of Sociology    

Thumbnail Photo by Judah Shingleton/The Daily Campus

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