FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Last summer, a University of Arkansas Black student group called for sweeping changes to promote on-campus inclusion. Since that time, the university’s Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion noted it made some moves to make the campus more inclusive.
In the wake of George Floyd‘s killing, the Black Student Caucus released a list of demands that included mandatory cultural competency training, funding for Black scholarships, more Black staff and the creation of a committee to address changes, among other things.
Julius Mays is a graduate student at the UofA. He said other than some organizations like the Black Student Caucus, he wants to see more people making their voices heard. He said he’s found administrators to be receptive to student advocates, but he thinks the campus culture makes it hard to speak up.
“People [on campus] think, ‘Oh, it’s not a big deal. I can say and do what I want,'” Mays said.
Mays said Dr. Charles Robinson’s selection as Provost in July 2020 was big for students of color. For the first time, students could see someone in a key administrative role who looked like them. But Mays said he wants to see more Black administrators and required sensitivity courses that go more in-depth than what’s included in the mandatory online portals incoming freshmen take.
“We would like to see more of the culture change,” Mays said.
Dr. Yvette Murphy-Erby is the Vice-Chancellor of the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at the UofA. She said Floyd’s death was the catalyst for tough campus discussions brought on by the Black Student Caucus and others, but they’ve produced results.
“That unfortunate situation kicked off a variety of conversations and lots of actions,” Murphy-Erby said.
Murphy-Erby said those discussions are ongoing, but the UofA’s already implemented some changes geared toward diversity.
- The DEI Office held eight digital strategy sessions attended by more than 1,000 members of the campus community. Administrators are taking ideas directly from these sessions. During this period, Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz released a statement reiterating the UofA’s commitment to diversity.
- Steinmetz created a standing DEI advisory board to work directly with him to advance changes. The board is made up of people both on and off-campus. They will have their first meeting soon, Murphy-Erby said.
- The UofA hired an inclusion liaison, Anthony DiNicola. The position will, “advance key diversity and inclusion initiatives from the office and provide enhanced support around specific student-focused projects,” according to a news release.
- The DEI Office has launched intentional strategies to raise scholarship dollars and support for underrepresented students. One scholarship fund is named after Floyd.
- The Black Alumni Society is meeting with Steinmetz every other month and the DEI Office on off months. Members have helped with outreach efforts, helping prospective students of color during the application process.
“For the first time in a while, we’ve seen our enrollments for Black students go up,” Murphy-Erby said. “We believe that’s one of the efforts that contributed to that.”
According to the Fall 2020 Enrollment Report, 1,251 African American/Black students were enrolled at the UofA, making up about 4.5% of the total student population. That’s slightly up from 4.4% in Fall 2019.
Murphy-Erby said administrators continue to discuss the future of the prominent statue depicting late Sen. J. William Fulbright, whose segregationist history put his statue at the heart of the Black Student Caucus’ demands.
“What I’m really excited about, though, is that conversation is involving a variety of stakeholders: faculty, staff, students, alumni, across generations,” Murphy-Erby said.
Fulbright, who died in 1995 after a political career that spanned three decades, used his legislative power to stymie civil rights legislation in the mid-20th century, according to Dr. Randall Woods, a distinguished history professor at the UofA and definitive Fulbright biographer. As a senator, he signed the Southern Manifesto, a document that stood in opposition to racial integration of public places. He filibustered the well-known Civil Rights Act in 1964 and voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The late senator is perhaps the second most-famous Arkansas political figure behind President Bill Clinton. Fulbright chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, created the notable international student exchange program named for him and stood out as a “dove” against the escalating tension in Vietnam. By the time Fulbright left the Senate in 1974 after losing in the primary to then-Governor Dale Bumpers, he was considered amongst the most-consequential figures in American political history, Woods wrote.
Prior to embarking in politics, Fulbright served as the University of Arkansas’ President.
Even during his political career, his early stances against civil rights began to negatively impact his career. Woods wrote that President John F. Kennedy considered Fulbright for a cabinet position but ultimately decided against it because of the Senator’s history.
“The national press never believed that a man as intelligent as Fulbright actually thought that the only things holding back the black population of Arkansas and other southern states were poverty and ignorance, but he did,” Woods wrote. “His ignorance was appalling, his apathy deplorable, but those were his faults – not a racism rooted in [Richard] Russell-like fear of ‘race mixing.'”
Murphy-Erby said the advisory board will make a recommendation on the statue to Steinmetz, who will then make his own recommendation. She didn’t know of the deadline for those recommendations when she was interviewed by KNWA/Fox 24.
“Sometimes those decisions have to be handled at a different level, so they may be board decisions or sometimes even the university system weighs in on some of those decisions,” Murphy-Erby said. “Depending on what the recommendation is, [that] will determine the next steps.”
Mays said he thinks the statue should be removed, noting Fulbright’s image invokes a time when Black people were discriminated against in higher education.
“It could be anybody else, but just not somebody with that legacy,” Mays said.
Mays said he wishes more changes could come at a quicker pace, but he understands some bigger moves will take significant time. He said moving departmental parts and divvied-up responsibilities make it hard to, “snap your fingers,” and make swift changes. He said he encourages prospective students of color to attend the University of Arkansas because there are strong diversity-oriented groups on campus, and, “everybody has a place.”
Still, looking back at what’s been implemented since last summer, Mays said he’s happy with the direction the university’s going. He said simply having conversations can lead to change.
“As long as there’s an effort being made, that’s all that matters to me,” Mays said.