UB faculty and students demanding change on racial issues

Jul 8, 2020

On June 5, Cecil Foster­, a professor at the University at Buffalo, wrote a letter to administration condemning the college’s lack of anti-racist action amid the recent police killings of persons of color and subsequent protests.

Credit Eileen Buckley / WBFO News

“I write to draw attention to the deafening silence emanating from the University at Buffalo,” Foster said in his letter.

Foster’s letter came as a response to a statement released on May 30 by UB’s president–Satish K. Tripathi–that denounced the recent police killings. He said that while Tripathi’s acknowledgment is a good start, it is not satisfactory compared to the actions of other colleges.

One of the biggest concerns of Foster’s was the lack of Black faculty on campus. While UB boasts a very diverse student body–with 52% being students of color–it’s faculty diversity does not align. 82% of the university’s faculty is white, while only 5.9% is Black. Foster said this lack of diversity deters black faculty from coming and from staying.

“UB has become like a revolving door where you'll get Black faculty coming in, and then in a very short time they're leaving,” said Foster. “For some reason they don't feel as if they're at home at UB.”  

Foster is also the former department chair of the once-existent African and African American Studies Department–which just celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year.  In 2011, the department was downsized to a program. Now, it lives in the Transnational Studies Department, which is also at risk of defunding. He said the school is considering splitting the new department into two smaller ones.

“Unless there's a new commitment to funding, unless there's a new mandate for cooperation that those two departments are likely to fail,” said Foster. “So they are being set up to fail.”

After Foster’s letter was sent to administrators, Tripathi released a second letter on June 17 that outlined actions the university plans on taking to address racism. The primary action is the establishment of the president’s advisory council on race. The council–which is comprised of faculty, staff, students, and alumni–will explore ways to promote an anti-racist culture on campus.

Tripathi’s plan also included plans to evaluate the curriculum, consider ways to recruit more Black faculty and staff, and providing more opportunities for conversations about race on campus.

“Let's look at our organization–our campus in this case–from top to bottom and figure out what we need to do, what we need to do differently, and what are some of the best practices that already exist,” said Raechele Pope, a member of the council, UB’s Associate Dean for Faculty and Student affairs, and the Chief Diversity Officer for the Graduate School of Education. 

She also says that racial equity should be taken just as seriously by the university as COVID-19 was.

“I think this pandemic of racism and anti-blackness needs to be looked at in very much the same way,” said Pope.

However, Foster was not asked to join the council. He said that won’t stop him from pushing for change.

“That does not preclude me from continuing to speak out on issues as I see them, that's what I will continue to do,” said Foster.

Tripathi’s statements were just two of 17 statements released from schools and organizations across campus.

Meanwhile, students are also putting pressure on UB to take anti-racist action. In late June, the Black Council sent a list of demands to administration. It included expansion of the African American studies program back into a department, and renaming the Millard Fillmore Academic Center.

Jeffrey Clinton, a recent graduate and the founder of the school’s African American Studies Academic Association, said this wasn’t the first time students have spoken up about race.

“We've had town hall meetings, we've had rallies, we've had strong protests,” said Clinton.

Despite his contempt for the university’s delayed action, Foster said that UB has the potential to be a hub for programs that teach and promote anti-racism.

“I think that going further that there's room for UB to really establish itself as the place for the study of race and equity issues across the state and even across the nation,” said Foster.

Foster’s letter also lead to the establishment of the SUNY Black faculty and Staff Collective. The group called on SUNY’s Chancellor–Kristina M. Johnson–to make administrative, curriculum-based, and campus life-oriented reforms in order to change the network into an anti-racist community.

You are right to demand that SUNY take action as an institution of higher education to root out racism,” said Johnson, who is stepping down on July 15.

Their resolution has over 3,000 signatures, with Foster’s at the top of the list.