In my nearly six years as president of Beloit College, I have often remarked that it is “a great day to be a Beloiter.” There have been so, so many days worthy of the utterance; so many times when I welled with the pride of my association with this place, its people, and its work, its history and its future.
But it is not always a great day to be a Beloiter. February 27 was such a day.
That was a day when I was reminded that not everyone on our campus or among our alumni ranks always feels as if they are a Beloiter—as if they are always wanted and valued, or even safe here.
On February 27 of this year, a Friday, someone spray painted a vile, racist threat on the exterior of the Whitney residence hall—an act we reported, and are investigating, as a hate crime. It said “Die” right after a slur I will not repeat here that was aimed at members of our community. Aimed at Beloiters.
This incident came shortly on the heels of our discovering a racial slur scrawled on a chalkboard in the library and shortly before a noose was drawn on an anti-racism poster. And on that very same Friday, just hours before the Whitney event was reported to security, one of our professors circulated a campus-wide email making all aware that a large poster he had hung near the philosophy offices had been stolen. The poster was a larger version of one that had been defaced a few weeks earlier—a defacement I sat pondering when I wrote my letter for the spring issue of Beloit College Magazine a few days earlier, not knowing all that was to come.
I hope you’ll read my letter from that issue next. I still mean what I said there. But now, I mean it all the more urgently.
We must act. We must change. The change must be real and sustainable. It must have pace and substance.
As these incidents multiplied, it became obvious to me that the lessons I had been learning as a part of a Sustained Dialogue group were immediately necessary to me—as Scott Bierman and as President Bierman.
As you will see in my letter (which will be arriving in mailboxes in a few days), I already found myself wanting. As these events unfolded, for example, our students of color felt as if we (their college’s leaders) were not taking the threat seriously. They didn’t see a show of force aimed at safeguarding them and it was insufficient to say after the fact that we were doing all that we could think of.
We should know better. Over the past few weeks, many of us have listened, with an increasing sense of urgency, about the lived experiences of students of color on the campus. Painfully common examples of racism writ large and small; from the events described above, to numerous micro-aggressions, to clueless insensitivity, to indifference. Neighbors, community members and others who have watched as our campus rallied around a #blacklivesmatterbeloit movement, have learned how different the experience at Beloit is for students of color than for majority students. We should have known and recognized these experiences more completely. As much as we have been doing in recent years (decades) to address institutional racism, we still have not been listening closely enough, nor have we been doing enough.
We can point to some metrics of progress. For example, our percentage of domestic minority students at the college has increased from 9 percent of the student body in 2005 to 19 percent this year; we have revamped our hiring practices for faculty to promote greater diversity; we have sought and received grant funding to support intercultural engagement. Still, as some said during a town hall Dean Klawitter called the week after these incidents, maybe Beloit is better. But better than what? Better than the rest of the country? Is that really all we want?
It’s not what I want.
We should be better. We need to fully face our own racism with renewed honesty and in confronting it, commit ourselves to a Beloit that is discernably a place of excellence for a much higher proportion of our students.
As I write this I am hours away from being presented with a list of student demands. In doing so, they will be calling upon the efforts of other Beloiters at the college who, in 1969 and other times, have done the same.
But this time, this college will bring its own set of demands as well. We have begun a community drafting process aimed at moving quickly toward “inclusive excellence.” You can see what we’re compiling here.
While you’ll see that we’ve invited students, faculty and staff to add their ideas to a password-protected form, I don’t want you to be left out. If you have ideas to offer, ambitions to state, or stories to share, I hope you’ll email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll share those with the leadership team forming around this effort.
These have been some of the hardest weeks I’ve known in my career. To see students, faculty, and staff I admire stung by overt acts of racism, and then hurt by my own mistakes and shortcomings has been hard.
But, discomfort needs to be converted into thoughtful action and sustained change.
There are many on this campus who feel or have felt embattled, endangered and excluded. Some of them are our people of color. Others have been women (and yes, men) who were sexually assaulted by classmates and friends. Many of these came to Beloit believing this would be the place where they could finally, totally be themselves—only to find that acceptance fleeting or incomplete.
We owe them better than that. Beloit can do something. We will do something. Tomorrow can be a great day to be a Beloiter.