KU chancellor reacts to heated town hall forum on race

Gray-Little calls stories she heard ‘despicable’ and ‘heartbreaking,’ says KU will share plans for action next week

Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little listens to a question as she moderates a town hall forum on race at Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union in November 2015.

The Kansas University administration will begin sharing information “early next week” about how KU will move forward on the issue of racism, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said Friday in a message to campus.

“If there was one thing I took from Wednesday’s forum, it’s that students, faculty and staff want action, and they want it now,” Gray-Little wrote. “As I said Wednesday evening, I am committed to continuing our ongoing efforts to address racism and discrimination at KU.”

Gray-Little’s message comes in response to this week’s town hall forum, which KU called for the university community to talk about race, respect, responsibility and free speech. The forum drew 1,000 people, lasted more than two hours and featured KU students and employees — ranging from enraged and cursing to tearful and shaking — sharing stories of discrimination and criticism of KU for not doing more about it.

Gray-Little’s statement was one of a handful released Friday by various KU groups responding to the forum, though none at this point include concrete plans.

In her message, Gray-Little called racism and discrimination “perhaps the most persistent” of society’s great challenges.

“Some of the instances described were troubling,” she said. “Some were despicable. All of them were heartbreaking, and it pained me to hear that so many of you are experiencing this type of intolerance. This is not acceptable. Not at KU, and not anywhere in our society.”

Following the forum, Gray-Little said she has continued conversations with students and colleagues and that information coming next week would address how “we will move forward on this issue together.”

“When it comes to racism and discrimination, change is unlikely to happen from the top down,” she said. “Change has to happen from within our university, and it must involve all of us — administrators, students, faculty, staff and alumni — working together. The university must be able to count on each of you to help us do better.”

The University Senate released a statement signed by its four leaders, University Senate president Mike Williams, Student Senate president Jessie Pringle, Faculty Senate president Tom Beisecker and Staff Senate president Chris Wallace.

“Significant concerns expressed by students, faculty and staff at the recent town hall meeting indicate how we are failing to be a just, respectful and inclusive place for all people on our campus,” the statement said. “We must act now to make our campus a place where students can feel safe to succeed, and all can live and work in an atmosphere of support and inclusion.”

University Senate is the body responsible for acting on the KU community’s behalf on matters that affect university governance, Senate leaders said. It’s responsible for providing students and employees “a voice” and can affect changes in rules and regulations.

Senate leaders said they planned to hear at their executive committee meeting on Tuesday from “some who can help the Senate become the catalyst for action that KU requires at this critical moment” and pledged to do all they can to improve the situation.

At least two academic departments also issued a statement Friday critical of KU administration and supportive of KU’s Black Student Union and a group calling themselves Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk. The group of about 12 mostly black students temporarily took over the stage and microphones at Wednesday’s forum and read a list of diversity-related demands they had for KU.

Shawn Leigh Alexander, associate professor of African and African-American Studies and director of KU’s Langston Hughes Center, disseminated a statement titled as representing the department’s faculty.

The Department of American Studies faculty also released a statement, signed by department chairwoman and professor Jennifer Hamer, criticizing KU administration’s response to students’ grievances and supporting the KU students demanding changes.

“KU does not require students to learn the complexities of race and ethnicity in the U.S. or the globe,” the statement said. “Nor do they compel them to acquire knowledge and skills that may temper the racial acts of violence that occur on the KU campus.”

The letter from the African and African-American Studies department accuses the KU administration of “suppressing student discontent” and prioritizing protecting KU’s reputation over dealing with complaints by students of color, saying this hurts the university’s ability to recruit and retain black students.

The letter says solutions must be complex and involve many stakeholders, though it does not suggest specific actions. Department faculty are willing to “do the work” of making KU more inclusive but call on senior-level administrators to match the department’s ongoing efforts with their own “labor, seriousness and resources,” according to the letter.

The Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk group publicized its list of demands Thursday on its Twitter handle, @InvisibleHawks, and said it would share more about why the measures are needed next week.