Faculty and staff at the University of Southern Maine are calling on school administrators to take action to improve racial equity, and recruit and retain a more diverse community of students, teachers and staff.
After a remote meeting Tuesday with USM administration officials, Professor Hermeet Kohli said faculty and staff of color have had a number of experiences on campus that highlight systemic racism at the school.
“You know, walking across the faculty parking lot if you’re not white and being questioned, 'Why are you in the faculty parking lot?'" Kohli said. "Assuming that you’re not having to do more, or work harder to create that professional comraderie than would be expected if one was not white.”
And Professor Michelle Vasquez Jacobus said those experiences, which are painful for faculty and staff, can, in turn, hurt the university. “You don’t feel at home, you don’t feel comfortable, you have to put on this persona, this mask, this disguise in order to fit in," Vasquez Jacobus said, "which actually deprives the university of our expertise.”
Professors Vasquez Jacobus and Kohli are part of a group called the Faculty and Staff of Color Association, which wants the university to take steps to address the issue. Several members of the group met remotely Tuesday with USM President Glen Cummings and other administration officials.
They are asking for improved recruitment and retention of students, faculty and staff of color, and funding for anti-racist work among those groups.
They also want the school to address potential remote-learning barriers for students of color and other marginalized groups, and to track these efforts by keeping data.
Student body Vice President Hussein Moaw said if the administration listens to the faculty and staff, that will demonstrate support for students of color. “They want to fix the system and they need that support. I think that comes down to giving them the things that they need. It comes to the funding that they need.”
The Faculty and Staff of Color Association recently sent a letter to the school’s administration insisting that the school take action to address these concerns, and also met with top administration officials.
USM President Glen Cummings said listening to faculty and staff is an important step in ensuring that the university becomes a truly anti-racist institution. “Morally, and based on the principals of our Constitution, this is a dream unfulfilled, and all of us individually and as institutions must fulfill that promise of this country to be truly inclusive, truly celebrate our differences and see them as strengths."
Cumming said meetings will continue, and said he can commit to developing a strategic plan for improving racial equity at the school. “We will develop a very careful plan for the next five years of how we strengthen in all areas of the university," he said, "not just faculty and staff, but all areas of the university.”
Both parties seem optimistic that the concerns raised by staff can be addressed. But Professor Hermeet Kohli said it will require university leaders to commit to significant change.
“The need to really look within, individually and institutionally, is the biggest hurdle of the organization of cultural change, and that has begun," Kohli said. "That’s why we were invited in such short notice to meet with the whole leadership, the whole cabinet, so I think that’s very powerful, I believe.”
Still some members of the group said they “plan to be relentless” in their push to identify action items and set goals before the fall semester begins.