illustration for Making Lehigh an Antiracist Institution Story

Illustration: Paige Vickers

Making Lehigh an Antiracist University

George Floyd killing prompts activism, candid dialogue.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

On May 25, 2020, George Perry Floyd Jr., a 46-year-old African American man who had lost his security job in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, was arrested by Minneapolis police on suspicion of trying to buy cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. During the arrest, a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, killing him. In a chilling video of the arrest, Floyd repeatedly pleaded “I can’t breathe,” but the officer did not let up.

Floyd’s killing sparked outrage across the country and around the globe, leading to sustained, mass protests over police brutality and racial oppression, congressional hearings on police violence against minorities, and calls for reform and police department defunding.

The anger boiled over at Lehigh, with more than 2,300 members of the Lehigh community signing an open letter to President John D. Simon ’19P and Board of Trustees Chairman Kevin Clayton ’84 ’13P that called for an end to institutional racism at Lehigh and in the country.

Among the demands in the open letter were a more diverse workforce, public listening sessions at which the community could air concerns, and meaningful, structural support for Black students, faculty and staff and other vulnerable groups.

image of zoom call

The Black Student Union and the Student Senate at Lehigh together hosted a Black Lives Matter Town Hall over Zoom to highlight black student voices and to candidly discuss issues of diversity and inclusivity on campus.

“The responsibility for building a just Lehigh rests with its most privileged members—white, high-paid workers—not on employees and students who belong to marginalized racial and ethnic groups,” the open letter stated. “They have done that work for too long. Valuing Black lives means more than penning statements. We demand anti-racist action.”

The open letter also laid bare how systemic racism resulted in the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affecting communities of color and low-paid but essential workers.

Also, in early June, the Black Student Union and the Student Senate at Lehigh together hosted a Black Lives Matter Town Hall over Zoom to highlight black student voices and to candidly discuss issues of diversity and inclusivity on campus. Senior leadership joined the virtual town hall to listen to the students’ concerns as well as those of other members of the Lehigh community.

In a written response to the open letter, Simon and Clayton said they recognized that members of the Lehigh community were angry and fearful and that they would support them.

“We know the authors and signers of the letter delivered their message with the measurable purpose to make Lehigh better,” they continued. “We share that goal and thank them for the commitment to our university. We need to make Lehigh University an actively antiracist institution. By this, we mean actively speaking out and addressing acts of racism, racist comments, racist practices, policies and procedures.”

While accepting their responsibility to create the needed change, Simon and Clayton also pointed to the need for broader involvement of the Lehigh community in the difficult conversations and challenging decisions that can lead to sustainable change.

Lehigh planned a comprehensive review of university policies and procedures to ensure they are antiracist and promote equity, including an examination of tenure and promotion, hiring practices, student conduct and student recruitment. As a first step, an independent review began of the Lehigh University Police Department’s policies and operating procedures. In addition, the Provost’s Office was to work with the Faculty Senate to update curriculum and faculty training to promote understanding of implicit biases and other topics, with the involvement of the student leaders of campus cultural groups.

In reaffirming the need to stand together as a community and fight against systemic discrimination and racial disparities, Lehigh also formed the Community Conversations About Race (CCAR) team. Donald Outing, Lehigh’s vice president for equity and community and the diversity and inclusion officer, said CCAR will hold monthly discussions on race-related learning that is open to the Lehigh community as well as the larger Lehigh Valley community.

The Council for Equity and Community (CEC), an independent advisory board formed in 2008 and made up of staff, faculty and students, also encourages constructive dialogue and works toward building a stronger campus community.

“The racist actions and attitudes experienced by students and others in our community are unacceptable to us,” the Lehigh trustees wrote to the Lehigh Black Student Union. “Despite our past efforts and actions, we have much more to do to address such behavior We pledge to do more and to do better.”

Hear more voices from around Lehigh as they react to George Floyd’s killing. Go to go.lehigh.edu/racialinjustice.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

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