Response to Task Force on Anti-Black Racism Recommendations
August 5, 2021
Dear Brown Community Members,
In the summer of 2021, I charged a Task Force of faculty, students, staff, alumni and community members with considering how Brown could best address anti-Black racism on campus and in society at large. The creation of the Task Force was motivated by the deaths of George Floyd and numerous others, which in turn prompted a clear recognition that persistent racism and violence continues to stifle opportunity and deny the full humanity of Black people in this country.
The Task Force, chaired by then-Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Shontay Delalue and Professor Andre Willis, worked from September 2020 through April 2021, sharing with me its recommendations in the form of a report on April 28, 2021. Since receiving the report — and with deep respect for its goals to confront racism and provide pathways for equity and access — I have engaged in an extensive period of discussing the conclusions with the Task Force, the Diversity and Inclusion Oversight Board, and Brown University’s Ad Hoc Corporation Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. The report is now available on the Task Force’s website, and I am writing to share my detailed response.
Let me begin by thanking the members of the Task Force, not only for taking on this important work, but also for conducting it in a very compressed time period, during a pandemic, and over the course of a year of intense reckoning with anti-Black racism nationwide and across the globe. The Task Force consulted widely with members of the Brown community, and the report reflects their views and perceptions. The introduction to the report stands as a thoughtful and compelling statement of the issues they considered. I am grateful to have these collected insights to inform the important work of anti-racism at Brown.
In sharing the recommendations of the report and my response, it is useful to first reflect upon the “current state” at Brown. How far has Brown come in recruiting and retaining Black faculty, staff and students? How successful has the University been at creating a climate in which Black members of our community can not only succeed, but flourish? Is Brown meaningfully and significantly acting on its commitment to improvement in these areas?
Brown has made progress in recent decades. Especially notable changes include the establishment of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, which was born directly from a recommendation of the landmark Slavery and Justice Report, and a renewed commitment to growing the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. Through these two centers, confronting and combating racism in society at large becomes a core part of the intellectual agenda of the University. In a survey of campus climate, departments and offices across campus reported greater understanding of issues of race, equity and inclusion since the launch of Brown’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP) in 2016, and departmental action plans aim to ensure that units remain accountable to shared diversity and inclusion goals.
The University has also experienced success in growing the representation of Black faculty, students and staff. Since the 2014-2015 academic year to the coming 2021-22 year, the number of tenure-track faculty who identify as Black doubled, from 28 to 56, standing now at 8.2% of these faculty. The percentage of domestic undergraduate students selecting Black or African American among race categories had increased to 14% for the incoming Class of 2025, up from 10.5% in 2014, the last full year before Brown began implementing the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan that launched in early 2016. (See the data note at the bottom of this letter.) The progress among doctoral and master’s students and Brown staff was even more pronounced: from 5.6% for Ph.D. students in 2014, to 13.4% in 2020; from 8.4% for master’s students in 2014, to 17.1% in 2020; and from 7.7% for University staff in 2014, to 9.1% in 2020. We continue to focus on medical students, where the representation has fluctuated, and most recent figures show a slight decrease, from 12.0% in 2014 to 11.5% in 2020. Our focus on the medical school is even more imperative as we have learned during the pandemic most vividly about race-based inequities in America that exist in health and health care.
Despite these overall gains, the report from the Task Force reflects the perception among some that little or no progress has been made at Brown. Although I disagree with this characterization, I am not surprised by it. Indeed, it should be concerning to all of us if the progress I have described is not felt or recognized by members of our community. Increases in representation within the University as a whole may have little impact on the daily lives of Black students and employees in departments in which Black people continue to be underrepresented. And increases in representation without full inclusion is not a cause for celebration.
I agree wholeheartedly with the report that we have more work to do as a community. The path to dismantling anti-Black racism in the country and within our University community is long and hard. Brown is committed to ensuring that Black students, staff and faculty have full access to pathways to success; to confronting racism where it exists; and ensuring that racism does not impede the ability of students and employees to flourish at Brown.
Goals of the Task Force
I specifically sought advice from the Task Force on how Brown could advance three interrelated goals:
- Ensure that Brown provides an equitable and inclusive environment so that all Black students and employees can feel welcomed, included and supported;
- Advance education and scholarship on the modern-day legacy of slavery in America, so that members of our community are equipped to promote equitable, just and prosperous societies throughout their lives; and
- Connect Brown to organizations and institutions, within Rhode Island and globally, to support the advancement of Black people.
The Task Force offered 19 recommendations that are organized within four themes: (1) policy; (2) culture/climate; (3) curriculum and classroom experience; and (4) external community engagement. In addition, the Task Force made two final recommendations that are meant to ensure that its work continues into the future. Some of the recommendations call for the creation of innovative new programs. Others stress the need to continue taking steps that are already enumerated in the initial and second phase of the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. And other recommendations suggest tactical changes in existing policies and programs that might make Brown more inclusive and supportive of Black students, staff and faculty.
It is important to note that the Task Force’s recommendations call for changes to policies and programs that benefit all members of our community. They prioritize advancing education and scholarship on the modern-day legacy of slavery in this country; promoting greater equity and accountability within the University; and investing in equity within the greater Providence community. Collectively, the Task Force made recommendations aimed at advancing the well-being of Black members of the Brown community and society at large and, in doing so, promoting a more intellectually vibrant and inclusive university, which yields enormous educational benefits for all who work and study at Brown.
I agree with many of the recommendations, and this letter focuses on the steps the University intends to take or is in the process of taking. There are also some recommendations (not all of which are discussed in this letter) that I don’t agree with and/or which require further discussion within the Brown community. Even where I disagree with the details of the proposed solutions to address concerns, I respect the intentions that motivated the recommendations. In the coming year, I believe that it will be possible to find other ways to meet the overall objectives of the committee.
Response to Recommendations on Policy
The section of the Task Force report on policy focuses on changes that Brown could make to rules, standards or procedures to promote the recruitment, retention and success of Black employees and students. A number of the recommendations in this section emphasize goals that are included in the DIAP and/or which are already being implemented. As a University, we provide for equal opportunity and affirmative action, and will continue to conduct searches for faculty and staff that prioritize building strong and diverse pools of candidates, including Black candidates. Likewise, we continue to be committed to targeted recruitment of excellent faculty through the “cluster hiring” and “Target of Opportunity” strategies that have been successful in the past. Another priority is to ensure that Black members of Brown’s staff are provided equitable opportunities for career advancement within the University.
The report makes a number of suggestions for new actions that are especially compelling:
- Expand the Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship program. This program, which began in 2015, aims to create a pipeline for scholars from historically underrepresented groups (HUGs) to join the professoriate at American institutions. To date, 22 scholars (79%) have secured faculty positions across the country, including nine at Brown. The report recommends that Brown triple the size of the program. Brown will commit to doubling the size of the program over the next two years while at the same time emphasizing the recruitment of postdoctoral fellows in disciplines in which Black scholars are underrepresented. The optimal size of the program will be reassessed after two or three years.
- Facilitate the advancement of Black faculty to department chair and other leadership positions. Across the country there is a dearth of Black academics in leadership positions (department chairs, directors, deans, provosts and university presidents) at colleges and universities. The report recommends that Brown develop a professional development program for associate and full professors who aspire to positions of academic leadership. I have asked Provost Richard M. Locke to develop and implement this new program, beginning in the spring of 2022. Although such a program would be available to all interested faculty members, recruiting Black and other HUG faculty will be a priority.
Response to Recommendations on Culture/Climate
This section of the report draws from numerous conversations that members of the Task Force had with faculty, staff and students to understand how Brown’s culture and climate could be improved for Black members of our community. Some of the recommendations in this section emphasize the need to communicate more clearly about programs currently in place (such as the bias incident reporting system) and/or building on the priorities of the DIAP. Brown committed in DIAP Phase II to improve assessment of the implementation and impact of department-level diversity and inclusion action plans, with a focus on improving campus culture.
This section of the report includes a number of major recommendations for new initiatives Brown will pursue in the coming year:
- Renovation of Churchill House and Rites and Reason Theater. Churchill House is the home of the Africana Studies Department and the Rites and Reason Theatre, which is one of the oldest continuously producing Black theaters in the country. The department and theater play an important role in the intellectual and artistic life at Brown. Plans for a full renovation and expansion of Churchill House to enable the building to support the needs of these programs were developed over the past academic year and have been presented to the Facilities and Planning Committee of the Corporation of Brown University. I will seek the Corporation’s approval to proceed with these plans.
- Improved space for Harambee House. As a residential program house on campus since 1993, Harambee House is described as “a living center for all those interested in the politics, history, society, and other aspects of African and African-American culture.” Although some improvements to governance and the physical space have been made to Harambee House in recent years in response to student advocacy, they are not adequate to support the growing number of interested students. I have asked Vice President for Campus Life Eric Estes and his team to work with student leaders to develop a concrete proposal for change, to be submitted by the end of the Fall 2021 semester.
- Dissemination of Brown’s Slavery and Justice Report. The Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, released in Fall 2006, has become a leading national example of how an institution can interrogate its historical involvement with the transatlantic slave trade. With the creation of a new digitized student edition last year, incoming undergraduate students were assigned the Slavery and Justice Report as their orientation “first reading” in Fall 2020. The First Readings selection committee selected the report again as the first reading for Fall 2021 as part of a pilot program to incorporate this report more formally into future orientations. To make the report more widely accessible and to highlight its impact, the University will soon release a new expanded second edition online and in print that includes a set of reflective essays by faculty, alumni and others involved in implementing the report’s recommendations. I anticipate that the release of the second edition will further advance the discussion of how Brown and other institutions of higher education can address their historical ties to slavery.
In addition to these major steps, I will ask Joseph Meisel, the Joukowsky Family University Librarian, to ensure that there is adequate space and attention to archiving and preserving material related to the history of Black people at Brown University.
Response to Recommendations on Curriculum and Classroom Experience
The Task Force investigated two issues that relate to the curriculum and classroom experience. One issue is whether structural inequities impede the ability of Black students to be fully included and provided with all means to be successful. Another is whether there are sufficient opportunities for all students at Brown to learn about anti-Black racism.
The University will begin to pursue two of the Task Force’s recommendations, though the time required for development will extend beyond the coming year:
- Curricular initiative on Systemic Racism and Structures for Racial Healing. The Task Force proposed the creation of a curricular program on racism and racial healing that would be grounded in a sequence of courses taught by faculty from several disciplines. To be successful, this initiative will require the commitment of a number of faculty members, as well as adequate resources and the support of department chairs and University administrators. In the fall, the Dean of the College and I will convene a group of faculty members and relevant administrators to explore the design of this program.
- Creation of a scholars program. The Meyerhoff Scholars program at the University of Maryland-Baltimore aims to increase diversity among future leaders in STEM fields. This serves as a model for a similar initiative at Brown, except with opportunities open to qualified students from all disciplines. Fortunately, planning for exactly this kind of initiative is underway. Last year, Brown was selected as one of 38 institutions to participate in Phase 1 of the “Driving Change” initiative being led by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and a proposal will be submitted this year to proceed to Phase 2. Brown’s experience with existing programs provide a solid foundation on which to build the kind of program envisioned by the Task Force.
In addition to these two recommendations, the Task Force recommended several improvements to graduate student support that would improve the experience of Black graduate students. I have referred these recommendations to the Graduate School, which has already taken steps to increase professional development opportunities for students in fields where they are underrepresented.
The Task Force also recommended that every concentration in the University require an intentionally designed experience, such as a research experience or course, that prioritizes Black history, culture and scholarship. Adding a new requirement to all concentrations would represent a significant departure from Brown’s practice of empowering departments to develop their own programs of study and giving students substantial choice in the academic experiences in which they participate. Recently the College Curriculum Council has considered somewhat broader and more flexible alternatives to this proposal, and I anticipate that this discussion will continue.
Response to Recommendations on External Community Engagement
The Task Force recommended ways Brown should strengthen its partnerships with organizations, institutions and individuals working to support the Black community in Providence, Rhode Island, and nationally. Brown has been committed to this effort, with initiatives currently underway in many of the recommended areas:
- Expand and enhance partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Brown’s new Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity, Sylvia Carey-Butler, has deep experience that strongly positions her to strengthen the existing Brown-Tougaloo partnership and develop new programs with HBCUs. In the coming year, she will work with the provost and academic and administrative partners to advance Brown’s work in this area.
- Increasing coordination in community engagement. A number of recent changes should help improve the quality of Brown’s connections with the local Black community and help members of the Black community connect to the University to address concerns about engagement (without the addition of the Task Force’s recommended new staff position). A new joint position created last year between the Office of the President and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform will coordinate Brown’s work with K-12 schools, with a focus on Providence. This fall, I will convene the leaders of OIED, the Annenberg Institute, the Swearer Center, and the Office of Government and Community Relations to discuss how to improve coordination and communications.
- Internship program with Black cultural institutions in Rhode Island. The Task Force recommended that the University support an internship program that places students at institutions like the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. This fall we will explore how best to move such a program forward in existing Brown centers and/or institutes.
- Increase enrollment of HUG students from Providence and Rhode Island to Brown University. Enrolling more local students is a University priority. Directly in line with this priority, Brown piloted a new initiative last year to create a pipeline transfer to bring students from the Community College of Rhode Island to Brown, and we intend to expand this in the coming year. As our partnership with the Providence Public School District continues to expand (for example, supporting the development of the prestigious International Baccalaureate program at Hope High School), there will be more opportunities to increase our enrollment of historically underrepresented students from Providence.
Response to Final Recommendations
The Task Force report concluded with two ideas to ensure continuous improvement in Brown’s efforts to confront anti-Black racism over the long term.
- The Task Force proposed an Initiative for Black Advancement that would work to eradicate anti-Black racism on campus, collect and disseminate data on the experience of Black members of the Brown community, review university and departmental policies that could contribute to racism, and place a continued emphasis on accountability, equity and fairness. This initiative was envisioned to have its own director and be separate from the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity, which oversees the University’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan.
Although the goals embedded in this idea are laudable, the proposed administrative structure overlaps significantly with the current responsibilities of the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity as well as the Diversity and Inclusion Oversight Board (DIOB), a faculty-student-staff committee that oversees progress on the DIAP. When Vice President Carey-Butler joins the Brown administration in mid-August, she will consult with the DIOB and members of the Task Force to determine how the long-term objectives of the proposed Initiative for Black Advancement can be incorporated into the DIAP with oversight by her office and the DIOB.
- The final recommendation of the Task Force’s report was to create an Anti-Racist Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Medicine Institute. At Brown, multidisciplinary institutes develop from faculty-led initiatives and centers, and institute status is awarded only after a strong and broad intellectual community has been formed. Examples include the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, which is Brown’s oldest institute, and the Brown Arts Institute, which is Brown’s newest institute. A prerequisite for moving this recommendation forward would be strong interest from faculty from multiple disciplines who would like to begin this as an initiative.
I am grateful for the time and care the members of the Task Force on Anti-Black Racism devoted to the recommendations outlined in their report. It provided important insights into the very real challenges of effecting change and making progress on issues of diversity and inclusion in ways that are felt in the lived experiences of members of our community. So many of the Task Force’s recommendations reflected work already underway at Brown that is not being recognized in the daily lives of the members of our community who shared their perspectives with the Task Force.
We must continue to make transformative progress, even as we address the critical issue of ensuring that our ongoing progress is significant and experienced in meaningful ways. Brown is committed to ensuring that Black students, staff and faculty have both knowledge of and experiences with full access to pathways to success, and that the long and persisting shadow of racism does not prevent anyone from reaching their full potential at Brown.
Christina H. Paxson
[Note on race/ethnicity data: Consistent with Brown’s standard internal reporting, figures for students are for domestic students only and reflect the fraction of students who report identifying as “Black or African American” as at least one of the possibly multiple categories they may select. This differs from federally mandated reporting, which limits all students to a single category and includes “international” and “multi-racial” as distinct categories.]