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Friday, May 28, 2021

From the Chief Diversity Officer

Posted: Friday, May 28, 2021

Higher Education’s Enduring Imperative: Encouraging Empathy and Inclusivity, Fostering Dialogue and Understanding, Supporting Freedom of Speech and Expression

We are undoubtedly living in complicated and highly charged times. A global pandemic, divisive politics, an economic crisis, and a racial reckoning converged across our society, leading to exhausting cycles of imperfect conversations, intense conflicts, and uneven change. Such is the inequitable and inevitable story of our country, cities, and communities today.

Recently at Buffalo State College, we saw firsthand how a controversial conversation can lead to intense conflict and calls for change after what many perceived to be an unsettling comment by an instructor in a video began circulating online. On April 19, President Katherine Conway-Turner asked me to gather all pertinent details on the matter. Over the past month, I spent time contemplating one of higher education’s enduring and often elusive imperatives—to create an inclusive, empathetic, and safe environment for our students, faculty, and staff while fostering dialogue and debate on difficult topics, all the while supporting the foundational tenets of freedom of speech and academic expression.

Before going further, I would like to reiterate the opening sentence of President Conway-Turner’s statement from April 19: “Let me be absolutely clear—Black Lives Matter at Buffalo State College.” Full stop. Her message was not about a protest or political affiliation. It was purely a statement about human rights—making clear that our students and colleagues of color know they are welcome, supported, and celebrated. And it is why we strive for an inclusive pedagogy and anti-racist curriculum through a lens of equity that respects a diversity of perspectives and experiences.

September 23, 2020
After reviewing the full video from the College Writing Program’s (CWP) virtual course on September 23, 2020, I believe it is clear that the instructor made a remark that many, including myself, would perceive as culturally insensitive, understandably leading one to question Buffalo State’s commitment to cultural awareness and inclusivity; however, the instructor’s headline-making statement, which circulated on social media in April 2021, was in fact taken out of a larger context that was intended to generate thought and debate around an unpopular opinion. Engaging in difficult conversations and learning how to confront opposing views with rhetorical and critical analysis are important and protected hallmarks of higher education. The instructor’s intention aside, as educators we must also consider the impact that her statement had on our students.

At 1:15 p.m. on September 23, 2020, at the same time the course was taking place, Jefferson County (Kentucky) Circuit Court Judge Annie O’Connell announced that none of the officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor would be charged with crimes directly related to her death. As this news unfolded in real time during the CWP class, our students were undoubtedly processing a range of emotions. This type of news may be “run of the mill” for many, but for those of us who are Black, it is beyond disappointing—it has become exhausting and excruciating. Many of our students see themselves in Breonna Taylor and the many other recent Black victims of police violence. It is understandable that students in the virtual class that afternoon may have been contending with very raw emotions at the time of the instructor’s statement. In this context especially, it is understandable that the comment made was interpreted by our students and larger community as insensitive and hurtful regardless of the instructor’s intent.

As a minority-serving institution, Buffalo State must strive for better experiences for our students. The instructor has since acknowledged that her lesson plan and approach on that day were flawed. I fully concur with her assessment. I offer this assessment not to chill free speech on our campus or in our classrooms but to make clear our responsibility as faculty and staff members to always respect the lived experiences and perspectives of the students and colleagues who make up our beautifully diverse campus. Without taking this responsibility seriously, we risk undermining the educational benefits the speech itself is intended to stimulate.

Free Speech and Academic Freedom
We must always recognize that free speech, especially in the context of academic learning, is protected. The college’s policy statement on academic freedom states, “It is the policy of the University to maintain and encourage full freedom, within the law, of inquiry, teaching, and research. In the exercise of this freedom faculty members may, without limitation, discuss their own subject in the classroom; they may not, however, claim as their right the privilege of discussing in the classroom controversial matter which has no relation to the subject. The principle of academic freedom shall be accompanied by a corresponding principle of responsibility.”1

This protection extends to both faculty and students and should be applied equitably. Although many have questioned the instructor’s teaching method on September 23 (she revised her lesson plan before the spring semester), and the example she used to make her instructional point made her students feel uncomfortable (after making her controversial statement, she did clarify during the September 23 virtual course her personal support for the Black Lives Matter movement and concerns for racial injustice), we must be careful not to discourage difficult conversations on campus. Last summer, President Conway-Turner shared a message that stated, in part:

“As an institution of higher education, we recognize that the free expression of speech and the encouragement of various perspectives are critical to advancing our world; however, as many of us know, sometimes thoughts, ideas, and perspectives are expressed that seem inconsistent with who we are as a campus. Our instinctive default may be to shut these ideas down, but this is precisely the moment when we must use our voices to engage in critical debate while also valuing and understanding the fundamental right of free speech—even for those with unpopular or insensitive viewpoints. The exchange must occur in ways that keep the health, safety, and well-being of our campus community our top priorities.”

As a veteran of the U.S. Navy and the mother of an active duty sailor, I take great pride in promoting and defending the rights afforded by our Constitution, including an individual’s right to express their views even if I don’t agree with their perspective. This is especially relevant as we enter the Memorial Day weekend, when we honor the many sacrifices made by generations of those who protected our Constitutional rights and ideals. We must not discourage or shy away from imperfect conversations but rather strive for civil, inclusive, and respectful debate that acknowledges the diverse backgrounds and experiences of our fellow Bengals. Freedom of speech should not, however, free us from considering the impact our speech has on others. Our students were hurt by this, and for that I offer an institutional apology and a pledge that we will do better.

Moving Forward Together
This fall, I will be working alongside our partners in United University Professions with the College Writing Program, its director, and the instructor discussed here on a pilot program to train CWP faculty on inclusive pedagogical practices. With support from UUP, we plan to take this training to scale across campus.  

This situation has uniquely exposed the need for us to adequately train and empower our faculty and instructors with the knowledge and skills they need to teach our students using an inclusive model where equity is a part of its foundation. In learning from this situation, we must pledge to work with all faculty and staff members actively and aggressively to dramatically increase cultural competency training at an institution where young people of color form the student majority. Together, we can learn from this moment and strengthen our collective approach to a fuller understanding of and commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion at all levels of the institution.

[1] Buffalo State College, DOPS Policy Number I:15:00 (PDF, 6.2 KB)