The Convergence of Crises

Meditations and Musings

— Chancellor's Blog —

The Convergence of Crises

In the midst of the COVID pandemic, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed during an arrest by the Minneapolis Police Department. The days and months that followed brought to the surface the chronic malignant disease of racism that has plagued our nation. 

The following is a description of the events surrounding Floyd’s death published by USA Today digital editor Ashley Schaffer on May 28, 2020.

“Who was George Floyd?

Floyd was a 46-year-old black man in Minneapolis known as a "gentle giant" to friends and family who say he never made an enemy. He worked in security and as a truck driver. He had two daughters, ages 6 and 22. And on Sunday, Floyd was scheduled to meet with his friend to talk about getting involved with MAD DADS – Men Against Destruction Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder – but he couldn't make it. The next day, Floyd was dead.

“What happened to him?
  • Floyd was pinned down by a white police officer on Monday who held his knee to the handcuffed man's neck as he repeatedly said he could not breathe. Floyd died later Monday after being restrained.
  • Horrifying video of the incident spread quickly on social media Tuesday, showing the police officer ignoring Floyd’s pleas for help until first responders put him, unresponsive, on a stretcher
  • Four officers involved in the incident have been fired, and an attorney representing Floyd's family, Ben Crump, has called for their arrests
“What's happened since his death?

Grief and anger turned to violence Wednesday as cities saw another day of protests following Floyd's death, with some turning to looting and setting fires. Protesters clashed with police in Minneapolis. They chanted for justice in Memphis, Tennessee. They stopped freeway traffic in Los Angeles. On Thursday, Minneapolis leaders called for peace and security to be restored and Governor Tim Walz signed an executive order to activate the Minnesota National Guard.”

Floyd’s tragic death was another page in a long manuscript of deaths of Black Americans, with a growing list of young lives in recent years at the hands of and in the process of law enforcement. As the list below shows (which certainly is not comprehensive or complete), there had already been a number of deaths in the first half of 2020 – with as we now know, more to come.

Eric Garner (Jul 2014), Michael Brown (Aug 2014), Tamir Rice (Nov 2014), Walter Scott (Apr 2015), Alston Sterling & Philando Castile (Jul 2016), Stephon Clarke (Mar 2018), Atatiana Jefferson (Oct 2019), Auhmad Arbery (Feb 2020), Daniel Prude (Mar 2020), Breonna Taylor (Mar 2020), George Floyd (May 2020), Rayshard Brooks (Jun 2020), Jacob Blake (injured Aug 2020)

Names of Native American and Indigenous people, including Nebraska’s own Zachary Bear Heels, who died in 2017, could be added to this list.

Mr. Floyd’s killing, however, was a tipping point for a deeply divided America along multiple lines, with an unmistakable level of racially-motivated and hate-based unrest fomenting and building. A wave of protests and voices erupted for an extended period of time, including locally in Lincoln and Omaha.

I will never forget the wave of emotion and feelings I had in learning of the death of George Floyd, with its initial report of 8 minutes and 46 seconds of “I can’t breathe,” during what appeared to be apprehension for a minor offense. I felt a sense of shame, and, in a way I had never experienced before, responsibility. Being completely honest with myself, I asked the question, am I unable to see the level of racism that must really exist in America in 2020? And furthermore, how do I contribute to it systemically?

No matter how much we may want to believe or proclaim that we are unbiased, biases exist and can impact the way we see and treat others. As a professional animal geneticist, I have committed countless years to attempting to understand and further define the genetic model – i.e. that “Phenotype” is the sum of “Genotype” and “Environment”. While not a perfect analogy, it is easy to ascertain that the views and opinions we carry are the sum product of our life experiences – i.e. our “Environment”.

I have often shared my own formative background as being a son of Appalachia, a Scots-Irish descent farm boy with deep family roots in the southern Shenandoah Valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I grew up in the civil rights era of the 1960s and 70s, in a family and religious background of hard-working, blue-collar, southern white people in a deeply segregated society and culture. I entered first grade at Breckenridge Elementary School in Fincastle, Virginia, a year after the desegregation of our county school system. To say that racism was alive and well, at home, church, and school, is an understatement.

While I navigated through life believing the right thing to do was to be colorblind—not see the color of skin, or race—I know deep in my heart that to be impossible. One cannot have been raised in a racist society and not carry inherent bias, no matter how hard one tries to eradicate or erase it.

By the week of May 25th, we had collectively been isolated in the world of COVID-19 mitigation for over 75 days. In our own family’s case, that had included having three of our adult children quarantining with Jane and I under our roof. Justin had moved back to Lincoln from Washington, DC and was editing, Kelli had moved in with us while she was finishing her Masters of Divinity final semester at Princeton Theological Seminary after they had gone remote, and Regan was living with us while being a para-educator at Norris Elementary. And, as a stroke of timing and good fate, Kelli’s husband-to-be, Jordan Ward, had relocated to be with us as well when the seminary in New York City where he was a graduate student went remote. Jordan got a crash course in knowing the Green family – and fortunately for us, the same for us in reverse to get to know him. While not physically under our roof, son Nate was also local here in Lincoln and spent significant time in our family huddles as well. We talked every day about the state of the world, and, as this happened the state of racism in America.

I knew that this was a time when a different path was required. Silence was not an option, nor was saying that this did not directly impact the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. While UNL had a number of direct experiences related to race going back over the past 6 years, including some very challenging moments since I had become chancellor in 2017 and 2018, this called for a completely different approach.

After a lot of thought, introspection, discussion with my family, and prayer, I knew I needed to say something, and posted a brief statement on Twitter, knowing that was the best way to quickly disseminate something:

May 30, 2020… “Jane and I are sickened by the horrific injustice in Minneapolis, and the other forms of injustice that we know we don’t see first-hand. Our hearts ache for the senseless loss of George Floyd and his family – and too many others. Racism in any form is wrong and has no place in our lives, our communities, or institutions. Yet it remains. Those of us entrusted to leading institutions must stay committed to truly listening, truly learning and to understanding our own bias. We need to encourage honest conversations, big and small, that can help bridge this divide and address deeply embedded histories of exclusion. I hope and continue to believe that higher education, particularly institutions focused on access, can play a positive role in these conversations.”

Over the course of the following week, I received statements, letters, and demands from a number of campus groups including the Black Student Union, the African and African American Leadership Caucus, the African and African American Studies Program of the Institute for Ethnic Studies, the Chancellors Commission on the Status of People of Color, and the ASUN/BSU released a statement. There were many commonalities amongst the communications, including the sense of frustration of how while this moment was a tipping point, there had been previous times in 2014, 2015, and 2018 when concerns around systemic racial challenges at UNL and the community had been raised, here we were again. This time, there was an additional enhanced call for general law enforcement reform in Lincoln and a call for better understanding of the same at UNL.

We immediately went to work thinking about how now would be different. I knew that this was not as simple as amassing a list of some needed immediate changes or going back to previous lists of the same from 2014-15. And it was above and beyond the University’s significant and growing efforts in inclusive excellence. What was required was a long-term commitment to defining UNL as anti-racist, and a place where racial equity can ultimately be fully achieved. This could not be a task force, or a strategic plan development, or a commission – this was going to be a journey. After discussing this with the University’s senior leadership, I communicated the following to the UNL community:

June 5, 2020 ….”This past Saturday, I shared my sadness in the unjust and senseless death of George Floyd and of too many other Black lives. As I said then, racism in any form is wrong and has no place in our lives, our communities or our institutions. Yet it remains.

This week shook me to my core in many ways. I listened to and engaged with the Black voices in our community and have reflected upon where we find ourselves in this moment of our national and institutional history on this issue.

Now must be different. This cannot be another moment where we collectively rage at injustice, acknowledge pain and then take no meaningful action. We must take real steps to address racial inequities and a history of exclusion. We must take them now. And we must take them again, and again, and again…while continuously critiquing and evaluating our progress or when we fall short. This is an endeavor where we have to be intentional and commit every day.

I said earlier that I believe higher education can play a positive role. I know we can. We are uniquely positioned to learn from the past, give voice and action to the present and help shape future generations.

This past week has been a deep time of reflection, listening, talking and figuring out what comes next, including across our UNL community. I want to call out the efforts of our OASIS team. For some time, they have held weekly “Dish It Up” luncheons open to anyone to talk about issues of inequality and inclusion. This week, they threw open the invitation – and more than 300 of our UNL students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of our broader Lincoln community had frank, honest and open conversations about race. Our Office of Diversity and Inclusion shared resources with our campus for those seeking to better understand, perhaps even to better understand ourselves. Our CAPS and EAP teams have been there to support our students, faculty and staff as they manage the pain and emotional fatigue. Members of our UNL community were deeply involved with our broader Lincoln community in promoting a common dialogue between the protestors and law enforcement. Our campus leadership has come together throughout the past week to talk through this, to hear what is on the minds of our Black faculty, staff and students and to begin to lay out next steps.

The conversations happening this week are important, even though for far too many they feel like a new chapter of a well-worn book. We can’t walk together until we talk together.

We all know the future must be about action. Throughout our history as the people’s university, we have declaratively taken on the important challenges in our world.

Today, I am taking a first step in calling for a UNL journey for Anti-Racism and Racial Equity. I use the word “journey” not because we are seeking some vague destination which we may eventually reach, but because our efforts in this moment cannot be “one and done.” We must ensure meaningful step after meaningful step that advances real and sustained change in addressing this deeply enduring challenge.

To elevate, provide accountability and maintain required sustained focus – this important work will be centered in the Office of the Chancellor. Every one of us must play a role, and I intend to be deeply engaged. I will soon appoint two co-leaders of this journey who will collaborate with Marco Barker, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, to manage the activities and projects that emerge. In the weeks ahead, as we dialogue and take steps to initiate very specific actions, we will continue to communicate with you regularly.

This will require commitment and action from all of us, particularly our leaders across our campus. We will be, and should be, held accountable for ensuring actions are taken. If we do not, we will fail to fulfill our mission of access and success for all – the basic premise of our founding in 1869.”

I then launched into a careful time of reading, listening and learning with our campus community, to dig deeper into the communications received and beyond. I will never forget the conversations which were honest, forthright, and at many times, raw. I heard stories from campus community members of how they had personally experienced racism in multiple ways in Lincoln, and at the University. This came from students, from faculty, and from staff. I cannot explain why, but this time for me whatever the implicit bias filters I may have had before were gone and I heard them in a way that shocked me at my core. I knew that what they were describing to me in the bigger picture was not exceptional (in relative terms), but I knew it was unacceptable and it required an anti-racism and racial equity long-term approach.

We went forward to frame the “Journey”, starting with the identification of a set of faculty co-leaders across the institution. I talked with a wide array of constituencies and reached out to five faculty leaders I had identified through that process and asked them to serve in that capacity. I was encouraged and excited that they all agreed to step up and serve. In early July, I announced those leaders to the campus community.

July 7, 2020… “On June 5, I called for UNL to begin a journey of addressing anti-racism and racial equity. It is important to see this journey and the work of anti-racism as an ongoing process; and more importantly, as a step for us to have greater accountability and a sustained focus as an institution that serves our state and beyond.

Over the past few weeks, I have had a number of conversations with our Institute for Ethnic Studies faculty and its African and African American Studies Program, the African and African American Leadership Caucus, the Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of People of Color, the Black Student Union and others. Our campus leaders have carefully studied the statements and recommendations submitted by departments, faculty, staff, and student organizations from across our university community. These recommendations and conversations were deeply insightful and pointed clearly to the need for this journey to commence for our University.

To this end, I have identified co-leaders whose research, creative activity, and engagement explores these topics. I am very pleased and thankful that the co-leaders for this critically important journey are:

  • Lory J. Dance, Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies
  • Kwame Dawes, Chancellor’s Professor of English
  • Anna W. Shavers, Cline Williams Professor of Citizenship Law and Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion
  • Kara Mitchell Viesca, Associate Professor of Teaching, Learning, and Teacher Education
  • Sergio C. Wals, Associate Professor of Political Science and Ethnic Studies

They will work in concert and closely with Vice Chancellor Marco Barker and staff, faculty, and students in our Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Council on Inclusive Excellence and Diversity, and our collective student, faculty, and staff organizations across the campus.

More specifically, the faculty leaders will assist me and our University in developing and facilitating opportunities to learn about racism that are available across the University and for our local and extended communities; systematically reviewing and assessing racial disparities across our operations and the necessary practices and policy changes that address such disparities; leveraging the expertise, scholarship, artistry, and innovation of our faculty, staff, and students to inform local and national conversations on anti-racism and racial equity; and increasing our engagement with academic, professional, and statewide communities in an effort to foster an understanding and application of anti-racism and racial equity practices.

In addition to the journey ahead, there are some initial action steps we are taking to strengthen our commitment to inclusive excellence. Our institutional leaders and I will:

  • Examine how our current core curriculum addresses diversity with a keen focus on race, privilege, and power.
  • Develop a clearer and more transparent process for addressing climate issues that may impede an individual’s participation in our UNL community based on their identity.
  • Establish co-director faculty leadership roles in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to work with the Office of Academic Affairs and academic colleges on faculty diversity recruitment, retention, and development. This will work in concert with staff recruitment and retention efforts.
  • As suggested by those who participated in our CEO Action sessions, initiate a culture of self-reflection and learning through a Chancellor’s reading program focused on race and identity each academic semester, beginning with the upcoming fall 2020 term.
  • Commit to studying and addressing systemic issues and institutional policies. This will include developing a process to review the honorific naming of buildings and structures on our campus, as well as our approaches to community policing and UNLPD relationships as committed to by Interim University Police Chief Hassan Ramzah.
  • Hold our University leadership team at the Chancellor’s Cabinet and Expanded Deans Council level accountable for developing anti-racist and inclusive excellence strategies.

These actions are the first steps of what I anticipate as multiple steps in addressing racial equity in our institution and the many concerns expressed by members of our campus community. We have more work to do and are committed to that work. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion will support me in monitoring and tracking our progress with these and future efforts.

This journey for Anti-Racism and Racial Equity strengthens our ability to fulfill our N2025 vision to emphasize inclusive excellence, enhance the student experience, increase our research and creative activity, and provide professional development for faculty, staff, and students. It positions our institution to better recognize and address structural barriers stemming from systemic racism; facilitate deeper self-reflection, dialogue and learning; and fulfill our mission to serve as the state’s intellectual center.

Unfortunately, history shows us that this is not the first time such a journey is needed or warranted. But as I said last month, Now Must Be Different. As I finish penning this message, I just concluded listening to the formative discussions of the Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition. Commissioner Warren asked me at the end of the call if I had one word to describe how I feel about these efforts – my response was “essential.”

I challenge all of us to commit to and join in this journey as we build a stronger and better future for all. We can only make meaningful and sustained change by all of us working together.

We quickly recognized, after hearing from a number of constituencies, that we had left out a critical voice in the Journey leadership, that of Native Americans and Indigenous people. I went back to work, and identified Colette Yellow Robe, academic specialist for TRIO programs and educator in the ALEC department, as an additional co-leader. On August 7th, we announced the final 6-strong co-leads, with the intent that over the course of the coming fall academic term, they would engage to define the initial stages of the Journey work.

As I would come to learn and appreciate in the coming months, this was going to be really hard and challenging work, and going to be a long-term process – but – it was critically important – and UNL could and must become a national leader. And, even though the immediate day to day challenges were on the COVID-19 global pandemic front, we were also confronting a dual crisis – and anti-racism and racial equity was the long-term side of that duality, which cannot be addressed by our complacent views about the myths of color-blindness and systems of formal equality. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech resonate…. "We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."