Dr. Elizabeth Davis
3300 Poinsett Hwy
Greenville, SC 29613.
Dear Furman University Board of Trustees, President Elizabeth Davis, and the Furman University Community:
In the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others, and the social unrest that ensued, the shared trauma of African Americans has been equally unifying and heartbreaking. Black Americans everywhere have found solidarity in re-telling their encounters with racism, racial violence by law enforcement, and experience with microaggressions.
Unfortunately, our experiences as Black Americans mirror those as Black students/alumni of Furman University, where decades of racism by the University, its faculty, and current students have been revealed by the personal stories shared on the Black Furman Alumni Facebook group and Black at Furman University Instagram account (@BlackAtFurmanUni). As the Black alumni of Furman University, we implore you to take more aggressive steps in remediating the institution's culture of racial bias.
For four years, Black students endure a near constant assault on their culture and identity. The school has repeatedly chosen to willfully ignore expressions of both implicit and explicit racism on campus, such as the hanging of nooses, displays of confederate paraphernalia, students in blackface, and cultures of intimidation against Black students by the university community. By abdicating its responsibility to uplift Black students and condemn displays of bigotry, the university consistently reinforced the white supremacy at its core, allowing this evil plaguing the campus to exist without challenge.
Furman University has consistently eschewed Black expression by approaching its Black students, alumni, and the Black Greenville community (who have a limited relationship with the institution, at best) with indifference and apathy. For these reasons, our memories of Furman have always been in part painful and at best never been wholly positive, as underscored by Justin King’s recent op-ed in the Greenville Journal, ‘The fight to combat racism at Furman is far from over’. The Black/African American Alumni of Furman University stand with Justin, affirm his experience as our own, and declare our hopes that Furman’s fight with racism is beginning.
While we hope to regard Furman with the fondness and reverence that alumni should have for their alma mater, we also cannot separate our encounters with bigotry from our university experience. We want to give back, come to homecomings, and visit the beautiful campus with our families in peace. We want to speak about our college experience, when asked, with joy but we cannot do this in good conscience knowing Furman can, and should, be better to its students of color.
We acknowledge President Davis for the standards she’s set in reckoning with the school’s connection to slavery and white supremacy, honoring the contributions made by Black people to Furman, and her initiative to make the campus more diverse and inclusive. That said, slavery is not an academic exercise. Racism should be rooted out and addressed with intentionality, bravery, and focus.
We find the university’s commitment to racial justice from the ‘Seeking Abraham’ report to be largely historical and symbolic. We take issue with the problematic portrayal of the Furman family’s "struggle" with being racist owners of enslaved Black people. And while we appreciate the university’s attempt, even portions of the report ostracize and diminish black voices. For example, the descriptor “heathens from tribal Africa" which was not contextualized through quote (Seeking Abraham, pg. 14). While renaming monuments is commendable, Furman must address its failing culture of inclusivity with urgency. Of those that were listed, few recommendations were actively designed to address what we believe should be the three (3) primary areas of concern, student attraction, student retention, and employee, alumni, and community engagement. Without addressing these areas there will be few tangible changes in campus culture. While this list is not exhaustive, we urge you to make the following commitments to racial justice:
1. Consistent with Justice in Educational Practices, Recommendation 2 of the Seeking Abraham report, we urge the university to hire an independent evaluator to audit and investigate campus culture and racial equity practices. This study should also evaluate how the university promotes racial equity in its operations, fiscal management and administrative activity, including how it recruits prospective students/students of color, disparities in the number of staff and faculty of color, and whether there are disparities in wages/salaries between staff of color and their counterparts, student discipline by race, and inclusive sourcing, including procurement for university services across departments with businesses owned by small and local businesses of color. This report must be made publicly available by Fall of 2021.
2. To investigate Furman’s sordid history with chattel slavery and the slave trade, is a position of privilege but to explore this history without recompense for the Black students and communities impacted as a result is abject failure. For Furman’s role in the subjugation of Black bodies, families, and communities, we urge Furman to establish an African American student initiative designed to diversify recruitment and increase enrollment and retention of Black students within the institution. This would include target goals to increase the percentage of Black students enrolled from under-resourced communities, increasing total enrollment of African American students to at least 12% of the total student population (which would pace Furman’s identified peer institutions in the region). We also request that Furman increase programming to promote cultural awareness and provide safe spaces across campus, as well as supportive services for African American students to aid in their retention. While Furman has had faculty and student to student mentor programs in the past, we offer ourselves as partners in a new mentorship initiative to connect Black students with Black alumni for support as they matriculate through college.
3. Consistent with Justice in the Community Recommendation 3 of the Seeking Abraham report, we urge Furman to strengthen its commitment to hiring more African American faculty and staff. We would ask that ALL Departments use applicant and staff diversity as a consideration in the hiring process with a goal to increase the number of Black faculty to 12%, commensurate with the student enrollment goal. We would also request that Furman commit to establishing a goal to increase the number of tenured Black faculty, and that they be provided leadership opportunities within the university. Furthermore, we would request that the African American and Diaspora Cultures Interdisciplinary Minor be instituted as a full major degree offering.
4. Since Black students have endured decades of explicit and implicit racism on campus, we urge Furman to re-establish, staff and adequately resource the Dr. Idella Glenn Multicultural Affairs Center, separate from the Center for Inclusive Communities. This is to honor the service for Furman alumna Dr. Idella Glenn who gave graciously to Furman’s Black students and led the former Multicultural Affairs office for over two decades. This effort also satisfies a complaint of both current and past students to create a physical safe space for Black students on campus.
5. Since the release of the Seeking Abraham report and its recommendations nearly two years ago, it has not been clearly discernible which recommendations the university’s Board of Trustees has executed. We urge a public update on the implementation of the recommendation immediately and request that subsequent updates be made quarterly to the university community.
6. To improve on campus culture, we encourage mandated implicit bias training for all faculty, staff, current and incoming students while also including continuing education training for faculty, on racial sensitivity. We also urge Furman to institute a zero-tolerance policy on substantiated claims of racism and discrimination (of all forms) from students, faculty, staff, trustees, and other university representatives. This would be inclusive of (but not limited to) protections from retaliation for students who make complaints, hate speech/bullying, student organizations that propagate beliefs rooted in racial stereotypes and bias, and banning symbols representing hatred and oppression on campus (Nazi paraphernalia, confederate flags, etc.)
7. We invite the university to engage its Black alumni and students annually in a public forum to discuss the needs of Black students, gain more information on how Furman intends to measure diversity and inclusion, and what additional steps the school is taking in the short to mid-term to combat racism on campus and contribute to social and economic equity for all in the local community and beyond.
We, the concerned Black alumni, are collectively prepared to engage in meaningful work and dialogue with Furman, bringing our talents, time, and knowledge to the table to make this school a better place for ALL its students. We also welcome the support of concerned students, allies, and other community members who expect Furman to take definitive action, as signatories. As such, we request a response by July 10th, 2020.
The Collective Black and African American Alumni of Furman University