Boston University’s unionized faculty, staff and students are demanding that BU overhaul some of its policies through the letter, “A Call for BU to Dismantle Institutionalized White Supremacy Culture.”
The letter highlights characteristics of white supremacy — such as refusing to meet with unions representing faculty and staff — that have been recognized in BU’s Back2BU model and urges the University to address its faults in acknowledgement of the national #ScholarStrike held Tuesday and Wednesday.
Seth Blumenthal, a steward in the Service Employees International Union, said drafting the letter involved reaching out to student organizations for feedback, circulating the document among organizations for editing and ensuring that different perspectives were included.
“I teach a class that incorporates aspects of social justice through service learning and through activism,” said Blumenthal, a senior lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences writing program. “I would like to see ways in which BU can structurally support these types of courses that integrate activism into the curriculum, that gives students incentives, but also a break so that they can pursue these interests during what is a very hectic and busy career. ”
Michelle Walsh, a lecturer in the School of Social Work and steward of the SEIU Local 509, wrote in an email that the letter aims to introduce ways to analyze the connection between current issues and “larger structural issues of culture and power” at the University.
“I think that we’ve all hit … a final wall of frustration with Boston University in terms of not listening,” Walsh said in an interview. “The Boston city councilors are very worried about the impact [of COVID-19] on the larger community, which impacts many areas that they serve that have people who are living in economically oppressed circumstances and racial marginalization.”
The letter mentions BU’s recent attempts to combat white supremacy through the creation of the Center for Antiracist Research, but calls on the University to look internally at its culture of white supremacy.
“The work of becoming a fully anti-racist and anti-oppressive institution requires a clear and specific analysis of and accountability for institutionalized white supremacy culture to be successful,” the letter reads. “We cannot hope to transform the world if we cannot transform our own institution.”
The letter was composed collectively by a collection of groups, including: United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America Local 2324; UMOJA: The Black Student Union; the Writing Program Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee; the BU PhD Student Coalition; the BUSSW Anti-Racist White Affinity Group and the CAS Anti-Racist Initative.
While this document addresses the University as a whole, some groups within BU’s undergraduate schools are also confronting racism and white supremacy on a smaller scale. The CAS Anti-Racist Initiative was one of the student-led groups that pushed for making CAS more inclusive.
Mari Rooney, a member of CASARI and senior in CAS, said the organization started out as students who wanted the College to be a more inclusive and safe environment for all students, especially those who are “traditionally marginalized and oppressed.”
“We started out by doing a lot of research and doing a lot of just talking to one another,” Rooney said, “getting to know how people’s experiences at the University have been and what sort of demands they’d like to see met by the University.”
CASARI recently met with CAS Dean Stan Sclaroff to examine the internal issues in CAS and discuss future plans to address them with the University. Sclaroff wrote in an email he is interested in hearing how CAS can continue to improve its diversity and inclusion efforts.
“The input, support, and participation from student groups is important and we will be having student listening sessions soon to reach out to as many students in the College as possible,” Sclaroff wrote. “Indeed, we need faculty, staff, and students to be engaged if we are to achieve substantive and sustainable change.”
Rooney said that while she feels optimistic after having “not been met with hostility,” she has noticed CASARI being met with scheduling challenges from administrators when attempting to lock down times to meet.
“I was somewhat disheartened by how quickly it became apparent to me that they were going to try and defuse us in sort of nefarious ways,” Rooney said. “It became clear to me that people having too much to do in their schedules is going to be used as a logistical mechanism for either postponing when they can talk to us or trying to push us into working with another group instead of working directly with them.”
Max White, a lecturer in the CAS writing program who endorsed the letter, said his reason for supporting the movement stems from his own experience as a graduate student at Northeastern University.
“I know what it’s like to be really structurally disempowered and to not be able to have the kind of influence over an institution that you really feel strongly about,” White said, “and to feel like there’s not a lot of ways to make positive change in a place, even though everything you’re learning supports what you’re trying to do.”
There is an “innate tension,” White said, between what students believe and the kind of institutional structure that “discourages change that inhibits new ideas and that really, frankly, oppresses graduate students and large populations.”
White, who teaches a course on the intersections of sports and social issues, said he tries to encourage his students to talk about issues related to race and gender during class, and is “very open” about difficult topics.
White said he thinks there is a lack of communication between BU administration and the people within the community.
“I want to see University leadership actually talk to people and really listen to them,” White said. “I want to see them give us a choice in how we do what we do, and I want our expertise to be respected. I want to see them live the sense of community that they claim to value.”
White later wrote in an email that he’d like to see each college within the University form community budget oversight committees, which would represent all ranks of faculty, students and staff.
“I’d like to see the colleges be more transparent about how their funds are allocated,” White wrote. “At the central administration level, I think there should be a similar group, specifically one that might recommend more equitable allocations of resources.”
Chloe Liu contributed to the reporting of this article.