Following an undefeated season for its football team, this should be a time of triumph for Auburn University, and especially for its sports program.
Instead, it is a time of awkward debate about race -- in the athletics department and throughout the university. A reorganization of the athletics department last month led to the elimination of the jobs of two black administrators. A white administrator lost his job too, and two other black officials were promoted in the reorganization.
But when black educators at Auburn and black legislators in Montgomery didn't like the answers they received to questions about those who lost their jobs, matters deteriorated. Alabama's black legislative caucus has called for black athletes to boycott the university, with a leader of the boycott effort calling Auburn "one of the most racist universities in the world."
And the Rev. Al Sharpton is now getting involved, saying that he will mobilize his supporters to back the boycott of a university with "a history of blatant discriminatory practices."
All of this activity is taking place as the university released a long-awaited report on efforts to promote diversity. And that report follows a letter from black faculty and students leaders demanding that the president do more to recruit and retain minority students and faculty members. The general feeling among many black scholars is that Auburn is terrified of the boycott, suggesting that some of the university's leaders are more concerned about black people who can hold a ball than those who hold doctorates.
David Wilson, vice president for university outreach at Auburn and the highest ranking black official at the university, said he doesn't see "how the boycott is going to lead to the kind of improved conditions that are needed here." But he added: "What the black legislative caucus has done is to get the university's attention, and that might not be a bad thing."
"Universities don't like to be forced to do things, to be told to do things," he said.
Wilson and others stressed that while the athletics reorganization set off the debate, concern extends well beyond the sports programs.
"We don't want to get caught making these athletics issues the primary focus of what we are talking about, when African Americans on this campus are concerned about academics," said Willie D. Larkin, a professor of adult education and chair of the Faculty Senate.
While Larkin noted with pride that he is the first black person to lead the faculty, he said that it was inexcusable that Auburn doesn't have a single black department chair, and that black enrollments are so low.
Black students make up 7 percent of undergraduates -- at a public university in a state where 26 percent of the population is black.
Larkin said that the reason athletics programs have set off such a broad debate is that they symbolize more than just a game. Auburn's football and basketball teams are majority black, suggesting that the university can do a good job of recruiting black people to the campus.
So to see black administrators of the athletics program lose their jobs was too much, he said. "You don't see a lot of black coaches. You don't see the people who wear suits and ties and make decisions," he said.
Deedie Dowdle, director of communications at Auburn, said that the university was strongly committed to diversity and that "nothing could be further from the truth" than the idea that the administration was indifferent to black people.
She said that Auburn wants to recruit more black students and employees, but that it faces challenges just like "universities all over the country that are struggling with this issue."
She said she had heard no reports that the boycott was having any impact, and said that Sharpton has not contacted Auburn officials directly. "We would welcome any dialogue," she said.
Dowdle said that Auburn has demonstrated its strong support for black people in the state with projects such as the Rural Studio, in which Auburn architecture students and faculty members have created innovative housing for poor people in the state. "There is an awful lot of impact, economic and otherwise, represented by Auburn faculty and staff and that relates to trying to improve the lives of minorities."
Wilson said that Auburn officials were correct to point to progress and to programs like Rural Studio as having made a real difference. But he also said that Auburn's leaders must take responsibility for their failure to have more black people in high ranking positions.
"The university has had some opportunities to appoint additional African Americans to senior positions, and we've allowed some of those opportunities to slip through our hands," he said. Wilson said he hoped that the attention created by the boycott would motivate administrators so "those kinds of things won't happen again."
Conner Bailey, a professor of rural sociology at Auburn and the incoming chair of the Faculty Senate, said that the boycott threat has obscured a larger problem at Auburn: that not only are there relatively few black people in senior positions, but there are few women and their numbers have been falling. "People are missing the real story, which is that the African Americans and women are being removed from key positions," he said.
Auburn is "part of two cultures." he said. One is the culture of Alabama politics, "and some of the senior administrators reflect that culture." He said he has advised black undergraduates over the years and has heard "all kinds of horror stories" about their experiences.
But Bailey said that the other culture was also important. "We are part of a national academic culture where there are different values at work," he said. "There are very many people of good will at the university, and we are working hard to make progress."
"I think the university is making an honest effort to make this a more welcoming campus, but you don't overcome a larger culture overnight."
Efforts to reach black student leaders Wednesday were unsuccessful.
John Tatum, president of the student government, said that he did not believe that bias was a problem at Auburn. "Nobody is mistreated here," he said. "Everyone knows that's not the reason any of this happened. Nobody would ever fire or demote anyone because of someone's race."
He added, "I'm the president of the student government and our treasurer is black and there's no problem there.... All of the students, no matter if they are white, black or Chinese, we all work together."
The boycott is "unfortunate," Tatum said. "People are hired and fired every day and it's not a matter of skin color. Some people just enjoy trying to find the bad in things."
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