Dozens of college presidents published statements last week after a white Minneapolis police officer held his knee on George Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes, killing the black man on May 25 and sparking national protests.
Most of the statements spoke out against racism and police brutality. Many referenced institutional commitments to diversity and the desire for all students, faculty and staff to feel safe and welcomed on campus.
But few explicitly mentioned black people, referenced the Black Lives Matter movement or included any concrete action items to address inequities on campus or in wider society.
Lawrence Bacow, president of Harvard University, was one of several higher ed leaders criticized for missing the mark.
Bacow's statement, published on May 30, said, "Our nation has once again been shocked by the senseless killing of yet another black person -- George Floyd -- at the hands of those charged with protecting us." The statement, titled "What I Believe," went on to assert Bacow's belief in the U.S. Constitution, the American dream and the "power of knowledge and ideas to change the world."
He closed by saying he hopes those connected to Harvard will ask what they believe and "find the strength and determination" to act on their beliefs, "to repair and perfect this imperfect world." Those "privileged to work or study at a place like this bear special responsibilities," the statement said.
Nadirah Farah Foley, an education Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, said she was primed to be disappointed by Bacow's statement. Many previous calls for change at the institution from students of color have been ignored, she said. "Past experience has taught me to have minimal expectations for university leaders in moments like this. Even so, I found President Bacow's letter not just inadequate, but actively offensive."
Bacow centered his message on "what he -- a privileged white man -- believes, rather than using the moment to reflect and express genuine empathy and solidarity with Black members of the Harvard community and Black people as a whole," said Foley.
"As I read his message, with its affirmation of his belief in the American Dream, constitutionally-guaranteed civil rights, and American exceptionalism/imperialism, I couldn't stop thinking about how privileged one must be to write those words while Black people's reality consistently shows many of President Bacow's 'beliefs' to be mere myths."
"There are no magic words that will make this moment easier or undo the harms of racism," said Foley. "That said, I think simplicity can go a long way; if Harvard believes Black lives matter, then it would have been powerful for our university's president to plainly say as much," she said.
A commitment to action, such as examining the university's relationship with its local police department, would have been powerful, said Foley. "Instead of action, we received vacuous platitudes." (Note: this article has been updated to include direct statements from Foley).
Robert Brown, president of Boston University, also received negative feedback for his initial statement, which linked national protests to the university’s efforts to reopen campus.
“In the current troubled climate, I believe our commitment to restoring our residential campus is made all the more important by the divisions in our country,” wrote Brown.
Following complaints from hundreds of students, Brown wrote a second, much more strongly worded statement condemning racism and police brutality.
“Many of you read [the first] letter and have told me I did not do a good job in expressing how I felt about this tragic situation and the state of this country,” Brown wrote. “The lives of our Black students, faculty, and staff, and all Black lives, matter.”
Stephanie Tavares, a senior at Boston University, told The Boston Globe that Brown’s second attempt was an improvement.
“Students were really upset -- we had a right to be upset,” she said. “It seemed dismissive at first.”
Paul Trible Jr., president of Christopher Newport University, also faced a backlash against his initial statement, which criticized the destruction of property during protests and cited the burglary of his son’s luxury clothing store. A letter signed by 1,767 people, including students, faculty and alumni, described Trible’s statement as “tone-deaf.”
Responding to this criticism in a letter, Trible apologized, stating “black lives matter to me and always have and always will.”
Finding the right words after America's long and tortured history with race and racial violence led to this moment is not an easy feat. The pressure is high for college presidents to provide leadership in this moment. And clearly some presidents' statements were found wanting. Fear of saying the wrong thing, however, is not an excuse for silence, say experts. And even well-worded statements can fall flat if they are not followed up by actions.
Say Something Meaningful
In responding to police killings of black people, college presidents should explicitly “name antiblackness and acknowledge that these were black people who were killed by police,” said Shaun Harper, executive director of the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California.
"I acknowledge that police officers shoot and kill people across all ethnic groups, but this moment is about the killing of unarmed black people," said Harper. "This isn’t the time for an all-lives-matter approach. This is not the time for broad statements about diversity and inclusion. I want to see statements about white supremacy and antiblackness."
A strong statement should include insight into the emotion of the writer, said Harper.
"He should say how he personally feels about the killing of black people and why he feels this way, otherwise the statement will be interpreted as a mere performative act," said Harper. "She should write the statement because she is outraged and disgusted, not because all of her colleague presidents are doing it."
Given the pressure to write a good statement, some college leaders may shy away from saying anything at all. That would be a mistake, according to Harper.
"Silence, especially in this moment, speaks volumes about what a leader’s priorities are, about that leader’s willingness or lack thereof to empathize with the traumatization, the grief and the outrage," Harper said. "There couldn’t be a stronger demonstration of disregard for black lives than silence in this moment."
Harper, who recently co-authored a guide for EdWeek on how school leaders can craft strong statements in response to the killing of Floyd, encourages leaders to issue additional statements if they didn’t get their first one right. Leaders must “affirm that black lives matter in their statements,” he said.
Many college presidents shied away from writing “black lives matter” in their statements or openly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, possibly fearing a backlash from those who feel the movement is too political.
“Black Lives Matter has been terribly misunderstood as a group,” said Harper. “It doesn’t mean that white people’s lives don’t matter, or that Latino people’s lives don’t matter.”
“I think it’s likely that lots of leaders are misunderstanding what Black Lives Matter actually is,” Harper said. “I also know that leaders who write statements get all sorts of counsel from their communications colleagues, and there are so few people of color in those roles. If you’re getting advice in your statement from a mostly white profession, the statement is going to be sanitized and it's going to be apolitical. The current moment demands that leaders take some political risks.”
Kirk Schulz, president of Washington State University, said he didn’t have any regrets about including the words “black lives matter” in his statement on racism and the recent killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police.
“Higher ed leadership should be taking a lead on this, not a back seat to industry and state-level groups. We have to be out in front,” he said.
“Does it make me nervous that some people might be offended? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that we should change how we communicate,” said Schulz.
Mary Jo Gonzales, vice president of student affairs at Washington State, praised Schulz for his commitment to writing a bold and clear statement.
“It was important we say that black lives matter, because they do,” she said.
In his statement, Schulz shared that the university would soon publish the results of a formal review into the conduct of campus police toward black students and students of color -- a step that Harper said he would like to see every institution take.
“I care less about words and more about actions,” said Harper. “Institutions should hire more black people to be deans and provosts; they should award tenure to more black people. They should give more financial support and materials to black studies programs and departments. And they should absolutely do a thorough investigation of their campus police or campus safety unit to ensure that they are not racially profiling and harassing black students, which is a thing that happens on a lot of campuses.”
Like Harper, the president of Dillard University, Walter Kimbrough, doesn’t want to see college presidents saying words they don’t mean.
"I have always wrestled with Black Lives Matter because in some cases I think people appropriate it," Kimbrough said. "I don’t have comfort when I see whites carry those signs and chant it. I want to see them intervening in situations like Central Park when the woman called the police on the black man who asked her to follow the rules. Personally I think whites have to actualize Black Lives Matter and not wear it or chant it."
More higher ed leaders are starting to shake their hesitancy to say black lives matter as their understanding of the movement grows, said Sean Rossall, CEO of communications agency RW Jones. He noted that Loyola, Wesleyan, Rhodes and the California Institute of the Arts, all referenced the movement in their statements.
It can be difficult for institutions to hit the right note when talking about race, said Rossall. On June 2, for example, some higher education institutions shared black squares on their social media as part of an effort called #blackouttuesday -- a gesture that drew criticism as ringing hollow.
"Frankly, it annoyed me, the number of colleges that were blacking out their social media but don’t do a thing to affirm black lives matter on other days when it isn’t part of a trendy campaign," Harper said. "All those institutions that blacked out their social media on June 2, I'm more interested in what they're going to do on Aug. 2, and June 2, 2021."