Outrage over the University of Kentucky's decision to lay off one of its longest-serving and best-known black employees continues to ripple across Lexington and beyond.
Chester Grundy, who started UK's first Black Student Union in 1969 and went on to found the Martin Luther King Cultural Center and direct it for more than 30 years, was laid off last week. As the news has filtered through cyberspace, his former students and fans are making their voices heard.
Grundy is one of 140 employees at UK laid off as part of budget cuts. An additional 164 positions are not being filled.
Alan A. Aja, a former student body government president at UK who is now a professor at Brooklyn College-CUNY, has written a letter to UK President Eli Capilouto, asking for justification for the firing and an explanation of how the center will continue moving forward.
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"While as a student at UK, specifically while serving as the school's first Latino student body president and voting student member of the Board of Trustees in 1996-1997, I had the honor of working closely with Chester's office in building cross-group rapprochement between students of various racial and ethnic backgrounds on campus, not to mention countering daily instances of institutionalized to face-level forms of discrimination the university collectively failed to address," Aja wrote. "Through guest lectures, cultural programs and inter-organizational meetings, Chester exposed students of all walks of life to histories of oppression swept under the rug of denial, while also teaching students that coalition-building, tolerance and understanding is possible through healthy dialogue and debate."
Another UK alum, author Boyce Watkins, a finance professor at Syracuse University, wrote on his blog that "Grundy has been responsible for the cultural evolution of thousands of African-American students through the years, and was one of the beacons of racial hope on a campus with a long history of embarrassing racism."
"The university says that it had to get rid of Grundy to fill a budgetary hole, but the move is interesting in light of the fact that they are very good at recruiting African-Americans to fuel the economic engine from the basketball program," Watkins wrote. "Grundy's greatest crime is that he is an intelligent and conscientious black man, which is an academic felony on campuses like the University of Kentucky."
On Tuesday, Grundy said that he was doing fine, but that like many of his supporters, he's worried about the future of the MLK Center and its programming. UK officials have said the center will remain open, but it's not clear what programming it will offer.
"I have not been given a clue about what will happen," Grundy said. "There was no talk of transition, there was no talk of whether the center will be a space or be a program."
Grundy also helped start the Spotlight Jazz series, and the community's MLK Celebration and the annual Roots and Heritage Festival.
J.J. Jackson, vice president of institutional diversity, has been traveling out of the country with students and has not been available for comment.
In an interview Wednesday, Capilouto said UK remains committed to diversity for faculty, staff and students.
For example, he pointed to an increase in the Parker scholarships for minority students.
"They indicate priorities we have in attracting a diverse student population here," Capilouto said. "Vice President Jackson will be continuing to recruit, retain and graduate minority students, and we certainly want to do the same in our faculty lines."
During the past decade, the number of black students has increased 43 percent, but the black student population has stayed at 6.5 percent, a little less than the state's black population, and distinctly less than Lexington's, which is about 13 percent. The percentage of black faculty at UK has barely budged from about 3 percent to 4 percent of the faculty from 2002 to 2012, according to UK's Office of Institutional Research.
UK has had an uneasy relationship with Kentucky's black community, trying hard to convince people that its campus is friendly for both faculty and students, after a segregated history that included, most famously, Coach Adolph Rupp's reluctance to recruit black players on the basketball team when many other schools did.
"You're talking about a place that was deeply committed to being on the wrong side of history," Watkins said in a phone interview. UK has made many improvements, Watkins added, and those should be applauded, "but the student and the faculty and the citizens should have every right to pressure the administration to do better."
Grundy said UK is focusing now on a multicultural agenda that doesn't have much accountability for past wrongs.
"There's a historical lack of relationship to African-American people in this state for the bulk of its existence, but that no longer has much traction in terms of seeing the need to make correctives," Grundy said.
P.G. Peeples, executive director of the Lexington Urban League, said he was saddened that Grundy was leaving UK with little or no recognition.
"The message that a lot of people are receiving as a result of this is that the university is stepping back from its commitment to initiatives like the Martin Luther King," Peeples said. "If I were advising Dr. Capilouto I would say to him that he might want to take a look at this perception because we're still in the formative stages of his tenure as president."