Education

Faculty group urges action on race issues at University of Kentucky

A mural by Ann Rice O’Hanlon in the lobby of Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky has been covered.
A mural by Ann Rice O’Hanlon in the lobby of Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky has been covered. palcala@herald-leader.com

A University of Kentucky faculty group has penned an open letter to UK President Eli Capilouto urging him to look beyond a controversial mural to larger issues of race and inclusion.

About 100 people, including faculty, staff and graduate students, said they don’t necessarily agree on whether Capilouto should have covered up a mural that depicts black workers or slaves, which he did at the urging of a group of students.

But “we are in agreement that covering up a decades-old mural is not enough to improve problems of inclusion,” the letter says. “We agree that the university could and should do more to improve the conditions on campus for all people of color.”

The letter urges Capilouto to improve UK’s climate for black, Latino, Asian and LGBTQ students, and for all faculty and staff who are marginalized and isolated.

The letter urges an open process to address the issue and suggests specific steps:

▪  Commissioning black artists to create their own images of slavery and other aspects of black history to counter the impact of the mural in Memorial Hall.

▪  Hiring more scholars who study slavery and emancipation to replace the one scholar in this area, Joanne Melish, who retired last year.

▪  Expanding tools to track incidents of racial harassment.

▪  Providing more financial support to expand the number of faculty of color at UK across all ranks and disciplines.

There are students who don’t know there was slavery in Kentucky, and if you’re going to graduate from the flagship university, you need to understand about this university and this state.

Reinette Jones, a faculty librarian at UK Special Collections

▪  Hiring a dedicated person in the admissions office to increase enrollment of students of color in undergraduate and graduate programs and the professional schools, particularly those who are Kentucky residents.

▪  Expanding aid for students of color and increase mentorship by adding substantive programs to attract and retain students of color.

▪  Hiring mental health professionals with expertise in working with racially and ethnically diverse populations “to develop, implement and evaluate outreach programming, consultation and crisis intervention services for UK faculty, staff and students to address personal, cultural and collective trauma stemming from campus-based, local and national incidents of racism, racial microaggressions, implicit bias and/or racialized violence.”

▪  Requiring all students to take a course on race and ethnicity as a requirement for graduation.

▪  Expanding financial support of academic units that aid in the expansion of knowledge on subjects of race, culture and marginalization, including Latin American, Caribbean and Latino studies, Asian studies, Appalachian studies, and gender and women’s studies.

▪  A national search to fill the vice president of institutional diversity position left vacant by the retirement of J.J. Jackson.

Reinette Jones, a faculty librarian at UK Special Collections, said a group of faculty met after the mural was covered. She said she opposes covering the mural because of the educational potential, but that much more important steps are needed to improve inclusion on campus.

“This is a teaching moment that we’ve missed for a very long time,” Jones said. “There are students who don’t know there was slavery in Kentucky, and if you’re going to graduate from the flagship university, you need to understand about this university and this state.”

Capilouto sent a campus-wide email Monday, thanking people for the broad discussion. He said the mural would eventually be uncovered but placed “in the explicit and accurate context of the sober realities of our shared history and our advancing understanding of race, gender, ethnicity and identity.” He did not give details.

He also plans to meet with the faculty and staff group, spokesman Jay Blanton said.

“He is deeply gratified by the spirit of partnership and dialogue occurring across the campus around these critically important issues,” Blanton said. “Much progress has been made, but President Capilouto understands that there remains much work to do. To that end, he is committed to working with students, faculty and staff toward the goal of creating a community where everyone knows they truly belong.”

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