Nearly two months after Emory committed to advance racial justice in response to demands from the Coalition of Black Organizations and Clubs (CBOC), the University has made slow progress toward realizing the initiatives promised by President Gregory L. Fenves in an Aug. 13 letter to the community.

In June, CBOC released a list of demands for the University to address its culpability in upholding anti-Blackness. CBOC’s demands respond to earlier statements from Interim Provost Jan Love and former-University President Claire E. Sterk about the nation’s racial reckoning in March.

“Though the sentiments of these expressions are laudable and heartfelt, these immaterial affirmations of allyship and ‘empathy’ are insufficient to the task of addressing material anti-blackness,” the demands read. “There is no remedy to the historical experience of racial trauma.”

CBOC urged administrators to rename University property memorializing Confederate slave holders, disarm and defund the Emory Police Department (EPD), provide faculty diversity and sensitivity training and protect Black affinity spaces. CBOC has met with Fenves, the chief diversity officer and other administrators every month to discuss progress toward their demands.

Fenves’ Aug. 13 letter outlined eight specific initiatives to address racial inequities at Emory, some of which included assessing the EPD’s relationship with the Emory community, renovating affinity spaces, evaluating campus buildings dedicated to slave owners, implementing a race and ethnicity general education requirement (GER) and hiring a director of diversity and inclusion. 

Vice President of Academic Communications Nancy Seideman wrote in a Sept. 24 email to the Wheel that no major updates are currently available regarding the University’s progress toward these initiatives. 

Though CBOC leaders appreciate the University’s willingness to have these conversations, they remain concerned about the University’s lack of a definitive timeline for implementing these initiatives. 

The University’s Progress

Fenves’ letter said that Justice and Sustainability Associates (JSA), a Washington, D.C.-based firm, will evaluate EPD’s use-of-force policies and publish its findings later this semester. Chief Executive Officer and Principal of JSA Don Edwards told the Wheel that no updates are available at the moment, but stated that work is steadily progressing. 

The University is working to repopulate a committee to evaluate campus buildings names, which will include representatives from CBOC. The committee will offer recommendations to the Board of Trustees regarding building names, although no communication has taken place yet, CBOC founder and Emory NAACP Political Action Committee Chair Ronald Poole (23C) said.

Despite numerous requests from the Wheel, the University declined to provide committee member names.

Renaming buildings that memorialize racist figures is an especially pressing demand, Poole noted. With every year that building names stay the same, a new generation of Black students are subjected to an uncomfortable environment. 

“It’s another way in which my existence on Emory’s campus is paradoxical, that I’m not supposed to be there, that these spaces were not designed for me, weren’t named in recognition of any of the work that my people have done,” Poole said.  

Many students cited the freshman residence hall Longstreet-Means as harmful. The building was named after Augustus Longstreet and Alexander Means, both of whom were slave owners. Longstreet wrote defenses of slavery and Southern succession while he served as University president in the mid-1800s.

Many students cited the freshman residence hall Longstreet-Means as harmful. The building was named after Augustus Longstreet and Alexander Means, both of whom were slave owners./Courtesy of Jason Oh

CBOC member Teffin Benedict (21C) considers the renovation of affinity spaces another crucial initiative. 

“At a predominantly white institution, it’s important to have spaces where Black students can celebrate their own culture and bond together,” Benedict said. 

Efforts to improve affinity spaces have not made significant progress, Benedict stated, as these spaces are currently in the Alumni Memorial University Center, an older building where renovation is costly.

Accordingly, affinity space renovation will not be completed by the end of the semester. Poole noted that while he could not reveal exact locations, the administration has promised to provide a “larger space that is not on the ground floor.”

Another one of CBOC’s stipulations is to recognize and resolve demands from previous Black students in 2015. One of these demands included the creation of a race and ethnicity GER for students.

In May, the Emory College Senate passed a resolution to incorporate a race and ethnicity GER into the curriculum. The new GER will go into effect in Fall 2021, affecting the class of 2025 and beyond. 

“Faculty felt that to be an Emory graduate requires some kind of understanding of the way that racial inequities … shape our world,” Emory College Dean Michael Elliott explained. “This requirement is about giving students an opportunity to learn about those issues in some way.”

Elliott created a committee led by Longstreet Professor of English Michelle Wright to implement the new course.

The committee will review current and future courses that meet criteria to raise awareness of historic racial inequities and instruct how to better communicate with others from diverse backgrounds. If a course does not meet the criteria, the committee can suggest changes that professors can choose to accept. 

Although some current courses, such as Introduction to African American Studies (AAS 100) and Race & Ethnic Relations (SOC 247) will fulfill the GER, Elliott noted that many new faculty hired over the last four years “work on topics that are directly related to this GER.”

Altering academic requirements is a tedious and inordinate process. Elliott noted that the time it took to pass the race and ethnicity GER in the College Senate was due to debate over its implementation.  

Initially, faculty aimed to review all GERs, which contributed to a time lag. Faculty later decided to move forward with the race and ethnicity GER without finalizing other requirements. 

The University has convened a committee to screen applicants for the director of diversity and inclusion education and outreach position, which opened on August 11. 

The committee consists of eight University administrators including Chief Diversity Officer Carol E. Henderson. The director of diversity position differs from the chief diversity officer position in that it focuses specifically on education for staff and faculty. 

“The goals will be developing educational programming and training for staff, faculty and leadership around issues related to diversity, inclusion and bias prevention,” Assistant Vice President for Learning and Organizational Development Wanda Hayes, a committee member, said. “They will serve as a thought leader who builds, maintains and shares resources, tools and training opportunities across campus.” 

The committee is still evaluating applicants and have received over 200 applications. They will conduct a second round of interviews later this month and hope to have a candidate hired by the end of the year. 

Looking Forward

The University’s response to CBOC demands to the Emory community writ large gave Poole and Benedict hope.

“I’ve been in more meetings than I even care to reflect on about Emory’s racist legacy and the experience of Black folks in the Emory University system,” Poole said. “It was good to see some concrete actions that were broadcasted to the entire University system and not just us.” 

Benedict didn’t see this level of University engagement in his previous three years at Emory, but hopes that moving forward, “Black students coming here would be assured that this is going to be a place where they are listened to and respected.”

Poole acknowledged, however, that the relatively quick responses to Black student demands from other peer colleges, such as Princeton University (N.H.) and Vanderbilt University (Tenn.), left him questioning Emory’s relatively sluggish timeline.

“These other colleges that Emory considers peers have made these necessary changes and have been responsive,” Poole said. “This is not to diminish the ways the University has been responsive to CBOC, … but it just makes you think.”