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Black History Month Reception

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Rebecca Chopp

Speech  •

Good evening, and thank you all for coming to this special reception as we honor Black History Month. I want to thank Dr. Frank Tuitt for planning this event—and, importantly, for his many years of work creating a more diverse and inclusive DU. And a special thanks to Natley Farris in Advancement for her assistance with this event and for her work with alumni affinity groups. I thank, too, the Faculty and Staff of Color Associations, the Alumni of ACTION and other affinity groups, Bob Willis in Athletics, the staff at the Center for Multicultural Excellence, and individuals across our community who have worked tirelessly to support our students and create an inclusively excellent university.

The national theme of this year’s Black History Month is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories.” And, unfortunately, as I think about African American memories at DU, they are not always positive ones—indeed, some are memories of pain and suffering, of exclusion and inadequate support. Sadly, this is a story that is true at almost all of our nation’s campuses. For those of us who have spent our careers and lives pushing for a more just and inclusive world, what is even more distressing is the fact that students, faculty and staff of color at DU and across the nation continue to face discrimination.

This reality has become even clearer in the last several years—and more intently in the last several months—as students have led protests regarding the racial climate on campuses around the country: Yale, Princeton, University of Missouri, Occidental and Hamilton College, just to name a few. Right before the Thanksgiving break, a group of 12 DU students, mostly African American, visited me to engage in conversation and to share with me some demands, including a call for more faculty of color, training of all faculty in inclusive pedagogy and educating all students about race. Many of these are efforts we are already making progress on—and themes we have heard from faculty and staff members of color as well. We met again in January with this group of students to provide updates on our existing work and to seek their input. I am struck that these students are identifying some of the same areas for improvement that we have identified. These students are insightful. And, frankly, some of them continue to experience racism that most of us hoped would be long behind us by now.

But in the face of this, I remain optimistic for our future. We have made significant progress, and we are committed to building a stronger culture of inclusive excellence at the University of Denver. Our student body is more diverse than it has ever been, and we have staff and faculty who are dedicated to supporting underrepresented students. We will continue to raise funds necessary to attract, retain and support students of color.

Over the last several years, faculty, staff and students have worked successfully to achieve greater diversity and make DU a more inclusive environment. The Class of 2019 is one of the most diverse classes in our history, with 22 percent identifying as students of color, as well as one of the most academically distinguished. In 2005, that number was just 13 percent. This past fall, 30 percent of our new faculty hires were domestic persons of color. And we will continue to strive for greater compositional diversity as well as a more inclusive culture.

Last year, we hired Dr. Liliana Rodriguez as the new Vice Chancellor for Campus Life and Inclusive excellence, a position designed to ensure an inclusive community that supports all students.

Dr. Frank Tuitt became Senior Advisor to the Chancellor and Provost on Diversity and Inclusion. He oversees implementation of a variety of recommendations from the Task Force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Excellence; coordinates an external review on diversity; and, with Lili, has created the Chancellor’s Diversity and Equity Advisory Committee, a University-wide committee with representatives from schools and administrative units.

The Provost’s Academic Diversity Council, consisting of representatives of each academic unit, has been convened to serve in an advisory capacity to the provost and his leadership team on Inclusive Excellence and diversity matters that impact the academic experience at DU for faculty and students. The group will develop templates for unit-level Inclusive Excellence and diversity plans and explore opportunities for how we might further embed these values into the academic enterprise of the University, with a particular emphasis on exploring how to establish stronger focus on race and ethnic studies in our curriculum and increasing the racial diversity of our faculty.

Additionally, the Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Study of (In)Equality (IRISE), designed to support research and creative work dedicated to issues of (in)equality, social justice, and inclusivity and promote the advancement of historically underrepresented populations in the Academy, has been moved from a pilot program to a permanent structure and has been awarded a significant boost in base funding that will allow IRISE to hire five new postdocs next year. One of these postdocs will support interdisciplinary research in Race, Inequality and Social Change with a focus on public policy.

We are developing stronger education and training around diversity and inclusion and establishing more equitable policies, fairer practices and a robust system of accountability for our commitments.

Beginning this coming September, The Spirituals Project will become an official program of the Lamont School of Music at DU. We are currently hiring for a new faculty choral conductor. The project was founded as a formal educational organization in 1998 by Art Jones, current president of the Faculty Senate. We are delighted to formalize our longstanding relationship with the project, which “shares the rich harvest of the legacy of African American spirituals with the world through Research, Education, Activism, and Performance.”

Our students continue to inspire me. Take, for instance, Brooklyn Batey, a senior and a member of the women’s lacrosse team. She has organized a new summit at DU for young African-American women in Denver. Called “Black Women Lead, Empower, Aspire and Dedicate,” the summit was held earlier this month and included African-American professional women from around Denver in hopes that they can serve as mentors to the girls who attended the summit.

Last month, doctoral student Jazmyne Peters and undergraduate Arriana Belkin took lead in organizing the University-wide Diversity Summit, entitled “Beyond Good Intentions: Confronting My Bias to Change our Community.” This is truly an institutional effort, drawing students, faculty and staff from departments across campus. Our keynote speakers were Dr. Eddie Moore and Dr. Damon Williams. Damon also met separately for a session with senior leaders from across the University. The Summit included a range of workshops, including one on the intersection of race, gender, class and health outcomes, and a panel discussing the implications of the Black Lives Matter movement, moderated by Frank. Such conversations continued this month during programming for Black History Month and will continue across campus.

Our new strategic plan, DU IMPACT 2025, emphasizes inclusive excellence and the need to attract and retain more diverse students, as well as faculty and staff members. We consulted broadly in creating the plan, talking with thousands of alumni, friends, students, faculty and staff. Among many specific outreaches to underrepresented groups, we met with African-American leaders from around Denver and used their feedback to improve the plan.

Although we must recognize that there will always be more to do—and that we must continue to advocate for and create positive change—we have a structure and a plan in place to create an environment that is much more inclusive and in which all students, faculty and staff can thrive.

Thank you to all of you for your shared commitment to social justice and to building a more inclusive University of Denver. I welcome your questions, insight and suggestion, and I hope to have good conversations with you this evening and well into the future.