Examining Our Actions and Opportunities for Change

Dr. Mary A. Papazian

The global protests we continue to see following the unconscionable killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers—just one of many recent incidents involving systemic racism in our society—remain on all our minds and in our hearts.

The demonstrations—which have taken place as far away as London, Pretoria and Sydney, and as near as the iconic Smith/Carlos statues on our own campus—are not merely meant to bring attention to the issues surrounding racial inequities found in law enforcement. In addition to raising awareness, people are now demanding real, tangible action.

Action by our institutions. Action by our leaders. And, yes, action by our universities.

I often speak and write about how our students are some of our most effective change agents. To address systemic racism on our campus, it will require that not only our students but our faculty, staff and other stakeholders examine their own actions and opportunities for change.

In that spirit, SJSU is now moving forward with the development of actionable plans that address systemic racism on our campus, both in the short-term and the long-term.

Bailey W. Jackson, a systemic change scholar, asserts that “individual consciousness-raising and training activities for individuals in organizations may be necessary, but are not sufficient to produce organizational change.” He argues that organizations must also change their policies and practices that support, maintain and widen existing inequities. People and the organization itself must be the focus of growth and change.

So, in an effort to be thorough and intentional in our work, we are using frameworks that guide our work and focus our attention on systemic racism in addition to individual racism; specifically, I am asking our campus leaders to examine closely the everyday processes and practices of our institution that have an inequitable impact in terms of race.

Cabinet leaders from the Office of the President, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the Division of Student Affairs and the Office of the Provost will— over the coming days, weeks and months—lead efforts to study all aspects of the university’s operations.

Are our academic curricula, for example, appropriately designed with racial equity in mind? Are our training requirements for staff members and other members of the campus community robust and effective? Are the new “community policing” strategies introduced last year by our University Police Department working effectively? And, even more broadly, does racism manifest itself in any aspect of the university’s practices or outcomes, and if so, how can we change those things?

The work has already begun. My leadership council—consisting of deans, department heads, division vice presidents and other leaders around campus—is actively discussing these issues and developing solutions.

Fortunately, we already have done some solid work in these areas over the past few years. In particular, our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has led the campus community through these often-challenging issues, and I am grateful for the thoughtful work they do day in and day out to help foster an inclusive, inviting university environment where everyone feels valued and welcome.

Still, for all of SJSU’s history of social activism, for all the self-congratulatory proclamations we have made about our diversity, the hard truth is that we have our own uneven and sometimes shameful past as it relates to race. So our work on these matters—the self-examination and the critical study of our actions, language and behaviors—continues. We cannot, and will not, simply arrive at one-off solutions to symptoms that are found on the surface. We must go deeper.

There are some immediate steps that can be taken, but meaningful, systemic change requires study, data and analysis. Lasting change is achieved over time, and I ask for your patience as we develop our plans and solutions.

In his powerful book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, the author Michael Eric Dyson addresses the dire need for institutions to examine their histories with openness and honesty.

“The time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future,” Dyson writes. “If we don’t act now, if you don’t address race immediately, there very well may be no future.” He asserts that, once we spot the need for change, we must bring it to the surface “clearly and loudly, without hate or rancor.”

At San José State, we see the need for change, and we say so without hate or rancor. If we are to become the fully inclusive, anti-racist, multi-cultural organization that we aspire to be, we must do the hard work to get us there.

I hope you will join me.