Reflections on the past year’s fight against systemic racism

by Dr. Mary A. Papazian

I write today to reflect on the progress our campus has made this past year to combat systemic racism at SJSU and to look ahead to the work that remains.

Just over a year ago, prompted by George Floyd’s heinous killing and the national conversation that ensued about racial inequities in law enforcement and other institutions, I issued the first in a series of campus messages on these critical issues. Soon thereafter, we launched an ongoing effort to develop concrete, meaningful actions—both short-term as well as long-term—to address current and legacy racial inequities.

Our efforts have centered primarily on Immediate Actions; Listening and Understanding; and Long-term Strategies.

Immediate Actions

Last June, we vowed to take immediate steps, where possible, to change or modify certain practices that may have contributed to systemic injustice on our campus. In some instances, we introduced new initiatives or strengthened existing ones.

Many of these initial actions were described in my June 18, 2020 and June 26, 2020 messages to the campus community. We began to put into place new processes for more effective Black faculty hiring, for example, as well as more robust recruitment in those areas where more underrepresented students reside. We have committed to examining all of our faculty and staff-hiring practices, as well as SJSU’s endowments, scholarships and other funding mechanisms, and ensuring a racial equity lens is always applied as those processes are carried through.

In addition, a new task force was created to examine the effectiveness of our University Police Department’s policies, protocols and community engagement strategies. That task force’s report, a large undertaking that has required more time than anticipated, is expected to be finalized soon. We also retired the use of the “Spartan Up” hand gesture, which resembles a well-known White Power hand gesture when done incorrectly.

Another tangible step we took last year was to hire several key people with the background and expertise necessary to guide us into the future.

Jahmal Williams, now serving as Director of Advocacy for Racial Justice, and Patience Bryant, our new Director of Black/African American Equity, reside in the Office of the President and report, respectively, to my Chief of Staff/Vice President of Strategy and our Chief Diversity Officer. I would encourage you to watch the episode of “Good Trouble,” our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’s video series, that features interviews of Jahmal, Patience and Emerald Green, director of our Black Leadership and Opportunity Center. The discussion centers around these individuals’ collective work toward creating a more equitable and inclusive space for Black and African American students, faculty and staff.

Walt Jacobsdean of our College of Social Sciences, agreed to serve as Special Assistant to the Provost on Racial Justice Initiatives. I very much value and appreciate Dean Jacobs for his guidance and for the creative thinking he offers related to diversifying SJSU’s faculty and broadening racial diversity and equity matters among our faculty leaders. 

We also welcomed Magdalena (Maggie) Barrera as our Vice Provost for Faculty Success. Maggie offers extensive scholarship and experience on campus with diversity issues, and her collaborative efforts with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion position are welcome for this important position. 

Listening and Understanding

Lasting change can only happen with a deep and authentic understanding of the root problems. To that end, we have made a concerted effort to listen to populations and voices here at SJSU that may have felt marginalized or ignored in the past. We know that the path to an anti-racist, multicultural campus must include broad and diverse input from our campus communities, particularly those groups and individuals who have been most adversely impacted by systemic racism.

I met with more than 90 Black faculty and staff members last spring in order to better understand the experiences of our campus’s Black community. I appreciated the facilitation and guidance of Dean Jacobs in these sessions, and fruitful meetings have also taken place with SJSU’s Solidarity Network, the leaders of which are directors of several campus organizations designed to enrich campus life. 

We have continued to work this past year with Black faculty, staff and students through our Black Spartan Advisory Council. The council and its members are a rich source of insight and wisdom, and I very much appreciate members’ willingness to candidly share the sometimes-painful experiences they have had at SJSU as we work collectively to root out systemic racism on our campus. 

Most recently, we launched the inaugural Campus Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (CCDEI). This important committee will, among other activities, produce an annual report with findings and recommendations related to equity gaps, systemic historical inequities, equity for historically marginalized groups and issues related to improving our overall campus climate. As part of their own ongoing education, committee members attended the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity (NCORE), an annual, multicultural forum that offers important resources and tools for higher education leaders. 

Knowing that systemic racism has few boundaries and impacts several communities, we are working with external consultants to facilitate conversations and recommendations for the establishment of Asian Pacific Islander/Desi American (API/DA). A task force on Native American student, faculty and staff issues is being established responding to a Sense of the Senate Resolution submitted to the President. 

Also in the realm of more effective listening, we developed a Bias Incident Resource Team (BIRT), a non-judicial, non-investigative campus-based team of trained professionals that support members of the campus community who bring forward allegations of bias. BIRT formalizes the processes already practiced by trained MPPs tasked with equity roles who connect individuals who have been impacted by bias incidents to education, resources, and support, and I firmly believe this new resource will prove highly valuable to potential victims of bias on campus. 

Long-term Strategies

A key long-term strategy we have prioritized involves ongoing education and training for SJSU faculty and staff.

While we have already conducted many racial microaggression workshops for supervisors and managers—which focus on the responsibility of SJSU supervisors to create an inclusive work environment and the necessary skills they need to address racial microaggressions—additional offerings of this workshop will continue into the future. I appreciate the effort put forth by our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for leading and conducting these and other training workshops. 

With the passing of SJSU alum Lee Evans in May, the world lost a great humanitarian and civil rights advocate. He will never be forgotten, and Lee’s incredible life and contributions remind us that representing and honoring the legacy of our Olympic Project for Human Rights in its totality and as a point of pride and history for SJSU remains an important, long-term effort. A working group of faculty and staff will continue to explore ways in which we can create a lasting tribute that reinforces SJSU’s identity as an institution of higher learning committed to social justice. 

Building the university’s capacity for advancing racial equity and justice will require long-term commitment and tangible plans from all campus leaders. To that end, I tasked members of the President’s Leadership Council to develop action plans that address systemic racism in each of their divisions, departments and campus operations. Implementation of those plans will soon begin. In addition, the President’s Leadership Team on Equity and Justice has been charged with consulting, coordinating, developing, and implementing strategies to become an anti-racist institution of higher learning. 

Looking ahead to fall semester and beyond, an effort is underway to create a multi-week, inclusive experience in November for our campus community that will seek to define, promote, highlight and educate on issues around racial justice. 

Tentatively called Transforming Communities: A Movement To Racial Justice, the event will be a joint effort between SJSU and local non-profits, organizations, schools and businesses with an end goal of creating a racially just and equitable city, county and region. We anticipate an array of presentations, lectures, workshops and keynote speakers that focus on moving SJSU and its partners powerfully and proactively toward racial justice and equity, while avoiding the barriers that have historically and systemically prevented the fair treatment of all people. More details on this endeavor will, of course, come as planning progresses. 

While the work does not end, I believe it is important to acknowledge what has been  accomplished this past year as we continue the fight against systemic racism on our campus. As always, I value the collective expertise and commitment of all those in our campus community involved in leading this effort. 

As many of us plan for summer vacations and prepare for fall semester, please join with me in standing up for our shared values of inclusion, equity, fairness and respect.  


Dr. Mary A. Papazian