Important Conversations and Actions

Dear SMU Community,

This week, I had the honor of participating in a series of Zoom discussions with the leaders of our Black student organizations, alumni board, staff and faculty. Accompanied by Vice President of Student Affairs K.C. Mmeje, Senior Advisor to the President Maria Dixon Hall and our Provost-elect Elizabeth Loboa, I heard firsthand what it means to be Black at SMU. These were not easy stories to tell and they were difficult to hear. Those who participated virtually on calls and by using the #BlackatSMU forum demonstrated courage and love for our University by sharing not just their stories, but also suggestions that will enable our campus to become a true community. For allowing me to hear from you, I am grateful.

This will be a journey during which we will continue to listen. And there will be action. Next week, we will meet with Black graduate student leaders to ensure that no voice or experience is left unheard. We recognize that there are other members of the Mustang family who want to be part of this process, so I know we will be holding more listening sessions. In the meantime, please continue to use the Black At SMU Forum site to make sure we hear from you and learn of your desire to participate. As we progress, we also plan additional meetings with each of these groups to ensure we stay on the right track to address this systemic issue.

Collectively, they have told us that SMU must:

  • Increase accountability. Although we have made progress by creating a process for reporting racially charged incidents, we understand that we need more appropriate policies in place with consequences for those who don’t live up to the SMU core values.
  • Educate everyone in our community on implicit bias. Frankly, if we are going to create a culture of equity, we need our entire SMU community engaged in this effort. This cannot succeed if our Black community and SMU leadership work on this alone. Many in our community have gone through our cultural intelligence training, but we must expand it and evaluate its impact. The stories shared indicate a need to ensure that our faculty members understand the impact their words and actions can have on Black faculty and student success and retention. One of the most powerful suggestions to emerge was that we include bystander training to equip allies and advocates to use their voice when witnessing bias. Dr. Dixon Hall will be working with Provost-elect Loboa to ensure that our training and philosophy touches the entire community.
  • Develop a campus environment that provides for the unique needs of the Black community. This theme was multilayered across these broad areas:
  • Mentor and support new faculty and staff to ensure that they are not isolated in departments that may have little or no other colleagues of color, while showing a path for advancement.
  • Provide students with greater access to Black mental health professionals.
  • Reevaluate the tiered system for reserving event space so that larger student organizations are not given preference.
  • Recognize the documented physical and mental toll racism takes on the overall health outcomes of Black students, faculty and staff.
  • Engage our Black alumni to strengthen ties between students and alumni through mentoring, internships and career guidance.

I will be working with Dr. Loboa and Dr. Mmeje to begin work on addressing these issues.

  • Invest more significantly in scholarships for Black students. We need to increase access to scholarships to recruit and retain Black students. Our Black student leaders specifically requested a scholarship endowment for Black students. I am committed to making current-use funds available in the short term, and growing our scholarship endowment as a top priority in our upcoming fundraising campaign.

These important conversations and the themes that are emerging from them are just the beginning. But one thing is very clear: Our Black students, staff and faculty need more allies and advocates on campus to create an environment where they feel they belong. We must affirm that the lives and experiences of our Black students, faculty, staff and alumni matter. Black lives Matter, and Black Mustang Lives Matter.

Words are not enough. It is one thing to know the right thing to do; it is another to do it. I am encouraged that through our conversations this week and our commitment to action, SMU is poised to become a better place for all of us. After meeting with graduate students next week, we will develop an action plan with timelines that we will share in September. We want this to be a transparent process and we will make the plan available online and share it with all of you.

This is a journey that will require every one of us. We are at a unique time in history. A time in which we can truly be world changers.

R. Gerald Turner
R. Gerald Turner