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Examining how Ohio State is a resource for challenging racial inequities and disparities

In webinar, university leaders examine systemic racism

The Ohio State University can be an intellectual and practical resource to Columbus and Ohioans in responding to recent racial tension and reshaping the future.

That was the theme of a 90-minute webinar earlier this week titled “The Role of the Land-Grant University in Addressing Racial Tensions: Part II.” The conversation, sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and The Women’s Place, attracted about 1,100 viewers.

Andreá Williams, the interim director of The Women’s Place, moderated the conversation. She noted that much had happened at the university since the first conversation just last week.

“President Drake announced the formation of a university task force to address institutional racism, greater attention to public health and also a $1 million fund for seed grants to study the causes and effects of, and solutions to, racism and racial disparities,” she said.

James Moore, vice provost for diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, kicked off the conversation talking about the Morrill Act of 1862, which created land-grant universities.

“This was a call to throw open the doors of higher education to the sons and daughters of farmers shopkeepers and factory workers. The idea to bring higher education to common people was America's first wobbly step on the road to greater inclusion in education. Today is the continuation of that dialogue,” Moore said. “This notion is also found in our beloved university motto, ‘Education for Citizenship.’”

Moore said the university plays an important role in the search for meaningful solutions to the problems facing Black and other communities.

“We are proud that our university has responded to this call before. When more than 50,000 undergraduate students are studying with us and with more than 500,000-plus alumni, we have been given a platform to tackle the big questions about our society, our words and actions in the classroom in the community. We must use our voice to spark meaningful dialogue and purposeful action,” he said.

Trevor Brown, dean of the Glenn College of Public Affairs, discussed the impact of the failure of public institutions.

“I'll just start by calling out the name Rashard Brooks, another person whose life was lost at the hands of the public institution: the Atlanta Police. And that's particularly saddening,” Brown said.

“The university’s birth as an institution is another example. The tortured birth of this institution 150 years ago is something we're celebrating. As we walked into this sesquicentennial and thinking back on the Morrill Act, it's natural to celebrate all the positive things that this university has done, and yet its birth was the result of a lot of harm through the expropriation of lands from indigenous and native populations.”

Amy Fairchild, dean of the College of Public Health, said environmental determinants can impact health – and explained why racism is considered a public health crisis.

“When we talk about racism as a public health problem, we're talking about the ways in which century-old patterns systematically undermine the health of communities,” Fairchild said. “We think about the inequities that are built into our systems of housing, education, access to care and policing.”

Ensuring students understand systemic racism and white privilege has been emphasized in the Moritz College of Law, associate dean Kathy Seward Northern said.

“All of our faculty to think about ways in which systemic racism has influenced the development of law,” she said. “Our goal is to help students to understand by the time that they leave the law school. It’s not just what the rule of law is now, but how it came to be and how various structures influence it.”

Those effects influence more than the law, noted Trudy Bartley, associate vice president for local and community relations, referring to the impact of institutional racism and what it will take to bring about change.

“We at this university have got to start on a level playing field to understand why and how things are,” Bartley said. “From there, start having those conversations, because if you start with people thinking they’re colorblind – they don't see color, that's a problem in itself. But if you have people who are really being insightful and being intentional about looking at themselves and then having the conversation, then I think we can move towards action and change.”

Gretchen Ritter, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, noted the university’s numerous outreach programs – such as the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis, which is exploring how transportation disparities differentially impact opportunity and social mobility – can be an instrument for building change.

“Our Department of African American and African Studies is involved in thinking about the narratives and the literature of the experience of Africans and African Americans and does a lot of work for the Community Engagement Center on the East Side as well,” she said. “And we are deeply engaged in K-12, especially with underserved communities. We work a lot with the Kirwan Institute.”

Art and educational programs also provide opportunities to examine and change attitudes, said Johanna Burton, director of the Wexner Center for the Arts,

“In moments like this, as we're facing a public health crisis, both in terms of COVID and in terms of racism, I think people immediately start thinking about direct action. But if you look at the street, you see how important the symbolic is. People are making art and aesthetic gestures all over.

“Historically, through these gestures and collective modes of messaging, there are traces left behind that also get carried forward.”

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