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Leaders at Ohio State discuss the role of universities in addressing racial tension

Conversation to improve racial justice offers insight and solutions

As protests to end police brutality and improve racial justice continue across the world, leaders at The Ohio State University are examining how public universities can make a positive difference.

This week, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted a webinar on “The Role of the Land-Grant University in Addressing Racial Tensions.” The meeting attracted about 2,000 viewers.

Andreá Williams, the interim director of The Women’s Place, led the panel discussion with university thought leaders. The conversation touched on the role of colleges and universities in building a more equitable community, the responsibility of allies in the fight against racism and the steps needed to sustain progress.

President Michael V. Drake spoke at the start of the virtual town hall. He said conversations on racial justice are necessary to inform and enlighten.

“This is an important discussion of critical issues that have faced us day in day out, year in year out, century in and century out since the founding of our country, and we need to continue to do what we can to make progress moving forward,” he said.

Drake said Ohio State can honor its land-grant mission by leveraging the entire community to address these problems.

“We are fortunate at The Ohio State University to have a wide variety of people who are part of our community. And one of the benefits of that is that when we are all part of one community, we’re all Buckeyes together, we all have so many things we share,” he said. “We can describe things from different points of view and different lenses. I find that to be illuminating and helpful to people who might be standing next to you, or sitting across from you, but not have the same life experience or not the same perspective.”

Understanding those perspectives will require education and a willingness to learn, said Don Pope-Davis, dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology.

“I think part of what we are seeing now is, at one level, a euphoric nature of saying ‘this has got to change’ and people are excited about that opportunity. The bigger challenge is getting people to focus on themselves … to be the change that you want in our society, whether it’s through education or engagement,” he said.

Pope-Davis said it’s not helpful to look to people of color to find solutions to these complicated questions about race. He said it is incumbent on people to read, to do research and to go to the library.

“Go have an experience that allows you to broaden your breadth so that you can become more informed and then come back and we will have a conversation about this in our community,” he said.

Jacquelyn Meshelemiah, associate vice provost for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said everyone at the university has a responsibility to engage with these issues.

“Even before I became the associate vice provost for diversity and inclusion, I personally felt responsible … to embrace diversity and inclusion and equity,” she said. “I never thought it was the responsibility of one unit or one person or one chief diversity officer. I always took that responsibility myself. And I would encourage everyone affiliated with this university to take on that responsibility to embrace diversity, inclusion and especially equity individually.”

Stephanie Sanders, associate vice president for the Office of Enrollment Services, said the university is committed to increasing the number of students from underrepresented communities and diverse economic backgrounds. She praised Drake for his commitment to access and affordability.

She said it’s not enough to recruit students to higher education – it’s also important to help them succeed when they get into college.

“The biggest challenge that we face is that students don’t come to higher education with an equal preparation.”

Norman Jones, dean of the university’s Mansfield campus, said it is also important to build partnerships, and for allies to recruit more allies to fight for racial justice. Tom Gregoire, dean of the College of Social Work, pointed out that it is also important to help empower people to be advocates for themselves. He said his college helps people understand how the political process works and aids in projects like voter registration drives.

“This needs to be an all-hands-on-deck issue addressed not only by people of color, but by European Americans … and others who can be activated to be a part of the solution,” said Leon McDougle, chief diversity officer for Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.

Williams said allies in the fight to build a more equitable world can take action now.

“One of the most important things we might draw from this conversation is that challenging white supremacy and racism is everyone’s issue, it’s everyone’s responsibility,” she said. “It is more than avoiding things that are offensive or using racial slurs. It is more than donating. It is making sure we have the self-reflections in every means of our privilege, of our spheres of influence, and we are making sure to dismantle these systems of injustice.

“Because this is an issue that has been with us for much longer than the 150 years since Ohio State’s own founding, it will be necessary for us to extend this both with our words and with our actions.”

Williams said the conversation will continue Monday from 3 to 4:30 p.m. A second webinar with a new panel of experts will address the kinds of initiatives that already exist at Ohio State and through community partnerships to lead to meaningful change.

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