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Frustration with CMU Administration: An Ineffective Response to Racism on Campus

It’s said that a watched pot never boils. The administration at Carnegie Mellon has looked away for far too long, and now, the pot is boiling over.

Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25, the university community has received two emails responding to racism on campus and in Pittsburgh from the university administration. The first came on May 30, where President Jahanian wrote:

"At times like this we must reflect on what we can do to make society, including our own community, more just. It would be inadequate to restate our commitment to respect, value and foster diversity, equity and inclusion across our community. We know we have much work to do to live out these values at Carnegie Mellon."

A follow-up email from Provost Jim Garrett and Dean of Students Gina Casalegno, titled “Actions Against Racism,” was sent on June 8, but the only novel action proposed was a new “university-wide forum” that will begin in the fall. The other actions mentioned include a renewed search for a Vice Provost of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the implementation of departmental plans for inclusive behavior. Both actions are the result of the Campus Climate Task Force, which has been a long process of forums, town halls, and listening sessions over the past few years.

On the same day as Provost Garrett’s and Dean Casalegno’s follow-up email, two professors in the English department, Richard Purcell, associate professor of English, and Jason England, assistant professor of creative writing, published an op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education deriding the ineffective responses of administrators at Carnegie Mellon and across the country.

If the statements are designed to pacify the members of the institution, they have done a poor job of doing so. Purcell, who wrote that he was asked to edit the university’s statement, said that none of his edits made it into the final copy. “Part of what I realized in being asked to contribute, even though I was being invited in, was that I had no say,” Purcell said, “as one of the few black faculty as CMU, it makes me question what that value is. 10 percent feels very personal, but the majority of my feelings are questions about what is the role of faculty like me and Jason at CMU. It seems like we’re here just to say that ‘we have black people here.’”

“There’s a difference between maintaining the health of a community and managing a brand. When you’re managing a brand, you’re relying on market values. You don’t have to make a strong statement because it is reliant on that,” England said, “Beyond brand management, the response to societal unrest and systemic universities is supposed to be forward-thinking and critical, but these statements seek to placate.”

Both professors believe strongly in the core values of the university. Purcell cited the university materials about its core mission, saying that it is good stuff, but the issue is that the statements released by the university don’t live up to those values and don’t represent the constituency of the university.

Purcell and England are not alone. A faculty petition, titled “Time to Stand Up,” demanded that Carnegie Mellon take more action than what was originally laid out by the administration. Originally co-authored by Purcell and a group of faculty, the petition quickly gained traction, with 215 faculty signers from across all colleges.

The petition asks for clear leadership that declares support for protesters, denounces militarized police and their tactics, supports policies that defund policing in favor of community building, and supports policies that end systemic racism.

President Jahanian responded in an email to faculty and staff:

"Finally, I should let you know that we have received a number of email messages, petitions and suggestions from students, faculty, staff and alumni this week. I want to assure you that we are listening to all of these thoughtful suggestions and constructive feedback, and our leadership team met yesterday again to sift through them to identify and prioritize the ones that we will enact. We will be sharing those with the community within the next two weeks."

Two weeks after that email was sent, the administration has not made a public statement about the petition or its demands. There have been no statements that publicly denounce the policies cited in the petition that perpetuate the reality of systemic racism at Carnegie Mellon or in Pittsburgh.

Another faculty petition has seen no public response from the university. John Soluri, associate professor of history, started a petition that asks Carnegie Mellon to ensure all staff, contractors, and subcontractors are paid appropriately and have appropriate PPE for the duration of the pandemic. 184 staff and faculty have signed that petition.

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On June 3, the Carnegie Mellon Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) released a letter responding to President Jahanian’s original statement, but they were one of many organized letters, petitions, and campaigns to which the administration has not adequately responded, according to organizers.

GSA has released a resource guide along with their letter. A coalition of students and student organizations, including CMU Call to Action, the Black Graduate Student Organization, the National Society for Black Engineers, SPIRIT, the Heinz College Council for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and more, wrote a letter to the administration. Master’s students in Human-Computer Interaction wrote a letter to their administration.

Students from across the university have collected resources, like testimonies of racism at Carnegie Mellon, readings about blackness and black art galleries in Pittsburgh, and a succinctly compiled list of policing technologies developed at Carnegie Mellon. There are petitions that ask Carnegie Mellon to confront racist policing in Pittsburgh and racism among the members of our institution. There is a GoFundMe for Carnegie Mellon students to give back to the community. There is an alumni boycott, withholding donations from the university. And there are the beginnings of an organized student movement that intends to withhold their labor from the university until something changes.

The organizers, creators, signees, and more have all expressed their frustration with the lack of administrative response.

After President Jahanian’s first email, a number of GSA students discussed how it seemed lackluster, according to VP of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Satvika Neti. “None of it addressed CMU’s own complicitness in racism both on campus and off… and none of it was action-oriented. When we were crafting our own statement, it was like really delving deep into CMU as not free from failure here,” Neti said.

A few of the things Neti cited as actions that contribute to racism at Carnegie Mellon include hiring practices, some of the ongoing research on campus, and student and faculty retention. According to a 2018 report by Linda Babcock, James Mellon Walton Professor of Economics and Head of the Department of Social and Decision Sciences, and Rosalind Chow, associate professor of organizational behavior, Carnegie Mellon has the lowest percentage of underrepresented minority (URM) faculty of its identified peer institutions.

The next line of the report reads, “If CMU maintains its rate of hiring, promotions, and exit rates of female and URM faculty, representation of URM faculty will decline over time and representation of female faculty will stagnate at its current level.”

As for student retention, the six-year graduation rates for Black students is 10 percent below that of their white and Asian counterparts; for Hispanic students, it’s nearly 15 percent below. Some of the research on campus that has had a wide-ranging effect in the world includes studies on predictive policing or ongoing military research at Carnegie Mellon.

GSA VP of External Affairs, Divyansh Kaushik, added to Neti’s comment, saying that the university released a similar statement after the acquittal of Michael Rosfeld, specifically noting that no email came after Rosfeld killed Antwon Rose II, “You read those emails, and they sound awfully like risk management.” “It was the same ‘we hear you, we see you, but we’re not going to do anything,’ the common buzzwords that everyone wants to use these days,” Kaushik said.

Both Kaushik and Neti discussed the importance of retaining the current energy among students over the long term, saying that Carnegie Mellon has a short institutional memory. Neti said that, among master’s students, there’s a joke that issues will be brought up every two years and administrators can say, “Oh! We’ve never heard of that before!”

They’re also both frustrated with the university’s response to racism on campus. Neti mentioned that some administrators are often myopically focusing on the good the university does, rather than engaging with the negative aspects of university life. Additionally, the budget is often cited as an excuse for being slow to action, but the budget shows where priorities lie. If you care about racism, then the budget will reflect that, Neti said.

One of Kaushik’s frustrations is that the administration wants to help change the university culture, and Neti agreed, but important conversations are occluded from the students. There is little transparency in what they do.

The opaque response from administrators, slow movements to action, and marketing lingo in the university press releases has led to more and more students becoming frustrated with the institution, leading to more and more action by students, that leads to more of the same responses from administration.

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“It started quietly. We had gathered to pay tribute to a man who had died at the hands of an assassin the day before. We all hoped that the service would bear wit­ness to a sincere change in the attitude of the white community. And yet, those who knew — those who had been at Selma, or in Montgomery, or on the March to Washington — those who knew realized, slowly, sickeningly, that nothing had changed at all,” reads the April 10, 1968 edition (Vol. 67, No. 25) of The Tartan. It was published six days after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

The article goes on to say that the administration at the time had done the bare minimum. They made a statement about “rededicating their lives,” which was the popular language of civil rights at the time, functioning in much the same way Kaushik sees “we see you, we hear you.”

Recently, a few students collected and synthesized some of the university’s archives, one student focused on Black students at Carnegie Mellon. They write, “The lack of black faces at Dr. King’s memorial, the lack of Black peers on campus, and even the lack of Black voices in the conversations discussing the lack of Blackness, were all too telling to remain silent as a campus community. A call to action was needed and whether or not it was heard is open for discussion.”

Today, there is the same call to action.

Jasmine Bitanga, a Master’s student in Mechanical Engineering and Secretary of the Black Graduate Student Organization (BGSO), wrote to The Tartan, “There is global unrest against racism in the midst of a global pandemic. Although I understand that strategic change takes some time, especially during such an intense time in history, there is a sense of urgency that must come with this particular deliberation.”

Bitanga signed onto an open letter to President Jahanian and the top administration, along with a number of other members of BGSO, like Lisha White, PhD in mechanical engineering and President of BGSO; Shaquetta Johnson, Master’s in electrical and computer engineering and CIT and Treasurer of BGSO; Malik Blackman, PhD in mechanical engineering and social chair of BGSO; Bryanna Brown, Master’s in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Vice President of BGSO; and, Uche Agwu, PhD in Mechanical Engineering and community service chair of BGSO.

Since then, BGSO has focused on making sure the members of their organization are doing well. BGSO President Lisha White wrote, “Initially, we sent out a letter to BGSO members reinstating the importance of their physical and mental well-being. Since the response, we’ve hosted a check-in with the CMU student body, mainly graduate students attended. The purpose of that meeting was to provide a space for people to gather as a community and have good fellowship.”

They’ve also worked with other student organizations to create a unified message around racism at Carnegie Mellon. A few of the members discussed specific things they’d like to see change. The lack of black faculty and students needs to change to have a more inclusive environment. A mandatory black studies class, educational sessions on biases, and diversity would make Carnegie Mellon more inclusive. Shrinking or removing the school’s police force, diversity education during orientation, and giving more funding to the Center for Diversity and Inclusion would make Carnegie Mellon more inclusive.

This is the fight that black students and black faculty have been fighting every day. “In addition to experiencing the repetitive trauma as a person of color, these faculty members must also put in extra hours for all these exhausting discussions, while also supporting the students of color they mentor - and they are not compensated for any of this,” Bitanga wrote.

And for all of these unpaid committees and town halls and extracurricular conversations that Black professors do, any attempts to enact real change remain frustrated.

Bryanna Brown attended a university before Carnegie Mellon, where racist acts were more commonplace and more vitriolic. She wrote, “It is an endless cycle of an incident occurring, students asking for a response from administration, the administration provides a superficial response with no action, then 6 months later another incident occurs, and then we are back at square one… at this point, I am just tired.”

Shaquetta Johnson attended an HBCU before Carnegie Mellon. Since the end of May, her alma mater has released “an entire agenda listing support and efforts toward removing any affiliates who have shown their racial bias and/or examples of discrimination.” Johnson wrote, “I cannot say the same for CMU. I believe that we feel like we are unheard because no one is trying to listen. That is clear.”

Even for brand new positions at Carnegie Mellon about diversity, equity, and inclusion, Uche Agwu writes, “Sometimes these task forces will lead to new diversity and inclusion positions within the administration or the school, but I’m not sure that these new positions are being given the resources they need to actually succeed and make the difference they were hired to make.” He believes that the administration needs to act on and respond directly to student demands.

Malik Blackman originally thought the statement calling for the renewed search for a Vice Provost of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion was fine. It made sense, but as others explained to him the long-standing issue around administrative complacency in response to racism, as he has only been at Carnegie Mellon for a year, Blackman’s frustration grew. “They’re more about talking the talk, than walking the walk, which is something I’ve heard is very common at Carnegie Mellon.”

He continued, “A lot of people like to feel that, since things aren’t bothering them, that things aren’t a problem. I want it to be clear that Carnegie Mellon acknowledges why and how they’ve created a space that is more comfortable for those who are white than those who are non-white,” Blackman said.

Testimonials of racist speech, racist acts, and accounts of institutionalized racism have taken place at Carnegie Mellon in the last two years. So far, the university has directly responded to ‘the map incident,’ which came as a result of problematic university marketing material. Where the effects of a poorly-designed marketing gimmick are often abstract, the effects of racist speech on individuals are well documented. University administration, quick to respond to the map, has not responded to cmutestimonies.site, which is a quickly growing repository of racist speech on campus.

Lisha White contributed her own difficult position at Carnegie Mellon: “I have a responsibility to my research advisor and CMU to perform innovative research and outstanding deliverables. I also have a responsibility to all underrepresented minorities, especially black people, to speak out and find ways to uplift the people who are trying to get where I am. Finally, I have a responsibility to myself to stay healthy and whole. CMU is pressuring me to choose and that’s not what I read on the CMU’s vision/mission/values page.”

As Shaquetta Johnson described, she is often an “only-only” at Carnegie Mellon, or the only woman and only Black person in a room. Black students are tokenized. Black students are on the receiving end of racist speech. Black students deal with bad crime descriptions from the Carnegie Mellon Police Department. Through it all, they still are students. Black students are a part of the constituency of the university, and the administration has not responded with direct action to the issues on campus.

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Students, faculty, and staff have driven the response to racism on campus.

Beyond the faculty and staff petitions, the GSA statement, and an open letter to President Jahanian organized by a few different student groups, there has been a wide-ranging response by students on campus, but no matter what, every group is demanding that Carnegie Mellon administration do more.

Conlon Novak, a Master’s student in HCII, organized a website, demand-cmu.support/blm, that has collected the different actions, petitions, and resources developed by students. Novak, who has pushed for change in his Master’s program and in Orientation, where he was previously a Head Orientation Counselor, said, “Organizing is hard, especially at CMU. So the website evolved from a place of how to uplift students who are already organizing, while recognizing that my voice doesn’t necessarily need to compete with others that are already organizing university-wide initiatives. The website is meant to elevate those conversations.”

Chloe Wen, a sophomore in psychology, worked with a few members of No Tech for ICE in developing petitions that asks administration to take a stand against racial prejudice on campus and policing in Pittsburgh. “Are they really listening to me? Are they really looking out for our best interest or their best interest?”

A fifth-year art student and No Tech for ICE member Darya Kharabi helped with the petitions and cmutestimonies.site. They said that there is something unique about these protests. Things are changing, and students are taking action. “When the time came, we felt it was time to utilize our own skills and capabilities and our own social networks, to use whatever we have for good, basically,” they said.

Professors have taken action, too.

Stefanie Sydlik, associate professor of chemistry, posted a comment on the Carnegie Mellon Facebook page Overheard @ CMU, saying, “I'm proposing the inclusion of a Diversity statement in all syllabi and mandatory bias training at University Education Council. In the late 90s/ early 2000s the university put in a [conscious] effort to combat sexism and consequently we are one of the leaders in STEMinism. I believe we can make the change to make our university welcoming and inclusive for ALL.”

Associate Professors Paul Eiss and John Soluri have helped organize the “Time to Stand Up” petition and a petition that asks for protections of Carnegie Mellon custodial staff, respectively, and another group of faculty organized a petition asking for the removal of recent hire Richard Grenell. Eiss wrote in an email, “As we developed it [Time to Stand Up], it seemed like something that seemed like it could be of wider interest, so we sent it to friends in a couple of [Dietrich College] depts to see if they wanted to sign on as well. We also sent it to people we knew in a few other depts and schools in other colleges. At the time, I expected it might end up being a couple of dozen signatures. But it caught fire — people reforwarded it, and it eventually got to the size it is now.” There were over 200 signatories when it was forwarded to President Jahanian. The petition for the removal of Richard Grenell has over 200 signatories. The petition asking for protections of custodial staff has just under 200 signatories.

Alumni are organizing, too. Taylor Tabb, a recent alumnus (‘18 and ‘19) and one of the organizers of cmu.wtf, said he wasn’t involved much with activism on campus during his time here, but he’s asked his friends, “Is this it? Is this Carnegie Mellon students finally taking ownership of their power as students? I don’t think I’ve ever seen people as passionate about the direction the university is taking.”

cmu.wtf has more than 670 current and future alumni signed onto their pledge to withhold donations from the school until administration takes action. Tabb, who worked for Deeplocal in Pittsburgh until the pandemic, was plugged into campus conversations, so he decided to help boost the students who were asking the administration for a better response to racism on campus. The easiest way to do that, of course, is to withhold donations.

The organizers of the ongoing boycott emailed the university’s top administration, and they did receive a response. However, Tabb says that they didn’t directly address the boycott, instead of pointing toward an abstract future announcement: “alumni are very much in favor of what students are attempting to make happen,” he said.

Campus activism at Carnegie Mellon is flourishing. Yet, there have been no promises of wide-reaching change, and activism must continue if there is to be a fundamental change at the university.